Varanasi

India: Varanasi – Life and Death on the Holy River Ganga

Varanasi – our first Indian destination on this trip – was a fascinating and unique city and definitely a trip highlight. Reaching India simultaneously brought back the familiarity of our first visit in 2011 whilst also appearing very different to the lush Keralan backwaters, Tamil Nadu’s tea plantations and the hectic metropolis of Mumbai. It was also hot. Very hot. August in the south brings monsoons whilst an April heatwave in the north dealt us temperatures of 45 degrees!

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As with most visitors – I expect – our taxi dropped us off on the busy main road lined with shops, banks and teeming with tuktuks and rickshaws, trucks and cars. A young porter met us, hoisted Dean’s rucksack onto his back, commandeered the handle of my suitcase, and set off at quite a pace despite the heat. Almost immediately, he disappeared into a gap between two buildings as we – melting – followed. It quickly became clear why we’d needed to conclude the journey on foot. For about fifteen minutes, we walked through a maze of tiny streets, most no more than a couple of metres wide, almost certain we would never find our way back out again! Eventually we reached our hotel by the river but decided we definitely needed to return to warren of streets to spend some time exploring by ourselves. More on that later. Here’s a picture from our hotel rooftop: up where the monkeys hang out.

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The draw to Varanasi is the River Ganges (Ganga here) and the ghats (steep stone steps) which line its waterfront. It’s steeped in history and religion. Since the 6th century BC, the holy River Ganga has been integral to all of life and indeed death and Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest living cities. Its importance is due to it being the centre of the Hindu universe and one of the holiest crossing places where the divine and the devotee can reach one another. Many elderly people move to Varanasi to live out their final days, supported by temples and alms, as it’s believed that dying and being cremated here instantly gains enlightenment for the deceased.

Life by the river and on the ghats is fascinating. Everything happens here despite the fact that it really cannot be clean. We strolled along the ghats in the heat of the afternoon sun and took a cooler, more peaceful sunrise ride with a boat man the next morning.

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People descend to the river to wash themselves, their clothes and their cattle.

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Swimming lessons take place. Offerings and prayers are made.

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Boat builders are hard at work while fishermen toil further across the river. Party boats cruise up and down on the weekends shattering the peace with their deafening music. Tourists and locals travel by boat.

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A real mixture of people spend time side by side – all ages, all walks of life. Friends chat on the steps or splash about in the water. So colourful and so interesting to watch.

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Widows and orange-robed, bearded sadhus (holy men) sleep or sit cross-legged, hoping for alms. Kids play cricket or practise as Hindu novices.

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The ghats themselves are varied and, although they’re joined up and walkable now, they were constructed at different times in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the rainy season you can’t access them in this way and so boats are used to get around. The ghats vary in size but are all apparently marked by a lingam. Some are painted in red and white stripes. Some are graffitied or covered in hand-painted signs. Some lead up to temples. Some are palaces. Some are kept swept clean. Some are best bypassed quickly due to the stench of urine. Some have little changing cubicles. Some are key pilgrimage sites and are marked with red and yellow flags.

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Some are for cremation.

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Yes. Cremation. You’re not allowed to photograph the ‘burning ghats’ of which there are two so I’ll just tell you about it as I found it really interesting and completely alien to me. As a visitor, you’re likely to be stopped as you walk through by someone wanting to give you a tour, spouting the mantra ‘burning is learning’ or ‘learning is burning’ to reel you in: I can’t remember which as both are nonsensical! Though we visited both, the smaller, less famous burning ghat was fairly close to our hotel and someone – who purported to be the owner and wasn’t too pushy – took it upon himself to tell us about it. He led us up to the shade of a covered platform, inhabited by a dog with a litter of tiny puppies, from where we could survey the goings on.

Cremations go on constantly, several at a time. Some had begun before the sun was up and I suspect they would carry on until at least dusk. The riverbank is covered in ash for several meters up to the beginning of the stone steps. Pyres are built in different locations depending on whether the family is poor, ‘normal’ or rich, the latter being on an elevated plinth. Smoke rises and blows back towards the city. Towards us. And towards the families of the deceased who sit further up the steps. A noticeable oddity was that there were no women to be seen. The man explained that this is for two reasons. Firstly women are said to be too emotional and secondly they can’t be trusted not to throw themselves onto the fire consuming their husbands.

We also learnt how the ritual works. Within just a few hours of a person dying, women are covered in red cloth, men in white and unmarried women may be in yellow or orange. Garlands of marigolds are also placed over the body. The men of the family carry them on a stretcher through the streets from their home to the ghats, chanting as they go.

Next they must purify the body by washing it in the river before bringing the deceased up to their designated pyre. The wood is sold to the families at an ‘appropriate’ price by the ghat owners. There are now rules in place which mean that enough wood must be purchased because (apparently) poor families used to buy insufficient and dump the unburned remnants in the river. One chosen close male relative has his beard, moustache and hair shaved off and dresses in white. He must then purchase the holy fire from the temple, bring it back down to the pyre and walk around the body clockwise five times before setting it alight. Three hours later the family can collect the ashes and sprinkle them in the river.

A ceremony at the holy River Ganga ensures your soul escapes the never-ending cycle of reincarnation and reaches enlightenment. A few groups of people, though, are considered pure already: holy men, pregnant women, children under ten, lepers, those killed by a snake bite and those who have died of smallpox. These people aren’t cremated. They’re tied to a large stone and taken out into the middle of the river on a special boat for a water burial.

The cremation process is all completely public. We were torn between not wanting to see and feeling like to not see would be to deny this integral part of Hindu life and the heart of Varanasi. It doesn’t seem sad. It’s very normalised, very matter of fact. So we watched awhile until our eyes watered with the smoke. I think I will forever remember the sight of a pair of feet protruding from one pyre until a man with a large stick came to rearrange the wood!

Anyway, back to the warren of narrow streets. We spent quite a lot of time just roaming, picking lefts and rights at random and seeing what we would find. I, of course, was mainly lost whilst I’m sure Dean knew more or less where we were at all times!

The alleyways are small enough that cars can’t enter and only tiny strips of sky can be glimpsed above.

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Instead, they are full of pedestrians, handcarts, honking motorbikes and strolling cows. So many cows! They’re really in charge. Hindus don’t eat them as they’re considered holy and, although they may occasionally be shunted out of the way, generally they are allowed to hold up traffic and block streets whilst munching nonchalantly on stolen offering flowers and food scraps.

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From time to time, one improbably loaded cart or bike meets another at a tight corner and a whole sequence of shifting and manoeuvring begins until one can extract itself.

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Most buildings are shops at ground level. Many owners sit cross legged on the floor, drinking tea with friends. Paan sellers lean over their wooden counters with their leaves and colourful concoctions laid out in front of them. Chai vendors stir enormous vats of milk and serve their unique blend of sweet, spiced tea in little plastic cups. Or terracotta ones for tourists like us!

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Food is everywhere. Fruit and vegetable sellers have their colourful wares stacked in front of their shops or precariously balanced on their carts. Deep-fried snacks, pans of bubbling curry and carefully-arranged sweet delicacies appear around every corner.

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Women sit on the steps watching the world go by or chatting to neighbours outside their houses and men lie sleeping on their carts or rickshaws. Well-worn water pumps are positioned for public use.

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All your personal grooming needs are catered for too: you can have your shoes shined; your beard or moustache trimmed with a sharp, straight razor; or your clothes pressed using a coal-heated iron!

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So that’s it for our time in Varanasi. Nowhere I’ve ever been has there been such a vivid sense of life alongside death. The circle of life and all that it encompasses.

Just one post left, I think, where I’ll combine Agra, Jaipur and New Delhi – the Golden Triangle! Until next time.

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