Sunday, April 02, 2006

Varansi - India in the Raw













Thilo and I spent a full week in the almost indescribable extremity of humanity that is Varanasi. Arguably the most sacred of the 7 holy Hindu cities, it is a place like no other I have experienced or thought I would experience.

Like most Indian cities I have to so far witnessed, it sprawls out from the centre in the usual polluted, over-crowded, and dirty way, with fascinating activity everywhere. It is though the old centre that is of key interest. It coils around the western bank of the mighty Ganga (Ganges) with a maze of tiny ancient crazy streets sprawling behind the numerous ghats (essentially stairs into water) that stretch as far as the eye can see, invading the sacred water.

I have been trying to think how best to describe this truly mad place and the best I can come up with is to describe what you see on a normal days journey from Shanti Guesthouse by the river to the main street. You wander between multi story crumbling buildings (half of them seemingly temples) in streets no wider than a couple of metres which meander each and every direction every few metres. In these streets are hundreds of alive people buying, selling, cooking, chanting, begging, praying, dying and a few very less alive people being carried down in procession on stretchers to be cremated and their remains dropped in the Ganga. You literally have to jump out the way of these walking rituals as the family chant away. Add to this bikes, motor-bikes, mice, monkeys, rats, dogs everywhere and perhaps most importantly numerous holy cow. Some of these are relatively similar to the cows back home, but others are huge with protruding horns and others are quite literally buffalo. Try to picture what this means. You have to dodge and weave deadly cow horns, motorized vehicles, the dead and everything else in the middle of shit-strewn alleys, rancid smells and a whole furore of noise – I loved it!!

There is a high military presence everywhere (the political and religious tension is very high in this town as shown through 2 bombs that went off the week before we arrived), which combined with being taken to watch human bodies melt in the flames of small pires in the open, tendered by the untouchables with the ribs for men and hips for women eventually being chucked in the Ganga as the only remaining part of the mortal body – images I will carry with me to my dying day – mean that your emotions should naturally be at there edges. Though, the comparable serenity of our guesthouse with spectacular views over the river and the bone-scattered flood plain beyond, cricket everywhere, a few yoga sessions (thank you Michelle) and drum “lessons” allowed me to be in a very relaxed state of mind in all the chaos.

We spent much time up and down the river by foot, along the ghats or on row-boats witnessing religious ceremonies involving fiery gold cobra heads, bathing, washing, kids playing cricket, cow-cleaning, burning and even a crazy ashen-clad holy man overlooking all from his skull-thrown and only marginally distracted by his mobile. In this place the temples are the biggest drug-dealers.

One particular image that sticks is of untouchable children (the lowest caste who to many are so dirty and low that they are literally untouchable and the only people who can carry out the burning) walking home with some charred wood from the cremation carried over their heads rapped in the bright red funeral cloth with gold tassels (see second picture). Their biggest payment is the charred remains covered in drippage from the fat and much else. As is so often said and I have copied - this is India in the raw!!

Day-trips to the ruined fort, bath and mosque of Islamic kings at Jaunpur and the ancient Buddhist temple and stuppa at Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first sermon, added a beautiful context to the baptism of fire into Hinduism at Varanasi. I have never seen so many things with so many arms, heads and appendages being prayed to in my life. The Hindu pantheon is a lot to get your head around but I am giving it a good go.

So to conclude Varanasi is where they burn the dead and put them in the Ganga and then dogs eat the remains of the bodies, cows impale you in tiny ancient streets, people bathe in the same water and so much more indescribable craziness... a lot to get your head around. I will return before this trip is out!!!

P.s. it is said mosquitos will not bite you if you wash in Ganga water - a quite simply terrifying thought!
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