Everyone warned me not to go to Varanasi, the most religious city in India, the spiritual soul of the country. As you may have heard on the news (I’ve gotten many emails making sure I was alright. Answer: yes), the day before I was leaving to go there, it was the location of terrorist bombings – at the most sacred temple and the railway station. Matt, my Delhi friend, was assigned to cover Varanasi for the AP. Even he told me to sit this one out. But…I couldn’t be deterred. I’m in India once, the likelihood of coming back here again in my lifetime is slim, I’m going to Varanasi. I have to see it, have to experience it, and I felt no anxiety about that decision. I just got on the plane and went, not really focusing on the “bomb” part. Crazy, maybe. Rewarding, completely. Varanasi was the best city I visited in India. Easily. I couldn’t have made a better choice in visiting.
Varanasi sits on the Ganges River, one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world, however, to Muslims, it is the heart and soul of their religious beliefs. In a lifetime, one must cleanse their soul in the Ganges, disrobe (if you’re a man) or ruin a gorgeous sari (if you’re a woman) and jump right in. This ritual takes place EVERY morning at sunrise on the ghats (staircases) leading down to the riverbank. Some cleanse daily. Some travel long distances to cleanse once. I will never cleanse. But, I would watch, fascinated, as others did. On the way to the sunrise ceremonies, the streets of Varanasi (circa 6 AM) are just starting to come to life. Children pump water out of rusty wells, storefronts open their doors, massive cows, chained to fences, wake from slumber, forget yesterday’s bombings – ALL of these buildings look bombed in their total dilapidation. The stench of waste and excrement, the norm in every town in India, is more overpowering here. It wafts off the river and smacks you right in the face, first thing in the morning. A truly pleasant alarm clock of sorts. The car horns, a ubiquitous sound in India, are just starting to kick in, pushing pedestrians, rickshaws and bicycles out of the way. My driver actually hit a pedestrian on our way to the river. Did we stop? No way – the pedestrian just glared at my driver, who glared right back with a look that said “but, I blew my horn, buddy! Now move.”
After finagling our way through the streets, through the homeless, through the limbless, through the begging babies, my guide and I arrived at the riverbank for our boat. The banks are lined with holy men, sitting under umbrellas, praying, dispensing wisdom, cleansing souls in their own way. You see head shaving rituals – five year old boys being shaven for the first time, beaming proudly in their mother’s arms and old men, being shaved by young men, possibly for the last time, their bodies so weak and frail. Music plays, drums beat, voices chant, all in honor of the gods. As we step into our boat, we slowly start our descent down the river, me awed all the while. I see groups of people dunking, lathering, washing their faces: necks, hands, feet. I see homeless shacks on the ghats, men and women doing their laundry in this filthy body of water, people swimming through the water shouting the name of their chosen god back and forth with each stroke. I see people lighting candles and sending them offshore, flower chains being thrown into the water, ashes blown downriver…all in deference to their gods, small prayers and offerings in the AM’s glow.
As we near each end of the river, I see the huge funeral pyres, or cremation sites. The Muslims cremate their dead, usually within hours after their passing. The pyres are basically huge mountains of ashes (human) that have accumulated through time. The pyres are going twenty-four hours, and the vision of smoke, stack of logs and men in prayer, is both ghastly and beautifully mind-blowing. Only men are allowed AT the cremation (I’m told by my guide because women cry too much…), so after the body is carried through the streets, it arrives at one of the sites. There, a bundle of logs is prepared on which the mourners lay the body. Then, the body is sprinkled with sandalwood oils and powders (to null the smell of human flesh burning) and then more logs are placed over the body. A holy man comes, cleanses himself in the river, then performs a ceremony, at conclusion, the body is lit and burns down to ashes, which are left there, with the heaps of other ashes. It’s UNBELIEVABLE to watch this. Cows are lingering in the background, bodies float past in the river (fives types of people ARE NOT cremated – lepers, holy men, children, pregnant women, and people bitten by snakes – these bodies are merely thrown into the river to decompose naturally), and boats carrying hordes of tourist witnessing it all. The Ganges is insane. A place I’ll never forget seeing, moreover, learning from.
From the Ganges, we went to my guide’s house in the backstreets of Varanasi. A traditional Indian home, it’s three stories high, open-air in the center. Navigating to his house was tricky, backalleys filled with shit of every kind (cow, goat, dog, human) to step around, animals to part ways for, schoolchildren to wave to, stares to endure. The top story is merely a rooftop. People travel from home to home via rooftop, rather than go out into the streets. The middle story is the main house – with bedroom (paper thin mattresses on the floor, sleeping possibly 12-15 across in a space the size of a California king), kitchen (pots/pans/spices and food on the floor of a room that looks otherwise bare), sitting room (similar to bedroom, with more pillows/beaten cushions and junk – papers, worn furniture handed down from more wealthy owners, some clothing strewn in corners). Obviously, no bathroom, running water, or electricity. The bottom level is for….the COWS! I swear, their digs are NICER than the rest of the house. Their rooms have doors and when opened, there are 3-4 cows lying with blankets and hay! I almost died when my guide opened the door. COWS? “Oh yes, Madam, you know the cows is very important to Indian people.” LO-fuckin-L.
Also inhabiting this particular bottom floor is a small shop for a local medicine man, who mixes oils and spices into intoxicating syrums that will cure most any kind of ailment. Chest cold, sinuses, migraines, stress, fatigue, concentration … you name it, he can fix it. I’m a skeptic on that kind of thing, herbal remedies. So, I just bought some masala tea spices and called it a day (Mom – wait until you try it!! I have the recipe and all the ingredients coming home with me!). An absolutely AMAZING day, I am thrilled I didn’t miss Varanasi. Granted, I wasn’t allowed to leave hotel property after dark, and prohibited from going to the temples where the bombings took place (shocker…), and had a bit of trouble getting a guide who was willing to take me out touring, day after, BUT the daily life, that one trip down the Ganges, was worth the visit alone. A fantastic way to spend my second to last day in India.
Back at Matt’s, I detoxed. First, I went to buy more gym clothes (soo cheap here!), then to TGI Friday’s (I’m over Indian food, though I think I mastered it pretty well…), and thought of my high school girls (Sket-e-rete) and our own Friday’s in Huntington and ordered French fries, a fountain Coke and a hot fudge and extra caramel vanilla nut sundae and pigged out on U.S. junk food, HAPPILY. Then, got on my flight to the Maldives reminiscing about, but leaving behind, the woes of India – the stenches (places, food, people), the traffic (laws or lack thereof, pollution, cab/rickshaw drivers), the limbless (WHY are there so many limbless people? How many accidents can ONE country have?), the power outages (at least 10/day. No lights, no worries…), the excrement (all sorts as mentioned), the segregated male-female security lines at the airport (rude, rude, rude), the visions of fat women in saris with peek-a-boo hip holes (not pretty…), the Muslim men (lest I forget the perverted men!?!?! As if…), as well as the beauty of it – the forts, the Victorian architecture, the colors and fabrics of the clothing, the sunsets, the curiosity of the people (about me), the smiles of the children, aloo parantha (delish potato filled bread) and paneer (cheese used in the veg meals that I came to love), the candies they give you on the airplanes, the belief in traditions, the servant’s pampering (especially Matt’s maid Jaya who I adored), morning banana and pomegranate breakfasts, and … the experience as a whole.
The past few weeks were really tough, constantly challenging, and often, depressing. They were maddening at points, sobering at others. Leaving India, I know I likely won’t be back, but wouldn’t trade those weeks for anything in the world…
I’m still wrapping my brain around it all. Sigh…India.