Two years previously as the ravages of food poisoning laid waste to our plumbing I questioned the will or wisdom of visiting India again. But two years later, with those memories far removed and with fresh resolve, we were back in the saddle. The pull of this enchanting country just too strong to resist.
Varanasi is invariably described as one of the holiest cities in India, being sacred to the devotees of not one, but three, religions; Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation, moksha, liberation from the cycle of rebirth. It is a place where people come to die.
It is also invariably described as one of the oldest cities on earth, dating to the 11th century BC. But there was nothing holy or historical, nor even remotely interesting, about the Ramada Hotel in which we were staying. But it was an international chain, was spotlessly clean, well-equipped, had the right booking and would give us the required calm and respite from the insanity that is Varanasi.
And into which we immediately plunged. For while death may play an integral role in the spiritual life of Varanasi, like any other city in India it positively teems with life. And the celebrated ghats, stepped embankments of stone slabs that line the river bank where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions, are as rich in life as anywhere. Here, the world goes about its business – bathing, praying, doing the laundry, selling phone cards, offering boat rides, shooting the breeze, drinking chai.
And so we found ourselves at the most renowned of them all, and a place I never did get me tongue around, Dashashwamedh Ghat. From there we wandered rather aimlessly up and down the riverbank visiting various other ghats whose names and purpose were unknown then and unknown still, and watching the daily life of Varanasi unfold in front of the tourist glare.
Tired of walking we embarked on the obligatory boat trip to view the city from the river, which was quite magnificent as the ghats and their palaces tower nobly over the riverbank. More than one of those grand old buildings appeared to be joining in with the spirit of death as they too crumble and slide gradually into the holy Ganges – which is not quite so magnificent as it is rather, well, minging, being a repository for every kind of flotsam and jetsam – and of course, sewage – that you can imagine. It must take some degree of devotion to bathe in its water but there are certainly no shortage of devotees.
I had no plans on joining them though. The boat took us towards Manikarnika Ghat, where different religions’ attitudes to death are brought into stark contrast and which was a little disconcerting for our delicate Christian and Buddhist souls. Hindus consider it auspicious to die in Varanasi and Manikarnika Ghat is a burning ghat, where bodies are cremated in full view before their ashes are placed in the Ganges. The pollution in the water is compounded by the fact that holy men, pregnant women, lepers, suicides, children under 5 and people bitten by snakes, are not cremated but are floated free to decompose in the waters.
And I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess as to which of those exclusive groups they belonged to – although given the other options I’d hope for their sake they’d been bitten by a snake – but no sooner had the boat boy explained this to us than we saw a brightly wrapped body attached to a block of concrete being pushed from a boat to sleep with the fishes.
Our boatman then decided that I should row while he took photos with our camera, which was amusing for a few minutes, but only a few minutes. Whether by design or by my poor rowing, we ended up heading towards the sandy bank on the less glamorous eastern side of the river to watch several families and tour groups take their devotional bathe without too much reverence and seemingly with a lot of fun. Shivering families posed happily for photos, men in their speedos, women in their sodden saris – it seemed more like a day at the seaside than a religious rite.
Back on the boat and we lit our wee candles, made a wish and floated them off down the river, adding more crap to the soup. Then it was back to Dashashwamedh Ghat to watch the Ganga Aarti taking place, a devotional ritual in which a group of saffron-robed pandits use fire and incense sticks, and a lot of praying and chanting, to make an offering to Maa Ganga. It made for some fantastic photos but at 45 minutes long, it was about 40 minutes too long for me. I was hungry.
The dry throat and general sense of having been smoked in sandalwood and incense was soon quenched by an illicit Kingfisher beer and what else but a curry, on a rooftop overlooking the river. The fact that the Kingfisher was illicit, didn’t appear on the menu or on the bill, only made it all the sweeter.
The following morning our auto-rickshaw made an unscheduled stop when he was pulled over by a traffic policeman and given an on-the-spot fine for not having a permit to carry tourists. Whether the fine lined public coffers or police pockets is a moot point, but our rickshaw man wasn’t happy. I guess the fine of 300 rupees could have wiped out the day’s earnings – but that also serves him right for not having the right permit. Karma, correct?
The ghats are not merely steps down to the water but, according to Wikipedia, are an integral complement to the Hindu concept of divinity represented in physical, metaphysical, and supernatural elements. Varanasi has eighty four of them, most of which are used for bathing by pilgrims and the spiritually significant Hindu puja ceremony, while a few are used exclusively as Hindu cremation sites. One of which is Harischandra Ghat, where the auto-rickshaw driver eventually deposited us, and which we quickly sidestepped. Immediately behind Harischandra Ghat is a labyrinth of streets and alleyways, too narrow for traffic, but choc-full of life – and a delight to get lost in for an hour or two.
But there is no escape. For if India is a place where the things that most westerners do behind closed doors very often take place in the full glare of an impervious public, nowhere does that exist more than in a place where cremation itself is a public spectacle. As we searched for the much-advertised but not-easily-found German bakery, we emerged lost from an alleyway into the middle of Manikarnika Ghat just as a funeral procession pushed past complete with a brightly wrapped body held aloft on the shoulders of bearers. It was not unlike a Christian burial – just without the coffin. We had no choice but to push through, past three funeral pyres. And while Sue may have been able to avert her eyes, I just could not help it, and saw three clearly identifiable half-burned bodies half way to Hindu heaven.
It’s ghoulish and grisly but if the Hindu’s want to cremate their bodies in public that’s their business. Whether it is distasteful or disrespectful for tourists, including myself, to have a curious peek is another matter. On the other hand of those perfectly balanced Libran scales, a better understanding and appreciation of different cultures and religions has to be a good thing. The world needs more Librans.
When we did finally find the German bakery we found not one, but two, directly opposite one another, both claiming to be the ‘original’ German bakery and both supporting the local charity which apparently validated their authenticity. I guess the charity benefits both ways. But we never quite found out what the fascination with German bakeries was. They seemed to be all over the place in Varanasi as if the words ‘German bakery’ are a guarantee of high quality, western-standard breads and pastries. A French bakery I could understand. Or Danish. But German? Some wandering Herr must have opened his bakery years ago, called it ‘German’ cos he did indeed wear lederhosen, made a success of it and bingo, ‘German’ becomes synonymous with bread in more ways than one.
And that as they say, was that. After one more evening meal of delicious Nepalese momos, deep fried eggplant, naans and raita, and one more night in our American hotel, we managed to depart the wonderfully historic, mystical and atmospheric Varanasi in a way so many Hindus chose not to; alive.