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January 26th 2008 by Tina

Posted under India

It was far away from anywhere else we wanted to go in India. It would be a long train ride for just a few days stay but we had to go…to see the spectacle of Varanasi for ourselves. Situated along the western bank of the Ganges River, Varanasi is one of India’s oldest and most holy cities. Hindus believe that dying in the sacred city of Shiva offers moksha – breaking of the cycle of reincarnation to rest with God. Tourists flock to Varanasi to witness one of its oldest rituals – the cremation of the dead – which takes place in public at the city’s designated burning ghats along the river’s edge. Varanasi had been described to us as the filthiest city in India and since, in our three weeks in India we had come to observe that Indians treat their beloved motherland like a public toilet, spittoon and gas chamber – making it by far the filthiest, most polluted country we’ve seen thus far – we understood the intensity of that claim and prepared our senses for the ultimate foulness, the bowels of the earth.

Our train arrived more than three hours late – we have come to expect this – and we stepped outside the station and into the madness. We had been toting around an extra bag which held “Big Greenie” as well as an accumulation of bubble pants, trinkets and baubles that we intended to ship home at the earliest opportunity. This additional bag, the biggest, cheapest canvas tote that we could find, was a colossal albatross which incited murmured cursing from whichever of us was encumbered by it at the moment. We had not made any reservations for a place to stay but had a hotel in mind to check out first. We walked into the salivating pack of rickshaw-wallahs and began the intense negotiation.

The drivers outside the bus stations and train stations are always the most cunning and ruthless and that initial negotiation in a new city is always tricky. The traveler’s foremost advantage lies in the sheer number of rickshaws in any given place. When the first guy quotes you some outlandish fare, you can very conspicuously dismiss him and move on to the next as a show that you are too insulted to haggle with him. This signals to the others that this isn’t your first day in India. The guide book usually provides a standard rickshaw fare, as a point of reference, but that fare does not account for the “fatigue premium”, which inevitably works to the advantage of the drivers. They see you weighted down by your four bags and they know that you’ve just arrived, weary and dulled, on an overnight train. You know and they know that the fair price is thirty rupees; the impatience on your face – impossible to conceal behind exhausted eyes – tells them you’ll pay fifty (a difference of less than $1 to you but a world of difference to them) and you acquiesce, relieved to have ended the energy-sucking banter, the charade of principle over practicality.

And so we found ourselves and our baggage stuffed into the back of a rickshaw, racing through the polluted streets of Varanasi, our immediate fate in the hands of an ornery, sour-faced driver. After trying in vain to steer us to another hotel – where undoubtedly a fat commission awaited him – he finally stopped the rickshaw on the edge of the galis, a maze of alleyways which are too narrow for traffic. We adamantly refused to let him guide us to the hotel, knowing full well that the price quoted for the room would be drastically inflated to cover his commission. He made a general hateful remark about tourists and demanded his money, which we happily paid just to be rid of him.

Strapped once again with our heavy load, we entered the galis. The narrow lanes between the centuries-old stone buildings were putrid and foul-smelling and littered with trash and feces. The maze was dizzying and even Aaron’s natural compass was ineffective in finding the way. We asked directions a few times and no less than five different people assured us that the hotel we sought, Hotel Alka, was full, definitely full. We persevered, bearing our load like stubborn mules and cursing all the while. “Are we in Hell?” I asked, after about twenty solid minutes of navigating through the fecal landmines like a slalom course. It was a test of strength, both mental and physical. Finally, a young boy spryly showed us the way through what seemed like another ten minutes of maddening twists and turns. The hotel had a room for us and, as he waited patiently in the lobby for his commission from the proprietor, I slipped him a little something extra for appearing at that precise moment when I was about to drop my bags in a pile of cow shit and declare defeat. Timing is everything.

The hotel room was basic but fine; our room opened to a lovely terrace restaurant overlooking the ghats on the riverbank. Hindus consider the Ganges to be a holy river and tens of thousands of pilgrims come to Varanasi every year to bathe in its spiritual healing waters. The seven kilometer stretch of river that runs from the northernmost Raj Ghat to the southernmost Nagwa Ghat seems not to flow at all but rather to maintain a quiet stillness on its surface. In the same stretch of water where people bathe, swim and wash their clothes and dishes, thirty large sewers continually discharge into the river; corpses are soaked and washed before being laid upon the funeral pyre; the burned bones of the dead are pulled from the piles of ash with giant tongs and placed into the water. “The Ganges River is so heavily polluted at Varanasi that the water is septic – no dissolved oxygen exists. The statistics get worse. Samples from the river show the water has 1.5 million faecal coliform bacteria per 100 mL of water. In water that is safe for bathing, this figure should be less than 500!” (Lonely Planet, India, 2005).

The ghats were full of activity and, although we were tired from our long journey and subsequent stress, our curiosity got the better of us and we went out for a stroll. Walking north from the Meer Ghat, where our hotel was located, we almost startlingly stumbled onto the most esteemed cremation ghat, called Manikarnika Ghat. We approached carefully, uncertain of the protocol for spectators and of our initial reaction to the sight of a burning corpse. Visitors are welcome to witness the ritual cremations but photography is strictly prohibited. The scene is vivid in my memory…

On the edge of the riverbank, many groups of men stand around, some attending to one or another of the six funeral pyres burning simultaneously while others engage in casual discourse or simply watch the spectacle. The upper stairs of the ghats are lined with observers – tourists and locals – who are all entranced in the ritual unfolding before their eyes. Young children meekly work their way through the mesmerized crowd, selling cups of hot chai. A new pyre is being built. Lean, sinewy laborers, with the grave faces of outcasts who are resigned to their fate, carry thick pieces of wood from a pile near the river up the many steps of the ghat to a grand scale at the top. Many of the logs appear to weigh twice the body weight of the man but the laborers balance them on their heads as they slowly, carefully ascend the steps again and again. Their bodies tremble and they stagger under the heavy burden, assisting one another in the final steps. The weight of the wood used to build the funeral pyre determines the price of the cremation.

At the sight of the pyre, two large, sturdy logs are placed parallel to one another on the ground, about three feet apart. Next, many logs are placed on top of the base, perpendicular to the first two, until the pile is about waist high. There is skill in determining the minimum amount of wood needed to fully incinerate a body. Meanwhile, the body is carried through the Old City on a bamboo stretcher, swathed in red, pink and orange cloth with gold leaf appliqué and adorned with garlands of bright orange flowers. The body is brought down the steps of the ghat and the stretcher is placed in the shallow river, submerging the body almost completely while men splash water over the top. The soaked body is then lifted from the stretcher and placed onto the pyre. More logs are placed on top. A man wearing only a white cloth gathered around his pelvic area leads a brief procession around the pyre, holding the burning kindling, which resembles a long, thick bunch of reeds or palm fronds. Finally, the burning kindling is placed under the pyre as the crowd watches in silence, waiting for the flames. The many fires burning at once are all in differing stages, some exposing heads and feet at the ends. Paralyzed by an eerie, morbid fascination, we cannot move or look away. Another man removes remnants of burned bone from the piles of ash and gently places them into the river. Packs of stray dogs attempt to scrounge through the remnants and are beaten away with sticks and rocks. Bodies are continually carried down and the ritual is repeated, over and over, day after day. A local onlooker boasted that three hundred bodies are burned each day at the ghat.

As we stood on the steps of the ghat, watching the astonishing scene play out, I was overcome by the sensation that this surreal vision was a scene from an Oliver Stone movie. If the smell of fire didn’t infiltrate my nose, even through the cover of my scarf; if the haze of ash didn’t burn my eyes, I would have sworn that it was a dream. Having witnessed the spectacle with my own two eyes, my mind paints an exaggerated picture of raging bonfires against a black night sky, tribal drums and brightly-clad dancers, stomping out the beats of my heart in a hypnotic rhythm. While the actual vision possessed the same intensity, it was somehow less ceremonious, less emotional than I’d expected. No women participated in the cremations and not a tear was detected on the cheeks of men. Perhaps it is because of the moksha; because Hindus consider it an honor to die in Varanasi and escape the cycle of rebirth.

Ironically, in the midst of so many blazing fires, I found the matter-of-factness, the assembly-line repetition, the business aspect of the cremations somewhat chilling but I know that to be due in part to my Greek Orthodox upbringing where funerals are met with guttural sobbing and rivers of tears. In my life, I have lost only one person to whom my heart strings were tied so tightly that I never thought I could bear the pain of losing her. Even now, the slightest thought of her and how much I miss her chokes me with tears and bittersweet sorrow because I believe that her soul is in Heaven. While I hold firmly to my beliefs, I find myself uncontrollably fascinated by the way other cultures and religions regard death. I must admit that I get lost in translation when it comes to Hinduism. The multiple deities, the cartoon-like idols with both superhuman and animal features, little altars everywhere, holy cows, arranged marriages, the caste system and the notion of reincarnation are enough to send me spinning but also to intrigue me to learn more. Hinduism, a faith that binds over 80% of India’s population and allows it to live in relative peace despite rampant overcrowding, toxic levels of air pollution and stark poverty, deserves a more thorough study.

Beyond the ghats and behind the galis of the Old City of Varanasi lies a throbbing, pulsating city. The streets are congested with traffic yet only about one in twenty-five vehicles has a motor and most of those are motorcycles; bicycles and bicycle rickshaws fight for position on the chaotic roads and roundabouts. Varanasi is known for its silk, particularly its tailor-made silk saris, and the streets are lined with sari shops; stacked from floor-to-ceiling with vibrant bolts of fine silks, their mannequins donning the most exquisite ensembles that I have seen anywhere in India. But the madness of the bazaar with its noisy traffic, endless touts, beckoning merchants, dizzying whirl of colors and the deafening machine gun rattle of enormous power generators drove me to the brink of insanity and we actually sought solace in the quiet filth of the Old City.

We spent the majority of our time in Varanasi wandering up and down the ghats. There was always activity – so much life unfolds on the banks of the Ganges. The holiest sites always seem to draw the most colorful, eccentric mix of people. On the ghats, we saw all of the usual able-bodied beggars and their ragged children, other children set to work at tender ages, and the brightly-clad, face-painted babas, or self-appointed holy men who sit on the steps with their shiny collection buckets, always ready to accept rupees for a photo or sliver of imparted wisdom from the many dreadlocked soul-searchers and journeymen who seek them out. There are families and businessmen, operating shops that have been passed down through generations. Young boys fly kites and play cricket on the ghat steps. Men pray or meditate by the river’s edge. Cows, goats, stray dogs and monkeys roam the ghats, scrounging through trash and living in harmony with the people and with each other. There is an intimacy about Varanasi; a sense that everyone knows each other, protects each other, and that unbreakable familial alliances have been formed and cultivated through generations of arranged marriages. Happiness and heartbreak permeate the dense, ashy air and there is a comfortable certainty in the practice of age-old traditions.

There is a flame at the top of Manikarnika Ghat – used to light every funeral pyre – that is said to have been burning continuously for two thousand years. In only three days of observation, I cannot begin or pretend to comprehend the spiritual power of this place. Its mysteries remain just that. Our brief experience in Varanasi – saturated with death and spirituality – naturally invokes thoughts of life; so precious and wonderful and painfully brief. The more we see of this world, the more we realize how much there is to see and to know and how few waking hours we are granted to absorb it all. In our current realm of no work and all play, we have many opportunities to reflect on the blessings in our lives. So many nights we spend lying in some grungy hostel bed, overflowing with love and humble gratitude for the good fortune of health and happiness and the ability to continue this grand adventure. In these tender moments, we are afraid to pinch ourselves – afraid we might wake too soon from this incredible dream.


2 Responses to “Varanasi”

  1. Little Bear Mom on 27 Jan 2008 at 7:28 pm #

    Continue on with your incredible dream of adventure! You are awesome writers and I and others appreciate your sharing.

  2. Andrew Leonard on 28 Jan 2008 at 2:06 pm #

    How are you guys? I can always tell when a local has somehow offended Tina 😉

    Sounds like a pretty interesting place. I may have to leave it off my list though. Something about faecal matter and burnt flesh……and, I bet they don’t have a McDonald’s there either!!! 🙂

    Stay safe! Miss you both!