Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Varanasi: India in a Nutshell

Since I can remember gaining an interest and curiosity to this phenomenon that is India, it’s been Varansi that has stuck in my mind after listening to those who’ve been here and spoke of the various places they visited. I don’t know why, since I typically do not care for theatrics, novelties or overdone, showy behavior, but for whatever reason, this idea of the ghats in Varanasi has just intrigued me to point where I felt compelled to witness it, even after I thought I’d left the madhouse cultural extremities for the solitude of rural and Himalayan India. I’m so glad that I took that plunge, even if for only a day, to witness what I can confidently say is a good representation of India in a nutshell, Varanasi.

An inauspicious start to the quick drop-by, I broke one of the most important rules in the travel bible…when taking a rickshaw in a new location, asked to be dropped where YOU want and YOU think you can find your type of accommodation and not where the driver “recommends”. It’s another awful reality of the tourist business in India that these auto rickshaw drivers get hefty commissions by hotel owners to take you from the train/bus stations or airports to their properties. If you’d let them, they’d probably be more than willing to drive around the entire day, dropping you door to door of those on their list, ringing up the rupees with each stop (they still get paid even if you don’t stay). So it’s just really incredibly annoying and you have to firmly insist on them dropping you in a good spot to hunt down the right guest house. So, I was dropped at a real dive, far away from the ghats where the guy showing the room quoted an insanely ridiculous price, thinking I was the moronic, naïve tourist, Varansi being my first stop. But in some it is kinda fun informing them that you know the routine, the rates and then thank them for insulting you while you walk out the door. Sweet justice…but I was still a good mile from the better-value, better-location guest houses and had to hike it.

That night at Puja Guest House I was finally graced by the hypnotic sounds of the sitar, while grabbing a bite to eat on their very high rooftop restaurant. Having linked the sitar and India together, thinking I’d hear it everywhere, it just sounded appropriate as I gazed out over the dimly-lit, misty ghats, guessing what tomorrow had in store for me. “It’s never quite how you image,” I reminded myself.

It’s said that the ghats are best visited and most active at dawn and dusk, with their sultry hues mystically illuminating the, some strange, some commonplace affairs down below in the river. I was up at 6 am, out the door a half hour later and hating every fiber of Varanasi an hour after that. Like the camel safaris in Jaisalmer or yoga in Rishikesh, it’s the dawn/dusk boat rides along the Ganges river in Varanasi, and their on to you like pit bulls your first step out the door. By maybe the 20th time I’d been asked if I wanted a boat ride, I was ready to go back to bed and be done with Varanasi. The droves of boats already on the water, teeming with zombie-like, elderly western tourists snapping photos like the world was ending, didn’t help. But I stuck it out, and I’m glad I did. The boat offers began to settle down, as did my nerves and I began to see what Varanasi was all about.

You really do see all of India down at the Varanasi ghats. Everyday chores like getting a shave or haircut, drinking chai, reading the newspaper are done there. Others are performing fire puja (prayers) ceremonial dancing, meditation or yoga. And still, there are many who exercise their spirituality by bathing, doing the laundry or just going for a swim in the waters of that vile river. The same river in which other ghastly, but reverent acts are performed, like cremations, if you’re important enough and/or your family has enough money (otherwise there’s a good number of those less fortunate who are simply dumped into the river upon their expiring). So, along with various body parts and the ubiquitous sludge of waste present in all rivers in this region of India, people are cleaning themselves, relieving themselves and even brushing their teeth with these holy waters. It’s not that the everyday Indian is this ignorantly unhygienic (though some are), they genuinely and sincerely feel the healing powers of what they consider the most holy and sacred water on the planet. It’s said that if you die or are cremated (or dumped) into the river after you’ve died, the sins of your entire lifetime are cast away and you’re a free soul. So no matter how disgusted you are at what you’re witnessing, you can’t help but admire their passion and dedication to their spirituality. This has been unmistakably and clearly shown throughout my time here!

It’s true, I did come to Varanasi wanting to visit the burning ghats and see a cremation. And so, walking back to my guesthouse later that morning, when I saw men carrying wood down to the river and a large crowd in discussion, I became curious. Then it became evident. There was the body! A little creeped out since I’d seen just a few corpses in my whole life in funerals, there it was, on a bamboo stretcher, decked out in brilliant silken sheets. Choosing not to get into the gory details, the ceremony was all incredibly casual. Maybe it was just this one I happened to witness, maybe I had just built it up too much in my mind. But I couldn’t help but notice all the distractions around that I never imagined would accompany such an event, which ultimately kept my attention from what was happening. As the pyre is up in flames, I couldn’t get away from the smoke wafting in my face from close to a dozen small rubbish fires taking place quite near the central blaze. Pariah dogs are everywhere, rooting through waste. The fire attendant is reading the newspaper, just feet away from a burning corpse. There are men jockeying for my business at their silk shops all the while. People are bathing and swimming in the river, just behind the scene. Everyone was just going about their business like this happened everyday. And I suppose it did happen everyday, and multiple times each day. But not for me. And so there were periods during the roughly two-hour process that left me mesmerized by the significance of what was happening in front of me. But mostly I was struck by how unceremonial it was. Maybe if I had known the honorary subject…

Finally, after a tumultuous and exhausting day, the last event on the agenda was the evening fire ceremony that was supposed to be something to see. And it was something; it was the highlight of my short Varanasi trip. This fire ceremony at the main ghat on the Ganges River was packed with all walks of life, local and international, beggar and affluent. The main attraction was maybe 7 or 8 central performers atop stone pedestals above the river and engaged in a beautifully choreographed dance with candles, incense and large chalices used to intermittently billow large plumes of smoke, all in-sync and all to the beat of wonderful drumming and traditional chanting. Take a look for yourself!

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