India wakes early and Varanasi is no exception – at dawn the eastern sky above the sandy floodplain shines pink and the ghats, ancient stone steps on the edge of the Ganges, Hinduism’s holiest river, are glowing and already abuzz with life.
From the hotel roof terrace we see devotees in the water’s edge at Mansorovar Ghat – they’ve been up for hours and take three rapid immersions of their heads in the brown, petal strewn water, circular ripples radiating each time they surface.
It’s a Sunday, there’s no school, and boys are busy flying purple paper kites. Lines of buffalo with curled horns are being washed. Boats lined with chanting devotees chug past. The town is loud with ancient Sanskrit verses on its speakers.
A single fleck of neon pink suddenly lights up, like a switch, in the eastern haze and in under a minute, it has grown to a bright pink disk. Temple bells resound. Sun salutations are given. The Sun God, Surya, arrives once again.
The narrow alleys of Varanasi
The narrow, paved pathways down to the river form a labyrinthine maze of small simple shop fronts, family rooms behind flaking brickwork and carved wooden doors, all jostling for space assigned thousands of years ago.
Ignore the occasional motorbike and the spaghetti of electric wires overheard, and there’s a certain timelessness about the alleys, just a scent of walking here in ancient times.
Getting lost is inevitable, but finding your way to the river is easy – just ask a local, “Ganga?” and he’ll point you there.
We stumbled across a man energetically pounding fruit to a pulp in a metal beaker with a pestle, beside him a large bowl of creamy yoghurt.
This is the Blue Lassi, the best lassi (yoghurt) shop in town, served in a wide range of flavours in small earthenware bowls. Service is quick and the range of flavours, chocolate, banana, mango and strawberry when in season toname a few is broad.
The Blue Lassi is a humble, one room cafe, about ten square metres, with two benches and walls lined with passport photos of contented backpackers. I order an apple and banana lassi – it’s sweet, tangy with a cool and creamy texture.
All the customers are visibly tourists and I sit next to Alan from Los Angeles. He found himself a few years ago, after searching for that missing thing after a messy divorce. He needed, in his words, “to be humbled” and a friend introduced him to Hinduism. Now instead of a wife, he has a yogi. He shows me pictures on his phone, his trip to Rishikesh and including the place of Buddha’s first sermon a few miles away. We finish our yoghurts down to the last wooden scoopful.
A bamboo stretcher passes a few feet in front of the lassi shop on the way to the cremation ghat. The corpse is female for it is clothed in bright colours and glittering gold tinsel.
A black bull is next, rushing past. Alan said he saw that day a cow pissing and someone hold the stream of urine in his cupped hands and refresh his face with it. We discuss the possible rationales for this. As a child I once went to a Hare Krishna temple in Letchmore, England, where the monks held a fair for janmastami, the birthday of Lord Krishna. One of the stalls was lined with rows of one litre bottles filled with yellow cow’s urine selling for for £1 each. When I enquired about the product’s benefits, he said it was a good antiseptic, household use and good for the skin. Such is the power of belief. Even science at one time believed that gold could be made by boiling down urine.
Down a sloping lane is a small, almost bare shop, where a man, a government worker, in a neat white shirt sits behind a metal grill.
Don’t fall for it. This man is a drug dealer. He should be locked up. Actually he probably already is, holed up behind that grill.
Next to him is a small tray of hand-rounded black spheres, the size of squash balls. This is the Government Bhung Shop. Bhung being Hindi for cannabis resin, or dope. This is not just dope, but public sector, licensed dope. This is civil-servant drug dealing with local taxes extra.
A man with a bunch of Indian flags in his arm stops by, taking a break from climbing walls and lampposts where he attaches the flags in high places to line the narrow alleys for the Prime Minister’s visit. He buys a ball of dope and walks off, ready for another kind of work in high places. I hope he doesn’t meet the Prime Minister – being stoned is not a career advancing move.
Getting gored by a bull
We explore the alleys. Suddenly something hits my left hip and look down to see a black bull’s head give me a hard butt with its horns. It looks like it’s coming for me again and for a moment, I panic. A woman shouts that the black colour of my rucksack provokes it, so I take it off and rush in to a shop. I may have screamed.
My mind flits to those movies where the lead character gets stabbed but carries on unawares for a few moments until a big red patch fills his spotlessly white shirt at which point he collapses and either dies or, if it’s an Indian movie, there’s another hour when the hero has enough time to find out that the bandit who’s just stabbed him is his long lost brother – preferably of another religion. They then settle their differences, perhaps make a song and dance, and join forces for the final gunfight, when the hero can finally die of the pre-intermission stab wound before telling his childhood sweetheart of his undying love for her.
I check under my belt for any sign of blood. There is none, just a bruise on my left hip bone. The bull has scarpered after trying to munch at the marigold garland I was wearing which now lays snapped on the ground. My panic has made people laugh and I feel a little stupid.
“It was not a bull,” Sarah tells me.
“It so was a bull,” I reply.
“It had a calf with it.”
“Men can look after babies.”
“It had an udder,”she said.
I didn’t retort with a men-can-have-boobs-too argument. I just felt even more stupid.
Samosas hot and delicious
To recover from being gored, we buy freshly fried samosas filled with steaming, spicey potatoes, served in small cones of newspaper.
We eat them sitting in the shade of the ghats, staring out on the shimmering Ganges.
Two cows size up our food with hopeful, sparkly black eyes. This is now an unnerving experience. Cows are worshipped and revered. By me, they’re watched very carefully for any signs of a potential charge. And to think, I’ll never ever wear marigold garlands in front of a cow again.
Life and death on the ghats
Those who take the time to sit back, slow down to the pace of the flow of the Ganges, are rewarded with a glimpse of Gangetic life.
The Mount Everest cafe is atop a straight flight of stone steps, steep and narrow, like the ones of the temples of Angkor Watt, but here, at the top is a table and plastic chairs where the owner makes and serves simple dishes and Indian style coffee (granulated, milky and sweet) in small earthenware pots.
Ganges life unfolded to us like a tapestry. A young cowherd swims along his line of cattle, lovingly washing their faces, and beating their rears with a bamboo stick when they get out of line.
Children fly purple kites, which flit and dance trying to cut the lines of opponents, with string laced with dust made from crushed glass.
A line of flat stones make tiny platforms that protrude on to where the dhobies wash clothes. Not just wash, but beat the living daylights out of them, thus keeping the Indian cotton industry alive. You see, it’s a cycle of death and rebirth and that includes cotton garments.
Remarkably, very few soap suds are used and discharged in to the river, for much of the washing is done beforehand in a bucket which is emptied elsewhere. The river is there for the asssault before they are flat dried on stone and folded neatly Washing machines? Who needs them?
The ghats are alive with hawkers of boat trips, silks and postcards, some that pinch your shoulders and ask if you want a massage, tricksters and con men ply their ruses. Some stoop to introduce tourists to people on their death beds (actors) and con them out of thousands of rupeees to pay for the pyre wood.
We take a rowing boat where the multiple ghats and different coloured buildings align in a classic linear view. The air is breezy and cool. We pass the make-shift shack of a holy man, on the near empty eastern bank which will be underwater in a few months when the Ganges will be swelled by glacial meltwaters and the monsoon. Hundreds of silver fish fry jump along the top of the waves and nearby a dog chews at the guts of an inflamed dead buffalo, an island for flies. The circle of life in a single glance.
“We’re off to Kolkata,” jokes the boatman when I take the oars, it’s tricky for they are assymettical and held by nylon rope, before letting him skilfully row to a berth between two dhobis.
The cremation ghats of Varanasi
The ghats are full of wonders but also of death. To die in Varanasi is to attain moksha and Manika Karnika Ghat is said to be the holiest place in the world for a Hindu cremation. The place is smaller and less somber than I had imagined. It’s kept open all day and night, and people are walking past getting on with their lives, washing their cows, a radio blaring music, boatmen touting. There is little open grieving, but a functional place.
The pyres are built from stacks of wood brought by boats and weighed on metal scales. A body shrouded in white is brought to the ghats on a bamboo stretcher, immersed in the river briefly and placed between two brick supports on a stack of wood. The attendant lights it and adds the ghee, soon yellow flames rise and consume the pyre. It burns fiercely and bends the light hazing a distant bridge. More ghee is added. Grievers, tourists and hawkers look on. As the conflagration dies down and the wood turns to embers, charred parts of the body appears. A foot, an elbow. With the shroud and firewood burnt away, this appears too intimate and I avert my gaze to the river. A young man climbs the steps to tells me of his dying relative close by.
The aarti: a Ganga ceremony
Every day at 6pm, an aarti, a ceremony of worship, chanting of prayers and hymns, takes place over two hours. Butter lamps are sent downstream, seven priests hold flames and incense and move them in animated and synchronised fashion. Lines of boats look on. Devotees throng to touch the holy flames for a brief second, or pull the bells on strings, the rhythm of the chants uptempo and reaching a crescendo with the blowing of seven conch shells their shrill sounds heard far and wide. People have come from afar to be here. Their faces shine with alertness and belief.
The Vishwanath Temple is the main temple of Varanasi. A visit to the inner sanctum, topped with almost a tonne of gold on its dome, is said to cure all sins. to. A long line of pilgrims holding garlands, bags of cashew nuts, small packets of holy ash or earthen pots of watery milk topped with purple petals wait uncomplainingly, despite jostles and a near crush.
As a foreigner I’m called a VIP – this means I can queue jump and I’m ushered in to room at the temple entrance where my phone, sandals, watch and bags are put in a metal locker.
Lines of worshippers get a glimpse of the Shiva lingum before being ushered along by the police. Bells are rung. A thumb print of ash is placed by a Brahmin on my forehead. I’m allowed to keep a garland and a packet of cashews.
The inner sanctum atmosphere is far from austere. It’s frantic. People are rushed along by the police in front of the idol, just enough time to touch it and place flowers on it before being pulled by the shoulders by the old bill. It’s a fair cop. It’s no place reflection or silent contemplation. There’s a 200 metre queue waiting.
God for the believers is proximate. The back of the temple, under its carved pillars affords relative quietness and here people can rest. A woman sits by a black statue of a bull, the God Nandi, Siva’s bull, and in her own slow time, kisses his ear with intimacy.
Soldiers shoot me
Soldiers were everywhere on the ghats because of the Prime Minister’s visit to this, his home town, which a few are starting to call, with tongue in cheek, Modhi-nagar.
Three soldiers approach me dressed in commando fatigues, with automatic rifles tangential to their waist. I told them whatever it was, it wasn’t me and that I don’t approve of random searches. Is it because I’m brown? (Actually that doesn’t work in a country of 1.2 billion people of various shade of brown.)
It turned out they just wanted a selfie.With me? Middle-aged white-collar worker. The mind boggles.
In India, some things make the mind boggle, other things just bamboozle, perplex and confound.
Onward to Kolkata.