Life and Death in Varanasi
ghat view

Life and Death in Varanasi

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Here I am in Varanasi and death is in the air.  It’s not just a figure off speech.  The heart of Hinduism on the banks of the Ganges, Varanasi is not like any other city I’ve been to.  At least the riverside part of it – the city part is just like every big city in India.  Which is to say crazy and fascinating all at the same time.

The temptation would be to compare the riverside to someplace like Venice.  But that would only be for the waterfront orientation of things.

Bathe in the holy waters of the Great Mother and your sins are washed away.  Die and be cremated (which is to say burned, not “made into ice cream” which would be a new twist on death) and achieve moksha and thus stop the endless cycle of birth and death during which you have no choice but to get stuck in traffic and watch reality TV.  Converts to Hinduism, the line starts to the left.

(A bit of a cultural side note: there are no lines in India.  The British gave India many things – some not so good to be sure – such as a more-or-less common language, a legal system, railways, etc., but one of the things that didn’t rub off from 300 years of Britishness was the singular British ability to form a neat and orderly queue.  Last year when the London tube was rocked with bombs, rather than panic, millions of Englishmen (at least as shown by TV footage) appeared to form neat, orderly queues and head not just for the exits but then walk all the way out to London’s suburbs as if they were school kids returning to class from afternoon tea.  India does not have lines.  It’s one of the things that’s a bit confounding as a tourist, particularly one who is – of course – concerned about maintaining the sparkling clean reputation of considerate American travelers abroad.  Just when you think you’re at the front of the amorphous scrum that serves as a line, say at a railway station, someone – or “someones” more often – will slide in front of you from the sides.  There never seems to be any animosity, it’s just a simple fact that Indians are largely unconcerned with an orderly flow of people or vehicles.)

We join this blog update already in progress –

I thought I would end my Indian adventure in Varanasi and thus make it the fitting end of my subcontinental cycle.  To make a long story short, a had a change of plans that involved self-prescribing Tinidazole, and Varanasi made sense as a next step rather than the last one.

 But I digress, which shouldn’t surprise you by now.
The major architectural feature of the city is its riverside ghats which is probably redundant because a “ghat” is a slope or set of steps often near a river.  Look it up if you don’t believe me.  There are dozens of them along the Holy Mother and it is along the riverbank that the city’s hallmark activities take place.  It is here that Hindu devotees (and the occasional overzealous Japanese tourist) take the plunge and bathe in the river.  It really has to be a leap of faith and not just for the mythological side of which god did what with the river.  No, rather the faith one has in bathing in the Ganges must go hand in hand with the city’s other main attraction if you can call it that: the end of the line for Hindus in the form of cremation.  (Again, I was going to say that this has nothing to do with milk or cream or butter, but, in fact, I think ghee is sometimes involved.)  The issue is that as someone who has not, as they say here, “expired” (i.e. “died”) yet (ah, c’mon, it’s inevitable, right?), bathing in the river could easily lead to the deadly side of town: the burning ghats with their funeral pyres.  You see, the holiest water for the world’s billion Hindus (give or take) is also one of the world’s more polluted waterways.
I met a scientist-cum-religious scholar-cum-computer technician yesterday (which probably is not an atypical business card here) who told me that he was doing research on the river and Hinduism and mental processes and mantra vibration (yada, yada, yada) and that this area of India was purified by the earth’s gravitational pull (he told me the exact coefficient (and gave me a banana too) and I’m sure that said number had a “point” and a “three” in it).  Thus, the Ganges was safe to swim in, whereas a dirty river in the south of country was not.  I was thinking that that would make Boston Harbor fine and dandy but surely there’s an X-factor I’m not aware of.
But the city’s lack of hygiene is largely disregarded.  It is one of the few cities in the world (one would hope) where you can see dozens of people doing their wash in the river … within a few short meters of a body being burned.  Likewise, it would seem to be one of the few cities where you can see people swimming and washing themselves not far from a body floating in the river.  But that is the impression that persists about Varanasi: it is largely death and ritual bathing in huge, outlandish, Indian-sized quantities.  In fact, much of the town is fairly tranquil along the water where many of the buildings sit quiet and empty, perhaps inwardly holding their forefingers to their thumbs and chanting “om.”
I expected throngs of faithful running to the water like an old fashioned backwoods baptism.  Not so.  In a few weeks, that may indeed be the case and this may be the quiet before the storm which arrives at the end of the month.  And the burning ghats are a small, small minority of the river real estate.  And for a city so connected to death it is strangely absent of a sense of the macabre.  I met a girl a few weeks ago who had already passed through this neck of the woods and she described Varanasi as “a place where death is beautiful.”  I’m not sure if I’m in full agreement but the air here is a lot cleaner than you’d expect both literally and figuratively.
The death rituals have a certain beauty in themselves but they are not overly clouded by sadness; I have not seen tears here and maybe I need to look harder but with so many funerals, I’d have thought that would be par for the course.  In the way that Varanasi is unique in the world, it may also be the only place where the trees and power lines around crematoria are festooned with kites that met their own (non-fiery) ends there.  A little bit of Charlie Brown comedy in an atmosphere noire.
What I mean to say, in case the metaphor is too oblique, is that here in Varanasi, life and joy take their place right next to death.  People sell chai next to the pyres, nonchalantly tossing aside the terracotta cups, and cows walk up and down the stairs step for step with the untouchables who carry the wood for the fires (it takes surprisingly little for the pyres, but it’s all split and carried by hand).
In the same way, life along the ghats is a grab bag.  As the garland sellers sold strings of marigolds, I got a shave and a haircut (for about two bits, for real) outside in front of the main religious temple and then added on a plein air full body massage for another dollar.  (Fear not good readers, I was clothed this time and there was no oil.  Hopefully you’ve read the previous entries or this will make no sense.  Or it will make sense, but the wrong kind of sense.)  All of this was within arm’s reach of a cow and just as I finished, the very serious evening poojas commenced in the same spot.  With the bell ringing (with audience participation this time), of course.
Where else do you get this?
Varanasi – like no other.