Writing from: Nepal, where I have eaten buffalo and it was good.
“Welcome to Varanasi.” oozed the taxi tout who claimed us as we stumbled off the train tracks we had been walking up and onto the platform. We eyed him wearily. Over an hour ago our train had wheezed almost into the station and there we had sat waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Eventually, after having watched almost every Indian on the train get out and walk the tracks the 500 metres to the station, we decided this was getting silly. So with backpacks, eyes in the back of our heads, and relief that there is no scary electric rail, we (M, me, Ken (a Coloradian travelling the world ticking off the sights quite happily), and Anna and Chris (a London couple our age who were just as used to late trains as we were) hopped off the train onto the (smelly) tracks and walked in to India’s most holy city like natives.
Varanasi is meant to be difficult, so they say. It began very much so as we calmy argued with the taxi tout for the fare, calmly told him he couldn’t travel with us to our hotel (where he hoped to grab a nice comission), and not so calmly watched him get rather angry with us for telling him so and refusing to pay an extra 25 rupees (it’s the principal of it) for a ‘parking fee’ he suddenly made up. The tout’s eyes bulged so much at my insistence we were paying for the taxi and therefore we should not all be crammed into the back seat while he relaxed in the passenger seat, that we could clearly see the bloodvessels around the whites of his eyes. Not a happy man. Still we smoothed it down and off we went. Into the heart of one crazy but holy city.
Varanasi itself was quite amazing. It is busy, crazy, and fizzing along by the possibly the world’s most famous and certainly the world’s filthiest river.
On our last night (which came quicker than intended after Mumbai. See my next post.) M and I took to the holy river, along with Ken, to see the sights from a rowboat.
People waded into the Ganges to bathe, bent to wash clothes, stood beside the water to place floating lights on its surface, fished about in the depths for errant cricket balls, and in some cases took a quick healing drink (I didn’t join them on that one).
The boat took us down to the famous Manikarnika burning ghat where families come to cremate their dead. The Ganges at Varanasi is said to be the only place where if a person dies and is cremated there they leave the whole life death cycle that the Hindu religion chucks them into and they go straight to Nirvana, without passing go or collecting 200 pounds. So people come to die there, and the riverside is lined with hospices, from the shiny (for those with a bit more money) to the shabby (for beggars and outcasts).
We floated in so close we could feel the warmth from the fires on our faces, a little too close for my liking. Above us above the steps stood towers of logs of different values waiting to become part of pyres, and below them were crowds of people watching. Occasionally untouchables (low caste men called doms) broke from the crowds bearing a body wrapped in gleaming gold cloths on a bamboo stretcher, and picked their way to the waterside to slowly douse the body in the holy mother and lift them, dripping, back out.
On each level stood waist-high piles of burning wood, carefully constructed to encase the body inside a pyramid of flames. Between the piles were smoking mounds of ashes, and along the banks and at the stair bottoms lay still-wrapped bodies waiting their turn.
The boatmen told us that a body takes three hours to burn, and after the second hour the eldest son comes to the fire and cracks open the skull to release the spirit.
The air smells of nothing but wood here, wood and the damp of the flowing river. There is no special smell of charred human, which we’re secretly half holding our breaths not to inhale. It must be there though, dogs circle every fire and nose through the ashes till they are chased away. Unsettling but quite Indian.
Around the fires onlookers didn’t wail or cry but stood and watched. It is an eerie sight, and though the boatmen encouraged us to take photos we didn’t.
The whole river, as far as the eye can see, is shrouded in smoke. My lungs weren’t too happy there. It is very odd to know that my last night in India I coughed myself to sleep because my lungs were full of people on their way to Nirvana…