Day 72: Varanasi
Our efforts to be up in time to watch the sun rise over the Ganges are in yawning vain. The sun has already uncloaked itself from its nighttime wanders and thus, we’ve missed its grand entrance from a row boat on the river.
Still, the blood red rays are beautiful from the hotel rooftop as we feed on toast and eggs, chai and lassis. Then, grabbing our purses, we leave the hotel and hit the alleyways. I follow Marnie; her sense of direction actually exists whereas mine is as useful as a waterlogged compass.
Reaching the sun-stained ghats, we pass hundreds of men bathing in the Ganges’ septic waters. Young boys are flying their kites, practicing for the imminent festival. A snake charmer sits with his pungi, whistling a simple tune that coaxes a black cobra from a basket in front of him. The man looks at me.
“Touch it. It’s okay.”
I crouch to feel the snake’s reptilian crown with the backs of my fingers. Marnie comes over to give him a pat. Continuing on, we’re joined by a couple young Indians, real chatty types, who escort us sideways along the stairs without much concern for social cues or personal space. We finally put a cobra-lengths distance between them and then, in an almost seamless handoff, another young buck falls into stride beside us as though he was always there. The level of persistence from the general male population is only preceded by their tenacity, which may just be the Big Poppa of persistence, borne of it; intertwined so tightly that the two support one another resolutely, making it difficult to decipher which came first. Persistence is the exhaustless effort they pester you with to extract your time/attention/money; their tenacity lies in the less apparent strategies of going about it. This quality is admirable in a highly annoying, deeply frustrating, borderline rude kind of way. When two worlds collide, however, who’s right and wrong standards get to play the trump card? (Hint: in the verbatim words of ol’ Dorothy, this sure as hell ain’t Kansas.)
But the blabbering barnacle does offer interesting information about the foreign rituals and goings-on around us, here in the Holiest City in the World. As we approach the second burning ghat–two of Varanasi’s eighty-seven ghats are dedicated to cremations–our guide (fine, we give in!) repeats the whole ceremony process to us (we had a similar tour yesterday at the first cremation site). This time, we are taken to the edge of the burning pit, where funeral pyres stand ablaze as tall as a man. A wall of thick, suffocating heat doesn’t so much as hit us as goes through us, curling our eyelashes and coating our gullets with hot ash. Several fires burn simultaneously, the bodies inside hissing like angry cobras. Multiple corpses lay on bamboo stretchers, shrouded in bright material of orange or red and covered in flowers, set on the stairs in wait for their fiery fate.
Our chaperon leads us away from the sickly heat of the crematorium, talking all the time. As we follow him around the ghat and towards a temple, he points out some facts we are not yet hip to–shortly after the body has been lit, the head is smashed in by a rock in order to “free the spirit”. Escaping this plane of existence is quite the barbaric task.
And we have to ask again, after last nights leprosy research, why lepers are not to be cremated.
“The smoke would smell, and the ash would spread the disease. So we sink them in the river, and this, this is the Holy Water. It is fine. No spreading of the disease. I swim in it all the time, and I am fine.”
In fact, 100,000 bodies are dumped into the river every year, and the amount of rotting flesh has either evolved their immune systems to the stature of the gilled creatures that thrive in it, or is part of the reason Varanasi (also called Benaras, or Kashi) has a large population of lepers.
Standing in front of the temple now, our guide leads us inside, where a fire smoulders in front of an open window–the Holy Fire, the fire from which all cremation fires are conceived. It is called the ‘eternal fire’ for good reason: it has been perpetually aflame for 3500 years. Keeping it a’blazin’ is the responsibility of one family, passed down from generation to generation since that first spark got all fired up a long, long time ago.
Tagging behind our cicerone past a sleeping dog,–wait, he’s not sleeping…(and doesn’t look like he’ll be waking up in this lifetime)–up some steps and by a lazy goat, we convene on top of a temple and go to the roof’s edge where we can watch the ceremonies from the vantage of a mountain goat.
Our ghat guru meets his friend here, who joins us on the wall as we observe the deathly hallows below. I spy a handoff of rupees, and his buddy disappears. He returns with four tiny paper cups of chai. As human ash settles in our hair, the conversation turns to opium and hash; have we ever tried it? Marnie and I look at each other, our paranoia now tickling the forefront of our cortex as we peer suspiciously into the paper cups in our hands. I make a point of sipping its contents slower than the rate of a burning body, we make an excusing comment, but alas, the Indian persistence must escort us to our next destination, and I toss the remaining liquid onto the side streets as we follow in his wake.
He takes us to our destination directly: Blue Lassi. This is a well known lassi bar, famous for its extensive flavour choices, but mainly for the public display of the dairy drink design. We order banana-apple and apple-pomegranate and take a seat on a bench lining the wall, which is covered in snapshots of tourists who’ve visited. I lean over the lassi-master’s shoulder as he churns the curd in one bowl and then mixes it with the desired fruit in another.
It is served in a huge glass, garnished heavily and tastes like a creamy apple cloud. We spoon the yogurt into our mouths as mice scamper across our toes and the din of people walking through the alley on our right crescendos to capture the attention of everyone around; a procession of people carry the deceased body of a loved one on a bamboo stretcher through the alleys, in the direction of the river.
When the final curd has been et, we amble, sans unhired guide, to the golden temple–Kashi Vishvanath Temple. It is one of the most famous temples, and holiest, dedicated to Lord Shiva. The lineup to enter stretches the length of its outer wall and out of sight, around the corner. Fortunately, foreigners get first dibs. There are policemen at each gate performing security checks for every person who enters. They wave us to the front. Shoes are not allowed to be worn, even in the alley surrounding the outer temple walls. Barefooted, we pad along the cobblestones, hopscotching around puddles of human piss, cow pies, and doggie doo as rats shoot through the hundreds of pairs of legs standing in wait. We pass our purses to a couple guys in charge of lockers–no phones or cameras allowed inside–and then head to one of the entrances. One man stops us as we near the gate.
“You can only enter if you are Hindu,” he says.
At the final doorway, the security guard also questions us.
“Do you practice the Hindu religion?”
Marnie and I look at each other. We could just say yes…
In this situation–more than disrespectful–a lie would be blindingly obvious. We turn our backs to the policemans shaking head and go collect our purses, then to where we left our shoes at the side of the alley next to a little staircase. A man appears, darkly silhouetted, in the frame above the steps. His big shoe comes into focus, it’s toe roughly pushing a pint-sized, bony puppy across the stony ground, out of his way. It whimpers quietly as he grumbles crudely, until it falls over one step, and teeters down another, struggling to find footing. I watch, and a heartsick rage bubbles up from my gut and through my eyeballs, but I stand without action, feeling like a helpless, pathetic piece of passive poop. Of all the poverty and sickness and strange customs I’ve seen in this country thus far, this, for some reason, roils me up inside in a way that nothing else has. An impoverished man, booting a powerless creature from his path illustrates to me how lack of education, the breeding of mistreatment, and little love is recycled in a vicious circle of neglect, churning up actions borne of misguided resentment. I’m shaking as Marnie grabs onto my arm. Her already huge brown eyes are bulging.
“If someone shoves me in the back one more time, I am going to lose it.”
The tiny, packed alley does not excuse itself for pushing by, and the walls are closing in, constricting, populating, getting noisier, louder, overwhelming…we jam our filthy feet into our shoes and flee the ever-shrinking alleyway of frenetic people.
In looking for a glimmer of peace, a shred of space, a scrap of silence, the relative tranquility of the shops seize us with silky fingers and we climb up the stairs to a room veiled with gorgeous, silken scarves glimmering in unearthly colours. We succumb to the beauty and purchase some for ourselves and gifts, then walk upstairs to The Brown Bread Bakery. It is a haven of calm amidst the turbulence of Varanasi. We flit to the empty table in the corner. Framed by white railings, even the open sides of this top floor patio are far from the reaches of the street noise. For a moment, we let our minds vacation from Incredible India, and delve into a Greek salad on this milky patio whose patrons all hail from outside the Indian border. We write postcards with Canadian addresses and tell hugely condensed tales from the East.
When we part the World Above and burrow back into the potpourri of Varanasi’s streets, our brains light up. BLANKETS! Men, women and children all wear blankets here, wrapped in an effortlessly stylish way about them like a scarf with the square footage of a grazing field. For the amount of cold we’ve suffered unnecessarily, it is time to invest–a whole five dollars. We even treat ourselves to brass jewellery from the Old Market, which is crazier and more crowded than the last mobbed side street.
A cozy restaurant becomes another haven. Our coffee arrives and we drain it in harmony with the falling sun, waiting for Ganga Aarti to begin. At dusk, we head out of the Old Market and towards the river, through the main artery of the city and down the steps to the Ganges. A crowd of people sit in a row along the middle of the street and down the entire staircase, begging. For money, for food, for anything. Many are mothers with sick children, many are aged. All of them seem to be stricken with leprosy in varying states. Limbs are in short supply. Some people have massive oozing sores and pus-filled stubs in place of extremities. We thought teeth were a dime a dozen, but here they must cost an arm and a leg. These are people who gave up shame a long time ago, people humbled into a desperate state. Moaning. Pleading. A people without pride, children without a chance. Outcast from society, this community is webbed together by pain, suffering, poverty, sadness. When everybody gives up on you, it’s easy to give up on you, too. When everybody gives up on their own self, it’s simple to follow suit. And so, they collapse in on themselves.
What do you do?
Down the steps, Ganga Aarti is just getting underway. Dozens of boats are set to head out to the river, people piling on to observe the ceremony from the water. Marnie and I find a step near the front. Floating umbrellas made of tiny lights glow above a row of wooden platforms.
Each one is taken over by men with torches who fling the flaming sticks around to the beat of a chant sung by a man on a mic. Hundreds of people are here to observe, blanketing the steps, standing in clusters afloat on the Ganges. Girls, no older than ten years, in lurid, thick makeup and extravagant costumes, walk through the crowd sullen faced, sticking donation baskets into personal spaces without so much as a fake smile. It must be at an exorbitant price that they air out their teeth.
The photo-crazy tourists, the over-costumed kids, the leering men–the people-watching takes centre stage for Marnie and I. When the final offering has been made to the gods and the spectacle-watching horde is on foot and on the move, we join the nomadic pack through the main drag–a shoulder to shoulder highway of people surging through the city to their respective homes for the night.
At our hotel, we shower the day off our skin and book a train ticket to the next destination: Sawai Madhopur. We wanna see some tigers.
And we dream in stripes.