Day 191, Sat, Nov. 11, 2000 – We took our last
flight in India to Varanasi. When
we arrived, the taxi driver refused to get us very close to our hotel choice
since it was near the river in the old town.
He had us transfer to a rickshaw, from the back of which we could tell
this was going to be one hell of a town. After
we got out and started into the winding alleys, we understood why the taxi
can’t make it and we were reminded of the old adage that there are two types
of travelers – those that pack light and those that wish they did. We were just light enough to maneuver like two tortoises in
quicksand – from the back, Naomi looked like a backpack with legs.
The old town, inhabited for some 3,000 years, is nothing but winding
narrow alleys constantly stuffed with people, bicycles, motos, goats, cows, and
rats. It is said to be the oldest continually inhabited city on Earth, or as
Twain said it is “older than history, older than tradition, older even than
legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”.
That was written over a hundred years ago, but the only hints at this
century are the honking rickshaws, TV antennas, the occasional cell phone and
the inevitable internet cafes. The first two hotels we picked were full, so we
went to one a traveler in Jaipur told us about.
Puja Guest House turned out to be the best hotel we saw, we got a fine
room for $4 and had a delicious thali and curry dinner on the roof. It was a different world high above the streets, out of the
muck – and the Puja seemed to have the highest roof in the neighborhood,
overlooking the mighty Ganges from two blocks away.
The sun was setting and kites fluttered in the wind all over town.
We sat on the roof with a motley crew of Western students and stoners,
admiring the view and contemplating the history and meaning of the city.
Varanasi is the "coupe de grace", the crowning
touch to the Indian experience. It
is said to be the “spinal cord of India”, and since Varanasi is India in its
most extreme, it is by definition humanity in its most extreme – life and
death, joy and suffering. It is
everything odd, unusual or outrageous that can be found in India all
intensified, exaggerated and rolled into one place. It's the number one example
of the things that Westerners consider private being in public for all the world
to see - from bathing to worshipping to deaths to funerals to cremations. The
city was founded at the only bend in the river where the mighty mother Ganges
flows south to north. The river is
the lifeblood and spiritual center of Hinduism as it actually represents the
goddess Ganga who followed the locks of Shiva’s hair 1,560 miles from the
Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. To westerners, Hinduism is the most complex religion
ever created. As Twain wrote:
“I should have liked to acquire some sort of idea of Hindu theology,
but the difficulties were too great”. The
religion counts some 330 million deities (depending on who’s counting), but
thankfully most of them can be seen as aspects, manifestations and/or
incarnations of the main three, Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver),
and Shiva (the destroyer). Some of the varieties are quite popular like Krishna
the singer and Rama the hero; and some are fearsome like Behairav with sharp
teeth and a necklace of skulls. Behairav’s female equivalent, Durga/Kali is
very popular and requires blood sacrifice according to some worshippers.
Some other gods not in the trinity are also quite popular.
Ganesha the elephant-headed boy is in every home as the god of wisdom and
prosperity and Hanuman, Rama’s faithful monkey companion is the symbol of
loyalty and friendship. The primary objective in Hinduism is to obtain moksha,
or liberation from the natural cycle of rebirths called samsara.
The karma you build through proper behavior and good deeds
determines the quality of your next life. If
you have good karma, you reincarnate higher up the caste system and if
you have bad karma, you go backward, or even into another animal.
Good karma, and eventually moksha, is obtained in three
primary ways: by duty - living properly within your station in (this) life and
respecting the natural order of things (dharma), by knowledge gained
through yoga, meditation, and other lessons taught by your guru; or
devotion to a favorite god through sacrifice, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage,
ritual and offerings (puja). Within these broad categories, there are as
many different ways to salvation as there are gurus – the flexibility of the
religion, and its willingness to focus on all sides of human nature (e.g.
destruction) makes it quite popular with westerners and other seekers.
Unfortunately, you cannot convert to Hinduism – you are either born
Hindu or you are not. Of course, this does not preclude followers from trying to be
better people by practicing some of its precepts (the most popular practices to
catch on in the West have been yoga and meditation). Varanasi is similar to Rome
for Catholics, Jerusalem for Jews and Mecca for Muslims, but it is even
more. For devout Hindus, duty, devotion and knowledge helps reduce
the number of rebirths remaining, but the surest and quickest way to moksha
is to die in Varanasi and have their ashes scattered in the sacred Ganges,
cleansing their soul of all sins and sending them straight to salvation.
It is understandable then that many old and sickly Hindus come here to die,
hoping for their automatic “get out of jail free card” in the karmic game of
On the rooftop, one of the waiters told us that we were
lucky to be in Varanasi on one of the most
auspicious days – a full moon
holiday. We tried to get the name
and significance compared to the recent Diwali celebrations, but couldn’t
really understand. Suffice to say,
there were fireworks over the rooftops as the bright full moon peaked out from
the east and millions of people crowded the streets.
We decided to give it a go and went out into the throngs.
The crowd seemed to be concentrated near the Dasaswamedh
ghat, but we couldn’t get near it as the crowd was chest-to-chest and
barely moving (which to Naomi means face-to-chest).
We got some air in an alley and watched the parade go by.
We could hear some music, cheering and fireworks, but couldn’t see much
(or breathe much), so we headed back to the Puja.
We were afraid to look up as various things were being thrown out the
windows into the alleys and gutters below.
Day 192, Sun, Nov 12, 2000 – We woke in the dark at 5:00 wake for a boat ride along the famous ghats of the Ganges. From the Dasaswamedh ghat we hired a boatman, Ajendra, amongst the dozens of touts pulling at our sleeves. At the early hour, devotees were starting their morning worship, preparing to greet the rising sun across the water. People were working their way down the concrete and stone steps of the ghats to bathe and pray. It was an incredible scene – what Rudyard Kipling called “the greatest spectacle in India”. Of course this is impressive since Kipling was said to have seen numerous spectacles by smoking more than his fair share of hashish during his time in the country. All ages were represented as the local community and thousands of pilgrims came together for the common baths and prayers that holds the Hindu community together tighter than many others in the world. Vendors offer flowers and candles for pujas and paste for tikkas – the various dots, stripes, triangles and crescents denoting the customer’s particular sect. Women seemed to be first in the water, dipping and splashing with saris intact. The kids were heartier, diving in head first from the steps. Some older men paused on the steps first to offer prayers. Everyone repeatedly splashed water over their heads and some plugged their noses as they dipped underwater at least three times. The complete lack of vanity and ego is quite refreshing. There were some westerners at the ghats, some in pajamas following gurus and others at the top of the ghat with cameras and videos. Offerings of gold and yellow marigolds and small candles were floated out and ashes were scattered in the wind to land on the surface, floating briefly before sinking. Some worshippers filled vessels and jars with holy water to be taken home or sent to others who could not make the pilgrimage. As we headed down the river the outline of the banks became clearer, with Hindu temples mixing with Mughal domes, palaces, palaces, and Muslim minarets. The Muslims destroyed temples repeatedly, fearing the power of the Hindu faith – now there is no temple dating from before the 18th century. Many of the ghats are dedicated to particular faiths, sects or are owned by princes and maharajas. The higher caste worshippers have white sashes across their chests to distinguish them from the masses. In addition to ritual dips and prayers, we saw plenty of full-on soap lathering and shampooing, adding suds to the mixture of pujas from today and the debris remaining from last night’s festival. At some ghats yoga and gymnastics were the specialties while others were dedicated entirely to laundry, with special rocks set up to smash the clothes on to. There is a special sub caste dedicated to this function.
After about 30 minutes, the sky to the east brightened pink and the sun poked through. The light was brilliant on the ghats, but the river that was just minutes before a glistening glassy surface was transformed into a muddy brown mess, thick with offerings, ashes and other pollution. No matter how it appears to the eye (and nose), to Hindus it is as pure and holy as the day Shiva poured it down from his home in the Himalayas. This in spite of the uncremated bodies (babies, pregnant women and cholera victims) dumped in the river over the centuries. According to the World Health Organization, human and animal waste has caused the level of faecal coliform to be 250,000 times the maximum safe level. As with the rest of earthly life, this is just a worldly illusion that hides the true nature of the river – it is simply a matter of faith much like the Christian belief in miracles or God having a reason for earthquakes. An old man was straining to row a boat with a dead cow tied to it, passing by a couple of guys swimming.
stopped at Manikarnika, the oldest and most sacred burning ghat to watch the
ceremony that frees the soul from the body.
From Ajendra’s boat we stepped out to hear the well-rehearsed
explanation from a man on the ghat. There
are about 150 cremations per day here, about 10 at a time.
With about 20 kg of sandalwood it takes about 3 hours to burn a body. The body is first brought down to the river on a bamboo
stretcher, dressed in white, so a few drops of the Ganges can be placed in its
lips. A male relative ignites the
fire and walks around the pyre 5 times. It
is a very somber but businesslike episode.
Stacks of firewood surround the ghat and scales are used to determine the
charge for cremation. There is a
house overlooking the ghat where indigent people waiting to die live.
The “guide” claimed to be collecting money for their firewood, as it
is very expensive to be set free here. As
our boat pulled away, dogs were digging around for food and kids were sifting
the ashes for jewelry or coins that may have been burned with the body.
We asked if this is considered a desecration and Ajendra said once a body
is cleansed by the fire nothing can hurt it.
Not five minutes later we watched the opposite end of the spectrum as a
young mother in a dripping wet sari was joyfully dabbing her baby with water
from the river as the father was standing behind making the baby laugh.
A boat passed us with a bunch of Asian tourists who had placed their hats
over their hearts as they watched the ghat.
Ten meters away we noticed an old man sprawled out on the steps of the
ghat, shoes kicked off nearby and head thrown back.
He could have been sleeping, but something told us otherwise.
Ajendra said he was probably dead and he must be here without any family
or friends to look after him. As
advertised, in just two hours the river had provided complete and sometimes
harsh realities of life. It was
like watching a live Breughal painting, with twists of Bosch.
After the boat ride, it was only 7:30 so we stopped at the
popular Ganpati Guest House for breakfast.
A tourist said the guy on the steps had been there for two days and he
was complaining about how unsanitary it was.
From the balcony we could see people bathing and drinking and kids
picking up pieces of broken clay oil lamps around the man’s feet.
Our hunger dissipated quickly.
On the way back to our guesthouse we stopped at the Vishwanath temple, the most famous in Varanasi. It was built in 1776 and is topped with 800 kg of gold plating on its spire, but the interior is closed to non-Hindus. It was too hot to walk around the streets, so we hired a rickshaw to take us 10 km outside of town to Sarnath. After experiencing the holiest place in Hinduism, we wanted to visit one of the holiest in Buddhism. After the former Prince Siddhartha Gautama wandered alone as an aesthetic and fasted for years, his enlightenment (“nirvana”) concluded that there is a “middle way” between the extremes of pleasure and the pain of suffering caused by greed, desire, selfishness and worldly attachment. The way to salvation was called the “Eightfold Path” and consisted of wisdom (right views and intent), morality (right speech, conduct and livelihood), and mental discipline (right effort, mindfulness and meditation). This was the basis of his “Sermon in Deer Park” at Sarnath in 528 BC to just 5 disciples. It was revolutionary because it dispensed with the Hindu pantheon of gods and put salvation in the individual’s hands – there is no permanent “soul” because one’s essence continually changes through rebirth until it achieves nirvana – the end of desire and extinction of “self” – a sort of peaceful melding with the oneness of the universe. Three hundred years after the sermon, the religion was so popular that Hindu emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism and erected several monuments in the area, some of which remain, but most are in ruins. Buddhism eventually declined in the country of its birth, but expanded to most of Asia in one form or another. There are still deer in a fenced enclosure. Some say they are descendents (biological and/or spiritual) of the original deer and their human companions. They did seem very friendly and accustomed to visitors as they walked right up to us to take grass from our hands. We also saw witnessed an incredible example of inter-species cooperation as a deer allowed a crow to peck the insects of its face and mouth. It reminded us of the way monkeys clean each other, but with rebirth the topic of the day, the could easily have been a barber or dentist last time. The nearby temple contains fearsome paintings of Siddartha's temptations by a Japanese artist - they look like bad guys in naga comic books, offset by the peaceful gaze of the prince in meditation.
In the garden stands a tree that was
descended (by graft) from the original tree of enlightenment. We only got 5 minutes under the Bodhi tree, but we each need
at least 5 more lifetimes to obtain a reasonable level of calm and patience –
the kind of inner peace we see in all kinds of people in India.
When we left, our rickshaw driver had abandoned us (he probably got tired of
waiting) so we hired another guy. He was a riot – honking his horn and
spitting betel nut juice through his blackened teeth all the way back to
Varanasi. At one point, he plucked
a banana off a fruit cart as we drove by and gave it to a beggar with a robust
laugh. Back at Puja Guest
House, there were more kites from the roof at sunset.
The fluttering was such a counterpoint it reminded us of the scene in
the film "American Beauty" where the film of a plastic bag tumbling in the wind reminded a
kid of all the beauty in the world. We
had another incredible dinner with tabla and flute music in the background and
headed to the burning ghats again. A
young guy befriended us saying he “just wanted to share his culture with us
without money”. He took us up to the house for indigents and we gave two
crumpled old women some money. They
certainly seemed to be on the way out so they needed the money for the firewood.
We watched from the windows as the low-caste doms poked at the
fires with long poles, turning bodies, and stoking fires.
Five minutes later our “friend” was asking for “guide fees” for
his services and we got in a heated discussion about honesty and integrity
before walking away. Maybe we need to go back to Sarnath for some meditation.
Day 193, Mon, Nov 13, 2000 – After yesterday’s long day, we slept in, and then headed to Dasaswamedh ghat again. On the steps, there appeared to be more sick, blind and lame people than yesterday. We also saw some Sannvasi, wandering beggars who in old age having provided for the families have abandoned their homes to become pilgrims in the twilight of their lives. Men were also getting shaves, massages and several circles of women were socializing and tending to offerings in the center of the circle. Worshippers were improving their karma by giving money to a line of beggars along the steps. We somehow came across Ajendra again. As we gingerly stepped across several boats to get to his, we saw a Gandhi look-alike getting his head shaved and a Charles Manson look-alike staring into the distance.
This time we went all the way to the end of the ghats before turning back, passing all five ghats that pilgrims traditionally must visit in sequence. As it was later in the day than yesterday, the sun was brighter, bringing out the colors on the ghats. In the middle of the day, laundry was everywhere as washers were working their asses off for maybe $1 for the day creating a rainbow mosaic up the hill of the ghats. We shared a laugh with some local tourists along the way.
After the boat ride, we walked up the steps, giving to the beggars, and walked through the attached fruit and vegetable market. The crowded nearby chowks were full of perfumes, embroidery, silks, copper, brassware, candies and hardware. Cows were munching on newspapers and puja offerings meant for the gods. They are so oblivious that one butted Naomi as she walked by, nearly knocking her over. The trash and shit has started to pile up since it appears the streets haven't been cleaned since the festival started. Several times we had to squeeze to the side of the narrow alleys or step into doorways to let funeral processions pass by, white-shrouded bodies garlanded with flowers held high on bamboo stretchers. The bearers would chant Ram Nam Satya Hai (“God’s name is truth”).
We bought some books and luggage locks for the train ride tonight. Before leaving, we had a huge lunch on the roof – the Puja Guest House had consistently served us some of the best food we’ve had in India. We said goodbye to the staff and walked the maze to a rickshaw for the station. There was only a small delay this time and we boarded, sharing a cabin with a wonderful older couple. The husband offered us tea and an Asia Week magazine he had been reading because I had asked him about Sonia Gandhi’s chances in the next election. He said it is very difficult to break the cult of personality in India, especially the esteemed Gandhi/Nehru dynasty. It is particularly hard to have a reasonable democracy with so much illiteracy and ignorance in the rural areas. He was very kind and interesting to talk to, we even covered the Rajkumar saga, which amused him as much as it amused me. He asked about our election, but I told him it was up to lawyers now, and he said “is that not the American way?” As we settled in for the long ride, we finished some books we had been carrying like “Asia through the Back Door” and a book of Gandhi’s quotes.
Day 194, Tues, Nov 14, 2000 – Our overnight was very comfy and we arrived in Delhi at 6:00 AM, We spent the day on administrative matters like writing and searching for a PCM network card for the PC. We finally found one and had it installed. At the hotel, the girls at the bakery counter remembered us from our chocolate binges (unfortunately, so does the scale in our bathroom).
Day 196, Thur, Nov 16, 2000 - 8:45 taxi to the
airport. We leave India in sadness after a great three weeks of memories.
The country is so vast and complex 3 weeks is barely enough to scratch
the surface. The surface we see is
much as anticipated – it’s not at all hard to wipe off a dusty layer and see
the gems inlaid over the past centuries by incredible cultures and peoples.
If you would like to follow our adventure to Nepal, please click here: Photojournal November 17 - December 1, 2000.
If you have any comments, suggestions, or other feedback, please see our contact information and send us a note.
Thanks for your support!