Monday, June 6, 2011

A Vagabond in Varanasi


"Benares (Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." - Mark Twain

Earlier this year, I found myself in Varanasi. This was my first adventure on the Indian subcontinent, and in typical vagabond style, I planned nothing ahead of time. I envisioned a quick stopover for one or two nights, nothing fancy, before trudging onward to New Delhi – a grueling train journey that can last upwards of 24 hours! After my first breakfast curry, and listening to a passionate call to prayer as I watched the sun slowly rising – I knew I wouldn't be going anywhere in a hurry.

My Dad had always told me that when he died, he wanted me to take his ashes to Varanasi and scatter them in the Ganges river, to do this he said was 'a passport to heaven.' I later learned that there are only fifteen days each year (determined by astrology) known as the 'festival of the dead' in which one can escape the cycle of rebirth, and the doorway to Nirvana is opened. While the chances of dying within this window of opportunity are less than five percent, many elderly people in India choose to live out their final days in Varanasi, in the hopes that they'll be in the lucky minority. 

There are many houses for the sick and dying in town, and with some of the more popular ghats cremating up to 200 bodies on any given day, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Varanasi is all doom and gloom. While death may be an everyday affair, life is too, something which people often forget. Walk down any street and you're bound to hear laughter, see smiles and feel the forces of life tugging at your sleeve.

Locals like to tell foreigners that Varanasi is the oldest city in the world, and while this claim may be disputed by scholars, the city has been continually inhabited for at least 3000 years. Legend has it that Shiva gifted this city to his wife as a wedding gift, earning it the nickname of 'honeymoon city.' A festival is held during February/March each year, coincidentally landing on Valentine's Day. The town is awash with drunken lovers, and bhang lassi (think marijuana milkshake) flows freely. Don't be surprised to see locals pouring tea or whiskey for a seemingly invisible person, this is Shiva's city and these offerings are a sign of respect. 

After two weeks in town, I decided to do as the locals do, and bathe in the holy river. The Ganges river is the holiest river in all of India, and is known in circles as the 'Hindu heartbeat.' Over two million pilgrims bathe in the waters each day, with around 60,000 in Varanasi alone. I decide to live in the moment, shake off the numerous warnings I have received both at home and abroad, and go for an early morning dip.

At 5am, the city is still, but stirring slightly into life. The sun has not yet awoken from its slumber, and almost immediately I get lost in the giant labyrinth that is the old city. Dressed in only board shorts and a towel, I look everywhere for a ghat, the descending steps that make their way into India's holiest river. Instead I meet a Sadhu, one of India's wandering holy men, not to mention a Varanasi staple.

I remark to him upon the similarity of both our styles. We both have long shaggy hair, scraggly beards and are dressed in little to nothing, him a glowing orange robe wrapped snug around his midsection and myself in the aforementioned board shorts. He just smiles though, bows his head slightly and presses his palms together to say, "Namaste." A traditional stance/greeting found throughout India, and not just with the holy men.


He opens his eyes slowly, and in a voice befitting a wise prophet, he asks in perfect English, "which country are you from?" I tell him Australia, and when I do he does what everyone else does in India - he mentions cricket. He is disgusted with the 'underarm incident' and asks me about Shane Warne's apparent lack of morals. He stops mid-rant, interrupted by the yelp of an animal in distress. It appears my tour of the temple is over, and we spend the next five minutes collecting lost puppies for their tired mama. I find a tiny puppy, black and white but shivering with the cold, her eyes are closed firmly - perhaps not yet open. I place the puppy amidst long lost brothers and sisters at their mother's teat. The tired mother barks a wordless woof, do doubt canine for 'thanks.'

I make my way to a nearby ghat, with directions from a bemused German backpacker. Last year a western man died after drinking water from the Ganges while swimming, so any effort to bathe in these polluted waters is met with disbelief. I think I'll stick to the shallow end. With all the remaining notes in my pocket, I buy floating flower pots in which I can light a candle for each member of my family. The kids push me to buy an extra pot for Lord Shiva, and as it's his city, I decide it's the polite thing to do. I buy five candles in total, and watch them drift off into oblivion. The soundtrack to the Ganges at this time in the morning is a slow repetitive drumbeat, with collective prayers of the faithful and the constant scoop and splash of the sacred water.

I descend slowly into the murky muddy waters, accompanied by a mob of widows and a few pilgrims too. They have all brought soap, complete with little soap dishes, no doubt an attempt to counteract the filth and grunge that becomes more apparent with each minute passing. Step by slippery step, I descend, and before long the water has reached my chest. I lift it in my hands and release it back into the river, the colour and consistency puts me in mind of French onion soup. I go out a little further, to where there's no steps and open water. I hear the sounds of people yelling from the ghats, and look back to see a concerned party of pilgrims pointing to a 'no swimming' sign, but alas it's in Hindi.

It is at this point that my brain feels the need to remind me that along the 7km stretch of river that runs through town, there are over 30 sewers pumping out last night's masala dosa. As I remember a disembodied skull that was bobbing up and down beside the boat, only days earlier on a sunset cruise – I decide abruptly that it's time to dry off.

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