Travelling Slowly Down The Ganges. A Visit To Varanasi, India.
India, a land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and jungle. Here is a country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, a thousand religions and eight million gods. Cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history and grandmother of legend.
This is a country of lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and, having seen once would not give up that glimpse for all the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.
Mark Twain; Following the Equator. 1897
I am following in Mr Twain’s intrepid footsteps as I make my way, albeit slowly, courtesy of India Rail across the vast sub - continent, heading for the ancient and holy city of Varanasi.
Normally, a long wait at a train station is a dull and tedious exercise, but in India it is a side - show of epic proportions. One is constantly confronted by heaving crowds of bejeweled natives, hustle and bustle and mass confusion, all offset by the shifting splendors of costumes and colour which accost the unwitting traveller at every turn; the charm and delight of it are beyond words.
My first sight of Varanasi or Banaras is nothing short of breathtaking. The city itself seems to ascend defiantly out of the mighty Ganges River in a perfect crescent shape, hugging the shores like an ardent lover.
Ancient, Ghats, or steps rise out of the river, and lead into a massive network of narrow lanes piled high with a jumble of houses, temples, palaces and ashrams. The main ghat, Dasashwamedh, is the center of all activity where hundreds of bodies are cremated each day, the funeral pyres burning day and night. As you walk through the lanes away from the river it gets a little less crowded, though never quiet enough to avoid the insistent Varanasi entrepreneur who will try to sell you anything your heart desires.
I gingerly make my way down to the waters edge and find a place amid the wood piles where I can observe the ritual disposal of the recently departed.
There they were.
Bodies, maybe eight or nine, slowly disintegrated as they combusted atop piles of burning wood, the smoke creating a permanent haze that drifts lazily over the river. “All the time burning, never to be stopping” my fixer explained with the customary wobble of his head.
Along this stretch of the Ganges, the holiest river in India, whose waters are fabled to have seeped from the very feet of Shiva, are intricately shaped temples and steps leading down into the water. Some are painted in bright colours but, at the Manikarnika Ghat, (the burning ghat) the temples and long disused Maharajah’s palaces, dark and soot stained stand like menacing sentinels overlooking the river.
My guide, convinced I had seen enough led me up the steps to a building filled to the brim with stacks of different kinds of wood used for the burnings. In the gathering gloom I could see huddles of people between the woodpiles. It was a pathetic sight; emaciated men and women with thin, wispy grey hair, dressed in threadbare rags who sat silently in the semi - darkness holding their hands out to me in the hopes of securing a few rupees to pay for the wood for their own pyres.
“They wait here to die,” my guide said nonchalantly, “ everyday they are coming.”
In amongst the group was a small child of indeterminate age who was obviously very sick. My guide wandered over and inspected him, as would someone looking at an inanimate object. He turned to me and said,” This one a child. Cannot be burned, they be too pure. They will put in a boat and then sink him in the river. Same for women who being pregnant and holy men. The families will make too much cry, it drive me crazy.”
It was as if I was in a surreal dream baring witness to the awfulness of life and death, both ugly and beautiful at the same time. The smoke, billowing up from the burning bodies hardly masked a group of impish boys clad only in baggy underwear joyfully diving and jumping into the river squealing with delight, oblivious to the rituals going on behind them. Beggars, knee deep in the shallows panned for gold amongst the discarded ashes hoping for a find of a gold tooth or a nose ring that might have been overlooked prior to the cremation.
One of them offered to sell me a bottle of the grimy water, as believers who make the pilgrimage to Varanasi take the holy water home for cleansing of the body in the final moments before the soul departs the body. I politely declined his salutations.
The traffic of corpses to the river is a constant flow that sometimes overwhelms the stick thin men manning the flames. It is not unusual to see half - burnt corpses thrown into the waters to make way for the next in line. Ashrams, close to the river host many sick and dying pilgrims waiting to die so their souls may be sanctified in the fires of Manikarnika. Their funeral shrouds are often recycled for here, death is an "industry" and Varanasi derives much of its income from the trade.
The people of Varanasi seem immune to the business of dying and are in fact rather a romantic lot. Great poets, musicians and literary scholars have lived and died here. They never seem to be in a hurry and they are, on the surface generally somnolent about life (and death).
Wandering through the network of lanes that make up this ancient city can be a mesmerizing experience as, squeezed between houses that sit on top of one another, are temples of indeterminate antiquity, still in use. You will also share the lanes with the sacred cows and bulls that look all too large for the confined space, which is as wide as the span of your outstretched arms.
By day the city is less than charming and its filth is on full display. Cow shit, dog shit, goat pellets, is everywhere. Garbage is piled in the alleys where cows and goats forage amongst it along with the rats that feed on the garbage and dogs and cats that feed on the rats.
Even so, Varanasi wears its grime with an outlandish sense of pride.
The city is far more alluring at night where the dirt and grime is hidden as the shadows descend, filling the alleys and lanes with darkness punctuated here and there by pools of light spilling from open doorways. Men in grubby silk shirts huddle on doorsteps, smoking cigarettes – murmuring in low voices. I hear the sound of bells and detect the pungent smell of incense on the still air and let my senses guide me to its origins.
Emerging from an alley I find myself at the “Main ghat” packed with people, looking slightly orange under the halogen lights suspended on long poles. On the water a fleet of small boats are moored full of pilgrims here to watch the priests pay homage to Mother Ganges.
A group of seven young, and impossibly good looking Hindu priests stand on a raised dais above the shores of the river. Arranged behind each one of them was a set of candlesticks, bells, and lamps and other assorted brass implements. Each priest held a candelabrum with five flames burning brightly high in the air.
Then, in perfect harmony they performed a set of intricate maneuvers, twirling the candelabras and then oil lamps. The whirling flames created a whirlwind of patterns much like children with sparklers at a birthday party. For the next thirty minutes in perfect unison they hoisted their lamps, spinning them at great speed never missing a beat as if all seven were as one.
Finally, they turned to face the river, set down their lamps, extinguished the flames and bowed deeply to Mother Ganges, their nightly worship complete. This ritual takes place each day of the year beginning promptly at six p.m. It is a sight to behold.
The ceremony over I headed back towards my riverside hotel. The mighty Ganges drifted by, a mass of dark water while behind me towering temples, a thousand years old played host to several sadhus, sitting cross-legged and silent on the steps. In the distance I could hear the sound of tambourines beaten by pious devotees keeping watch over the burning ghats.
And this was but my first day in the most ancient of cities.
All photographs the copyright of Paul v Walters.
Paul v Walters is a best selling novelist who when not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali also scribbles for several international travel and vox pop journals.
His latest novel, Scimitar, was released in September 2016.