The circle of life: Birth, development, flowering, ageing, death and rebirth. All nature follows the circle, around and around. Even our mighty Sun will eventually burn out, so we’re told.
As individuals we are like drops in the waters of the vast sea of life crashing against the shores of eternity. The mighty Ganges (Ganga) flows and flows on through the ages, and millions upon millions of people are drawn to its banks. Moksha is their aim. Moksha means release from the circle, and never having to return to this painful sphere again. People come here to die, and to have their ashes sprinkled on the Ganga. They believe that this gives automatic liberation.
Death stalks the bathing Ghats, but people do not fear it. Dogs gnaw at limbs on the funeral pyres, but people don’t cringe in disgust. Why should they? This is nature. Everyone and everything is caught up in the cycle. It is all temporary. Let go, and flow.
If you’re planning to visit the Ganges, whether looking for Moksha or just taking in the experience on your way, Varanasi is probably going to be one of the places you end up dropping in on. You can swim in the Ganges, or buy plastic bottles filled with Holy Ganga Water, but keep in mind that lots of different things end up in these waters. Here are some of the highlights of various items we personally found floating in or on the Ganga during our visit:
- Flowers and candles (at night – It is truly quite something to behold)
- Boats and boatmen making a living, day after day amidst death
- People of all sizes, ages and shapes bathing peacefully in the Holy liquid
- Plenty of litter.
- Dead fish, dogs and other creatures
- Ashes of cremated people
- A corpse, still in one piece, bloated, and drifting off on its final journey (the family probably couldn’t afford cremation)
- Soap suds and shampoo foam, and other mysterious foam-like substances
- Various charred body parts
- A couple of ‘Holy men’, alive and well
- Shoes and assorted ‘lost’ items, possibly souls
- Nicci and I drifting happily along in a boat on her birthday eve – a very memorable one.
- Water Buffalo and cows cooling off
- Ducks drifting gracefully through it all
The mighty Ganga bears them on, one and all.
Our path from Darjeeling had led us down the Himalayan foothills, through lush forests and tea plantations, back to Siliguri and then on to Varanasi via an overnight train. Security was strict on the train, and during the night I was woken by an angry rail policeman holding up a packet of cigarettes and shouting accusingly at me in Hindi. (Do these belong to you!? Bloody tourists think they own the place! Or something like that.) My Hindi body-language skills came to the rescue. I smiled, waved innocently, turned around and went back to sleep.
Varanasi is rich in texture, and full of many layers of experience, and one of the best places in the world to intentionally get lost in. The waterfront section is a maze of narrow, confusing passages, and we just walked through, going wherever the path led us. We discovered an incredible music shop, where I played a Sitar for the first time, and we followed a magic milkman, and found some interesting food and Nicci took some of her best photos.
If you’re a tourist you’re going to be hassled, hustled and touted. Take it in your stride, and sometimes you get far more out of it than the hustler does. We had a great experience in Rajastan in this way, but we’ll get to that story in due time.
On the Varanasi Ghats we met “The Undertaker,” Mathu Dom. He had the strangest, most hypnotic blue rims to his Irises and was a master of the old tourist hustle. Clearly a vocation here.
First he appeared in our peripheral vision, sitting on a nearby bench, letting us get used to his presence. Soon he moved over and, and in the most natural and interesting way, started informing us about the customs related to the funerals in Varanasi. Casually and without any tension, he got us interested in the silk weaving industry nearby, and invited us to join him on a walk to explore. We knew soon enough what he was up to, but decided to follow along anyway.
He offered me some betel-nut, and I accepted, knowing full-well the effects. Next thing we knew we were admiring weaving machines and being ushered into the display room. Here we were introduced to Grandpa. Sitting cross-legged and smartly dressed in a room that seemed to be made of fine silk, he began talking to us like we were his own grandchildren. There were kind jokes and well-placed familiarities.
As if in a dream ‘Pure Silk’ sheets were drawn from the mystical shelves and laid at our feet.
Admire this one!
Surely your mother would love this?
I was enthralled by the sophistication of the sales technique, but being a super-tight budget backpacker on a long, long journey, their strategy was always destined to fail in my case. Poverty is a blessing in disguise. Mathu’s judgement from the outset had let him down. I gave him a very small tip for the insight, the entertainment value and the betel nut, and we went off to explore further. I think his ‘bounce-rate’ doubled.
There is another secret world in Varanasi – the rooftops.
Kite flying and pigeon racing is popular here, and on any given day you can sit up on the rooftops admiring the thousands of colourful kites and watching pigeon racers keep an eye out for birds of prey. We even saw a bunch of youngsters playing cricket up there, though the ball was tied up with a string to keep it from landing in the alleyways below. Clever.
Parkour or urban running anyone? This is the place!
The Ancient city of Varanasi is riddled with temples and shrines, including the famous “Golden Temple” which is strictly off-limits to tourists. Scores of Ghats line the waterfront, each dedicated to a particular sect or holy person, and there are two main cremation sites – the popular traditional one, where bodies are burned with sandalwood and other expensive woods, and the new, affordable, ‘electric’ version, which is still less popular. All day and all night souls are peacefully sent off into the hereafter, and life goes on and on in the mystical alleys surrounding the great River.
Varanasi is unforgettable, and it changed me forever, somehow.
Next time the journey leads towards Rishikesh, where the Beatles stayed, via the Capital, Dehli.