You’ll remember that the Delhi traffic was such that It would have to be a serious emergency for me – a confident driver with experience in many countries – to even consider getting behind the wheel. Varanasi was a nightmare in a different way – for pedestrians. The Delhi roads are wide and have pavements. Varanasi’s are narrow, unpaved, uneven, and the traffic flies along them at breakneck speed. The motorbikes and scooters are the worst offenders, coming up behind you in narrow alleys that are essentially footpaths, blasting their horns and barely waiting for you to move before squeezing dangerously past. The concept of pedestrians having right of way in any situation (including zebra crossings which are purely decorative) is completely alien. The locals are used to it and don’t even look round, displaying extraordinary trust in the weaving wayward bikers. The dogs are even more laid back. You rarely see a dog in India that isn’t asleep, and the Varanasi dogs sleep in the road without the slightest concern as speeding wheels roll past their noses, ears, and tails.
Now then, the cows and bulls. Everyone knows that the cow is a sacred animal in India. The cows in Varanasi seem to comprehend their elevated status, wandering casually around the roads or settling down in the middle of them insouciantly, to be treated like roundabouts. The most extraordinary bovine related sight I observed was a large white bull taking pride of place (and most of the floor space) in a small boutique selling high end fashion. My guide explained that the owner of the shop was a very holy man, and this was why he gave access to the creature. I personally will not be buying any frocks from this establishment.
I was dozily contemplating the sturdy, elaborate, metal box of tissues fastened firmly to the passenger airbag in front of me in my latest vehicle, and contemplating whether it or my face would come off worst in the event of the airbag activating, when we did, finally, experience a collision. A scooter bearing two people misjudged a gap, crunched several times against the side of our car, wobbled precariously for a few seconds, then carried on. There was no interest in the damage (which I later observed to be a reasonable insurance claim’s worth) to our relatively smart vehicle from either the offending rider or my driver.
Shivam was my Varanasi guide. It transpired that, as in Agra, my ‘group’ consisted of me alone. This was a little disappointing as I had booked the three group tours, including Nepal, to have some company before the second half of my tour which would be solo. All I’d had so far was the two Aussies on the trek. Shivam was a big guy. Tall, gentle and of slightly nervous disposition, he was somewhat overprotective of me and would hardly let me out of his sight. However, he was very flexible. The advantage of being the only one in the ‘group’ is that you can vary the schedule. I explained to him that I really didn’t want temples, back street scooter infested tours, or silk pashmina making demonstrations, and PLEASE no more red sandstone. Varanasi is a holy city, I said, I want to experience peace and calm and see that side of Indian life. So, we spent most of the next 48 hours on the Ganges, and what an experience it was.
The godly Ganges
Within a couple of minutes of arrival on the riverbank I was overwhelmed with emotion, like that I’d experienced in the Lotus Temple in Delhi. The presence of God was once again palpable. This before I’d witnessed any demonstration of the river’s ceremonial or spiritual importance to the people. Observing and understanding, Shivam embraced me in a sympathetic bear-like hug and told me this had happened before with those in his charge. ‘Ganges is spiritual place’ he said, ‘It is affecting people like this.’ There was a relief, a release, a letting go of the tension, stress and irritability that had been building up in me over the last couple of days, and an overwhelming sense of peace.
What is the importance of the Ganges?
The importance of the Ganges River to residents of Varanasi cannot be overemphasised. It is a God – Ganga – and is worshipped for its life-giving holiness. It is also one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Despite this, every dawn crowds of people wash themselves in the river ceremonially, music plays, prayers are spoken, floral candles are floated on the water’s surface. Every evening at dusk there is an elaborate and spectacular ceremony with five chanting and singing priests who represent the five elements of life – sky, fire, soil, air, and water – whilst also wielding different vessels of blazing fire. I witnessed both events. These are daily celebrations, not for the benefit of tourists; we are a small and irrelevant minority.
As well as being central to life, the river is also the home of death. Two large cremation areas straddle the bank, surrounded by walls of neatly stacked timber and kindling for the funeral pyres. We observed these locations from a boat on the river – among many others – a mere ten yards from the bank, watching as the shrouded corpses were brought to the water’s edge to be washed, wrapped in layers of colourful cloth, and then placed into the flames. Remaining bones are then thrown into the river. The ceremonies are conducted by the men of the family, sombre, respectful, and calm. Women are not even allowed to attend for fear they will become upset. If emotion is shown at the cremation the soul will not obtain salvation.
But death is not limited to the bank of the river, as I was to discover to my horror. As our boat made its way away from the largest cremation area in the gathering dusk, Shivam pointed out to me a naked body, a child of perhaps five or six, floating face down in the water. I was astounded. Shivam explained that children are not cremated as it is believed they deserve another chance of life and that this can be achieved by giving them to Ganga, weighing them down with rocks and sinking their bodies in the centre of the river. Of course, inevitably, some of the bodies do not remain bound to the weights, with the staggering result I had just witnessed.
I can’t really follow this…. my time in Varanasi was over. Although emotionally overwhelming on many levels this had been the kind of tourism I like. Exploring a city and the life (and death) of its people.