Thursday, May 31, 2012

Varanasi - The City of Life & Death

RJ Fry

Text - RJ Fry
Images - Daniel Baum

It's not yet 5am and the city is remarkably still, not quite silent but a stark contrast from the usual chaos and post-dawn rumblings. In a strange way, this eerie silence makes it feels like the whole world is asleep - not just Varanasi. Footsteps shuffle in the distance as incense burns behind closed doors. Slowly but surely, the signs of a new day are upon me.

"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

Locals like to tell foreigners that Varanasi is the oldest city in the world. Although this claim is disputed by scholars, at the very least it's over 3,000 years old. When you consider that Kuala Lumpur was only founded in 1857, it really puts things into perspective. First impressions feel more Arabian than Indian, with timeless qualities perhaps more old testament than new.

After wandering aimlessly from my guesthouse, I'm lost rather quickly in the giant labyrinth that the locals call the old city. The rather simple task of 'go outside, find water' has become a rodent-like quest for cheese in a mad scientist's laboratory. 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 - The Ganges. 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 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 exhausted mother. 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 alongside lost brothers and sisters at their mother's teat. The tired mother barks a wordless woof, no 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 or jeering. I think I'll stick to the shallow end when I go for the plunge, there's no way I'll be dunking my head.

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 only the polite thing to do. I buy five candles in total, and watch them drift off into Mother Ganga. 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 this most sacred water.

I descend slowly into the murky muddy waters, accompanied by a mob of widows and a few pilgrims for good measure. Unlike me, they have all brought soap along, complete with little toiletry dishes, no doubt an attempt to counteract the filth and grunge that becomes more apparent with each minute passing.

Step by slippery step, and before long the water has reached my chest. I lift it in my hands and release it back into the river, as others around me are doing. The colour and consistency puts me in mind of French onion soup, but not the good kind. I go out a little further, to where there's no steps and open water. At once  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.

Bathing on the ghat is an out of body experience. The feeling is like being lost in an alien land, left behind as the spaceship takes off. Taking part in this ritual, something that has been going strong each day (60,000+ pilgrims) for thousands of years is something I had to experience. I promised myself that I wouldn't leave India without doing so, regardless of any hazardous health aspects soon to plague my subcontinent safari.

Making my way back to my room for a shower, a self-appointed tour guide informs me that this city was a gift from Shiva to his wife as a wedding present, earning it the nickname of 'honeymoon city.' I learn of a festival that is held each February, where the town is overflowing with drunken lovers and bhang lassi is served discreetly from many guesthouses. A city of rooftops, the only thing missing from this enchanting place is a flying carpet.

Varanasi is a veritable melting pot of Indian culture and for centuries many elderly people in India have chosen to live out their final days in Varanasi. I learn that dying here isn't the passport to heaven I believed it to be, as to escape the cycle of rebirth one must pass away only during the 'festival of the dead,' or Pitru Paksha. These fifteen days differ each year as they're determined by astrology and while the chances of passing away within these dates are minuscule, it's also a chance to honour the spirits of deceased relatives and to keep evil spirits at bay.

Despite that early morning dip in what would politely be described as human soup, the gloomy image of inevitable death I had to come to associate with Varanasi has long since passed. While you can't help but notice the houses for sick and dying around town, or witness the riverside cremations (some of the more popular ghats cremate 200 bodies a day), you get the sense that celebrating life is an everyday affair too. Walk down any street and you're bound to hear laughter, see smiles and feel the forces of life tugging at your sleeve.

Temples can be found in every corner of the city, some of them several thousands of years old. The ghats that line the riverside are also numerous, while the burning ghats themselves are a sight to behold with naked bodies burning in full view of bystanders. The dearly beloved gather, while their deceased relatives lay on the ground, belching out fumes from beyond the grave.

Taking a step back from the mourning family members, I see pilgrims watching on, many of whom bathe on the steps of these ghats daily. It's not just a spectacle, but a ritual thousands of years strong and i'm more than thankful for such an authentic experience.

While the city is still waking up, I decide to indulge my inner-tourist and take a boat ride up this fabled river. At only an hour long, it feels like I spent more time bargaining with the vendor than I did on the water. As the rickety boat makes its way up and down the river, I spot a skull floating alongside us. Dislodged from its former body and bobbing up and down in the murky water, I laugh to myself and think there's no way I'll ever swim here again - no matter how sacred this water is!

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