Describing the indescribable – a visit to Varanasi
With the advent of various newfangled airlines, it has become much easier to travel in India. What in the seventies used to take 16 hours from Delhi to Varanasi by train for example, takes nowadays a mere hour by plane. This helps the traveler to have some energy left when embarking upon arrival.
Varanasi’s airport is simple but functions. Prepaid taxis are available and after a short wait in a queue, we are assigned a broken-down ancient Ambassador with a 16 year-old driver and a geriatric malik (Hindi for owner; originally god) who displays betel-stained teeth when he smiles. The teenage driver livens up the drive by honking furiously, coughing up phlegm and opening his door to spit when he is not busy talking on his mobile phone. We watch the road for him. Viewed from the plane the area around Varanasi looked very pastoral, green, fairly tidy. Once seen at eye level the squalor is evident.
The malik tells us ahead of time that we will have to walk the last bit of road to the hotel. We have a hunch he has no idea where it is. The closer we get into the city the more nightmarish the traffic on the thoroughly broken roads becomes. Suddenly in the middle of a busy road the taxi stops and we get dropped off without much further explanation. Anatto, a suitcase in each hand starts walking into the direction that has been vaguely indicated. Everybody we ask for directions to Mansarovar Ghat beams a friendly smile and indicates to just keep going along the same road.
Thousands of people seem to be walking the same path, which we assume is to the main ghat, Dashwamedh. After about a hundred meters we set eyes on a policeman and he too waves us in the same direction. The amount of people seems to increase by the minute, as sunset is not too far off and it is getting cooler and more pleasant. A porter joins us and makes off with both suitcases which he places on a dirty towel on top of his head. Suddenly we are surrounded by a crowd of western tourists walking behind a guide carrying a flag. We fall in and feel curiously protected for a little while. Nobody seems to notice that we are not originally with this party; they walk like robots not looking right or left. We continue for a while until the porter shows signs of fatigue. We see a free bicycle rickshaw and after a short and intense discussion between porter, rickshaw wallah and Anatto, who tries to negotiate the fare, we mount our bodies and suitcases on top and turn around to approach the Mansarovar Ghat via a different angle.
The porter leads us through Muslim quarters where silk saris are being produced – several new saris are hanging like long gaudy banners down the fronts of the surprisingly high buildings. The roads are getting narrower and we haven’t got a clue where we are. We feel quite lost while the porter frequently asks for further directions, and the really nice rickshaw wallah either pushes his bike or works it like an athlete. After many more turns we stop at a tiny alley where even the bicycle rickshaw can’t get into, and I wait while Anatto and our two heroes disappear down that little road to find out if our hotel is indeed there. I feel in a total state of trust that this indeed will be the hotel, and a good one at that. And lo, Anatto returns and grins a thumbs up; we pull the suitcases a little uphill and the Ganga is right in front of us, low down in the river bed. The door to a nicely painted and well-kept red brick building is wide open and we enter a cool hallway.
Mr. Tandonji, a Brahmin, greets us and urges us to sit down and recover. “Why did you not tell us to pick you up?” he asks almost accusingly. I tell him of the difficulties we had in booking via the website and didn’t know that pick-up was an option. We settle down into a meditative mood when he welcomes us with “You are now at home, please be relaxed.” He slowly introduces us to life at his mansion, now more than 100 years old and a guest house only since the last 6 years after all of his five kids married and left. Filling in a huge ledger and a couple of forms takes it’s time too. The nephew is introduced who is happily reciting in detail the various trips he can organize for us.
We finally troop up the staircase to our room located on the top floor; it is very clean and tidy with three French windows opening up to a long narrow balcony overlooking the Ganga. An assortment of boats is tied up on the shore. Down the river we can just about make out the smoke and fires at Manikarna Ghat, an ancient ghat which is said to be existing from the times of Ramayana; it is famous as a cremation ground and allegedly the fire on this ghat has not stopped for the last thousand of years.
The bed comes equipped with a large mosquito net hanging from the stucco ceiling, there’s a beautiful antique carpet, and a clean small en-suite bathroom. On the wall there’s also a cuckoo clock built in the best Black Forest fashion, showing Mickey and Minnie Mouse; blessedly it never gets wound up.
We wake up just as the sun rises exactly opposite from our bed. Many fairly large boats are already out with tourists and smaller boats selling drinks and trinkets accompany them like feeder fish a whale. Sadhus and locals appear at the ghats for their baths and morning absolutions. Observing all this from our balcony, we also see a tall Caucasian man who prepares a little meditation seat on top of a low stone tower and sits down facing the sun. We see green parrots flying around the tree in front of the guest house and the first dhobi of many appears to whack the life out of the stone washboards that dot the shore.
And it is now that the early morning chai and hot buttered toast we’ve been craving for such a long time is being served! Afterwards we take a walk along the Ganga to the main ghat – several locals have set up shop and offer head massages, others sell trinkets. On one slanted wall piles of cow dung are drying in the sun right next to the laundry, and many goats are ambling about. Water buffalos are lying in the shallow waters near the shore, a dead body floats by in the middle of the stream. Boats pass, people swim, and then soap up profusely before rinsing off. A paint mark about 15 meters above ground up on a wall shows how high the water rose in 1968. Incredible to imagine the sheer volume of water to have caused this.
We head up to the central market but it is too crowded for us to walk between the shoppers, the sellers with their wares spread out on the street, motorbikes, bicycles, cows. We see a man still damp from his dip praying in a small shrine, another is having his beard shaved sitting on one of the steep stairways leading up from one of the ghats into the maze of streets hidden from sight. We feel dazed.
For hours we sit on the balcony behind the chicken wire that is installed all around the balcony, watching life unfold. We observe the large crows fly by in their freedom – the roles are reversed. Pigeons, sparrows, green parrots with orange beaks, huge orange-coated monkeys with red asses come along –they are the main reason for the protective chicken wire.
The next morning we are out before sunrise and climb into a small boat. Among the thousands of worshippers and sadhus we also see young Israelis, Koreans, some Japanese, a few Europeans, western sadhus, lots of freaks. Passing the burning ghat we are asked not to shoot photos. It is a dark place, seemingly chilly, towered over by the large electric crematorium which has been built to save wood; entire forests have been cut down to provide the special four kinds of wood one has to be burned with and the practice is continuing. To most Hindus, the modern way is not appealing. There are huge piles of wood stacked next to heaps of ashes. A group of people is singing chants, others are taking away scorched wood that can be reused. So many lit candles floating downstream in the middle of the river.
Varanasi, the city of Shiva and also called Kashi or Benares, has been the ultimate pilgrimage place for Hindus down the ages and a center of learning and civilization for more than 3000 years. It was already called “the ancient city” when Buddha visited it in 500 B.C., and is the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world today. Mark Twain put it perfectly: “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” To die in Varanasi guarantees salvation and freedom from the cycle of reincarnation and the water of the Ganga in Varanasi is believed to wash away any sin.
Preferring to write old-fashioned post cards versus sending e-mails, we walk to a small post office nearby our guest house to send them off. Together with the stamps the man at the counter smacks a small plastic bag on the counter that contains a gooey blue substance. A woman who sees me eying this bag with uncertainty shows me how to do it: squirt some blue gunk onto the counter itself and pass one stamp over it; then one rubs a second stamp over the first one and both have just enough glue to stick!
Once again I reflect how humbled I often feel by the friendliness and helpfulness of the Indian people. Although there is also a very aggressive side to Indians that can make them erupt at the slightest insult, there is such a caring side to them which I so much appreciate.
As days pass by, we retreat again and again to the balcony in front of our room to observe, meditate, to just be. We overlook the entire Mansarovar Ghat, including the steep staircase that leads from the door of our guest house to the Ganga. A sweeper woman, unperturbed by the oncoming traffic up and down the narrow ghat keeps at it with a large brushwood broom, sweeping the rubbish down, step by step, very methodically. A bent over man collects cow patties: he almost reverently scoops up most of each heap, careful not to get dust in, puts it in a tiny bucket, piles it up high and carries the bucket to a slope near the ghat where he forms them into flat smaller patties. After they have dried in the sun they are used for clean and smoke-free fire. He is working on an area of about 15 square meters and it is almost full.
Similar slopes are used for the laundry. Dhobis (washer men) stand along the shore knee deep in water, slamming garments and sheets onto the stone slabs that have been placed along the shore in the water. They bang a piece of laundry a few times on the slabs, then rinse it, bang it again, move it around in the water, wring it thoroughly and then stretch (saves ironing) out the sheets and saris on the slope, neatly in a geometric pattern, hanging up pants and shorts on a line stretched across.
The Ganga runs north here. Temple bells sound from the nearby Shiva temple, people stream to the shore for their dip. Parrots screech, the rough voice of a boatsman sounds up from the river. It is rarely quiet except for deep in the night. People talk incessantly to each other and I observe that the men rarely smile; but the women, when I look at them, connect – and then a lovely smile, with or without teeth depending on age, lights up their features.
For the third day in a row, we pass a young buffalo lying in the little square where the post office is. The first time I saw him I could see his right foreleg was broken and he just remained there, the next day no longer standing, ripples running up and down his shoulder, obviously in pain. Every day life continues around him, bicycle rickshaws squeeze by, people, children walking around him, until the day when he will die.
A feeling of timelessness has set in for both of us. We float, we drift, just like the river. We could just remain sitting here …
Bhagawati for Osho News