Song of the day: The Beatles – Tomorrow Never Knows “Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream – it is not dying… it is not dying…”
Luke’s alarm woke us at five, and we had a couple of chais from the vendor as he came past. From talking to my mate from the evening before, we discovered that the train was now running two hours behind. We sat playing cards and watching the world go by for a couple of hours until we arrived in Mughal Sarai station. My new friend asked me for my e-mail address so we could communicate as I had some “Good ideas”. I’m not sure what he meant by this, but I gave him my e-mail all the same as he seemed like a nice geezer. He shook our hands several times before we excused ourselves and hopped off the train.
We were immediately confronted by three men who followed us along the platform, quoting prices at us for a rickshaw journey to Varanasi. The disadvantage to being an obvious tourist is that touts and dodgy salespeople see you coming a mile off. We looked for a pre-paid taxi meter, all the while ignoring the attention of three seperate blokes quoting prices and asking us where we were from. When finally our patience was exhausted, we asked one of the blokes how much it’d cost to Varanasi. “100 rupees” he said, and smiled, exposing a gap in his teeth. In the absence of a better option we took him up on it. When we’d loaded our bags into his tuk tuk he asked us where we were staying. We told him the Hare Rama guesthouse and he let out a sigh and shook his head. “Main bridge is closed so we will have to drive many kilometres round. 400 rupees for the extra journey.” To be honest readers, we couldn’t be arsed to argue. The amount was nominal – four quid instead of one quid for a 15 kilometre journey. But it’s often the principal you find yourself arguing over, rather than the actual amount you’re being overcharged. We accepted the quadruple hike and buzzed along into Varanasi. Predictably, he zoomed straight over the bridge which he had claimed to be closed. We paid him the money and stepped out of the tuk tuk into pandemomium.
Scooters, cars, cows, holy men, beggars, tourists, market traders, cycle rickshaws and dogs contrived to make walking in a straight line completely impossible. We made our way as best we could down a “pedestrianised” street which hung heavy with the exhaust fumes of tuk tuks. We walked through a market where traders had assembled fine arrays of vegetables on sheets of linen. There were cows everywhere, strolling around as if they owned the place, which to all intents and purposes, they do.
Following the map in our Lonely Planet guide, we walked towards the river and were rewarded with our first view of the Ganges. With backpacks front and back we had little time to enjoy it, as the immediate concern was that of finding shelter from this absolute insanity. I confess to having one of those rare moments on the road where you think “What the hell have I done, why am I doing this to myself?” But then a ray of light came, in the form of a toothless simpleton. He approached us barefoot, in a filthy open shirt and asked us where we were going. We told him the “Hare Rama Guesthouse” and he said that he knew the place. A Chinese girl who had been trying to help us read our map shrugged her shoulders to suggest that this was our best option. Against our better judgement – especially after the tuk tuk incident – we followed him as he hopped and weaved his way up some backstreets, singing the Hindu mantra “Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama. Rama Rama, Hare hare, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna….”
A bunch of lads were preparing the most gigantic vat of curry I’ve ever laid eyes on as bhangra music pounded out from an ancient speaker. Possibly the fattest cow I have ever seen leaned against the wall of the narrow backstreet, reducing the passing space to about 25% of what it should be. Normally it would cause me a great degree of trepidation to pass such potentially unruly beast, but the cows of Varanasi are a particularly pampered breed – they want for nothing and they’re not on the menu, so they don’t appear to have the same unpredictable temperament as their British brethren. We continued to follow the toothless simpleton until he stopped outside a dark, filthy alleyway leading off from the larger backstreet. “Hare Rama this way!” he beamed, then dashed off up ahead singing his mantra. We followed through the dark, filthy passage, breathing through our mouths and trying to ignore the squelch of whatever was underfoot. He took us to a door and stood there, proud as punch before beckoning us to go in. I had no other money to hand so I gave him ten rupees for his troubles – he was indeed toothless, but simple he was not. He bowed deeply before melting away into the morning chaos.
In spite of the filthy approach, the hostel was good. A huge old house on four storeys owned by a Hindu family who occupied the ground floor. The room numbers were creepily painted onto each door with red paint that had run to look like blood, but the room was big and airy, with aircon and wifi – and all for 3 quid each a night. As I showered a perverse lizard clung horizontally to the wall and stared down at me – I’m not used to having an audience, but it seemed fairly content to remain where it was. After taking an hour to gather ourselves we ventured back out into the city.
“She’s well acquainted with the touch of a velvet hand, like a lizard on a window pane!”
Our first mission was to locate a little shop called “Brown Bread Bakery”, who as a sideline provide reputable boatmen to take tourists on a sunrise trip up the river. The labyrinth of back streets and alleyways in this town are more than a little confusing, but we recieved help in the form of a well-spoken young English gent who appeared to have “gone local”. Fascinating as this place is, I can’t imagine ever living here – the cultural void would be too great a gap to leap after a few weeks. Following his directions as best we could, we managed to locate the bakery and book a tour for the next morning, which set us back 150 rupees each. This was infinitely preferable than negotiating with the oarsmen by the river, who apparently enjoy the trick of saying “The price is 100” and then waiting until you’re literally up the creek without a paddle before they say “100 US dollars”.
Varanasi is the holiest city in India – integral to the Hindu faith. Millions of Hindus make the pilgrimage here to wash away their sins in the sacred river Ganges – although I have to say you wouldn’t see me dipping so much as a toe in there. To die in Varanasi is thought to be a particularly good use of your time, as it provides you with Moksha – liberation from the cycle of reincarnation that forms a central part of Hindu ideology. Families from all over India will come to Varanasi to have their dearly departed cremated on the banks of the river – a very moving ceremonial process, which we were priveledged to witness.
We walked past our hostel and down to the river. Varanasi really hasn’t changed much in hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Various invasions have lead to the destruction and rebuilding of the town, but culturally it seems that things are pretty much as they have been for a loooong time. For almost the entire length of the city, the bank of the river is paved with steps leading down to the water – these are the ghats. Some ghats are used for cremation, some are used for washing clothes, and some are purely to allow access to the water. We made our way north, walking along the riverfront which even at this early hour was thronging with orange-clad holy men, goats, cows and touts. The touts are desperate to flog you something, anything, and this is evident in their line of questioning. “You wanna boat trip?” “No.” “You wanna tour guide? “No.” “You wanna see my Uncle’s shop?” “No.” “You wanna buy hash?” “NO!” Some are more persistent than others and they can make standing and admiring the view very difficult. The saddest thing about this is that so many people in India are genuinely friendly and like to help you or just pass the time of day with you. The more annoying touts you meet in a day, the less inclined you are to stop to chat with somebody who might be genuinely just be being nice.
We made our way north along the bank, ignoring the attentions of men lying in the bottom of their rowing boats, trying to make a sale. We passed a dozen water buffaloes that were being supervised in their morning ablutions by a string bean of a man. As we approached the Manikarnika Ghat, the smell of smoke began to hang heavy in the air. We rounded the corner, and touts advised us that no photos were to be taken beyond this point as it was a holy place, before using this piece of advice as a stepping stone in the process of asking us to buy stuff off them. We climbed some steps and found ourselves standing over a muddy bank of the river. Three pyres of wood burned the same shade of orange as the robes of the holy men who gathered at the banks. A body wrapped completely in brightly-coloured cloth and borne on a bamboo stretcher, was lowered into the Ganges before being placed atop another pyre. Family members huddled around, praying and singing and chanting.
Credit to Luke Partridge for this photo!
Though all of this was a strange and sobering sight, we felt hugely pr to witness this ceremonial end to a person’s journey upon the Earth. There was nothing really disturbing or macabre about the process – this is how it’s been done, right here, for more than a millennium. We lingered a few minutes before climbing a set of stairs that took us onto the backstreets. Piles of wood, twenty foot high, dwarf the people who pass by beneath them. This is the wood used in the cremations – a big business in Varanasi. Sets of cast-iron scales are loaded with logs and counter-balanced with weights to establish how much wood is needed to completely cremate each body. Different kinds of wood seem to have become a bit of a status symbol, with sandalwood being one of the most expensive woods on offer to those who can afford it. The sun was intense as ever, and the heat from the pyres even from fifty feet away had taken it out of us. We decided to go back to the hostel and sit out the hottest part of the day.
After another shower and chill-out – may I remind you it was 40 odd degrees celsius! We walked south down the banks and investigated the various ghats. The touts were less frequent here and the general lack of people made our meander a bit more soothing. More water buffaloes were being washed and kids played cricket using bins or painted bits of wall as a wicket. 20/20 is understandably massive in India with the advent of the Indian Premier League, and as a result kids seem to enjoy smashing the ball as far as possible and dreaming of making the big time. No boundaries are marked out here, but if your tennis ball lands without bouncing in the putrid filth of the Ganges, among the weed-ridden boat ropes, you can be sure you’ve hit a six. A man approached us and pointed to the middle of the river, where a big metal boat appeared to be dredging the bottom of the river. “It’s to make the river clean.” “Oh. I think they’ll need more boats.” (A pause.) “You wanna boat ride?” “No”.
We were again defeated by the sun, but I think we’d seen all that we needed to see of the southern ghats. At almost the furthest part of our walk a pyre had been erected but not yet lit – a youngish looking man lay on his back on top of the pyre, his eyes now forever closed to the majesty and madness of the world that he left behind. Behind us twenty-odd blokes busied themselves at various points along a spindly bamboo scaffolding that was perhaps thirty feet high. Surely no other place in the world can be so full of death and life, intertwined to the point that the lines are almost blurred into one. Varanasi is a city that perfectly illustrates the cycle of life and death – the perpetual wheel of existence that we’re all a part of.
We ate at a restaurant just up from the main Dashashwamedh Ghat, before heading down there with a couple of thousand pilgrims to watch the nightly Ganga Aarti (river worship) ceremony. The ceremony was due to start at seven and we managed to book a good seat overlooking the whole ceremony a good half hour before it started. Unfortuantely a load of Hindu ladies came to sit behind us and shooed us to the side because they couldn’t see past us. I didn’t know the Hindi for “We were here first” so we moved without making a scene. The ceremony consisted of a lot of exotic Indian music, a singer/chanter of hypnotic mantras, and the lighting of various candles, incense burners and torches by five men dressed in robes, who sat on platforms and performed co-ordinated acts of worship towards the river. The ceremony lasted about an hour and although incredible, I must admit I didn’t have a clue what was going on and my arse was incredibly numb from being sat on the same concrete floor the whole time.
When the ceremony was over, we walked along the river and realised that there had been another copycat ceremony just round the corner from where we were. Of course, the touts were out in force and we were blessed by a small child who rubbed red dye into our foreheads, before placing a mix of orange flowers and petals in our hands. We sensed the oncoming attempt to extort money, but we went with the flow because the kid was quite harmless and cute. He lead us down to the river where he began uttering various cantations in his own language. To be fair, he could have just been swearing at us and we woudn’t have had a clue, but we’d gone past the point of no return. He got us to repeat a series of blessings for our family, before throwing a handful of petals into the river. It went something a bit like this:
BOY: Say Shiva…
BOY: Mother’s name…
US: Mother’s name…
BOY: No, Say your Mother’s names!
BOY: Joyce and Posie… Ohm!
BOY: Now throw your petals into the river…
(We do so. Repeat the above process about fifty times, adding Father’s name as well.)
BOY: Now, for this blessing to work you must pay me either 5000 or 10000 rupees, whichever you prefer.
US: Are you having a laugh!? Is he having a laugh!?
We fled the scene, all the time being pursued by the young hustler. I felt like explaining to him that he had a lot to learn, and that if he was going to fleece people, he should do it for a sensible amount. In the end I gave him twenty rupees, which he snatched off me then wheeled away to find another victim. I turned round to see Luke stood there with a frown on his face, whilst a filthy man was holding his arm and pressing it in various locations. “Luke, what the hell is going on!?” “Arm massage sir! for tips only – free service!” That was the final straw. After Luke had liberated his arm from this no doubt unqualified street masseuse, we beat a hasty retreat to the hostel.
There is no way for me to convey the absolutely baffling nature of Varanasi to you without you going for yourself, but the words above are my best attempt. In well under 24 hours Luke and I felt that we had seen as much as we had in three days in Kolkata and Darjeeling.
Sorry it’s been such a long one – I’ll do my best not to ramble on next time!
Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey