Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Varanasi: City of Life and Death

The smells of this city are so intense. Walking the ghats, the aromas of incense can be smelled everywhere. In one place, the smell of piss is so overpowering I wanted to puke everytime I passed. A multitude of street vendors release sweet and salty scents. And at times the smoke from cremations wafts into your nose.

Kids and young men play cricket games twenty feet from the Holy Ganga. Men strip nearly naked to bathe. Women wash clothing. People pray. Men offer shaves, massages, shoeshines. Nowhere have I seen such a public lifestyle, and it made me mildly ashamed every time I took a picture.

A public shave

I met a kid that totally reminded me of Tom Sawyer. He approached me trying to sell me hashish (as is quite common here), but after I declined he decided he would teach me some Hindi. The first phrase he taught me, "Mooje nahi chahiye," means "I don't want," so I could tell all the hash dealers, boat and rickshaw drivers and silk selling commission guys (like him) to leave me alone. The kid couldn't have been older than 17, and told me he had dropped out of school because he didn't like it, and loved working the commission business in hash and silk. The night I met him, he was planning a 14 km barefoot walk with friends to a temple for some festival. He invited me, but I declined this also. Along with him was a friend who definitely could've played Huck Finn.

An alley of the Old City

A woman sells candle boats for floating in the Ganga

Ghat-side chai shop

One of the best parts about this place is that everyone wants to talk. One day while walking, I asked a guy for directions. He barely spoke English, so couldn't really help me, but instead invited me to his home. I walked with him through small lanes for a few minutes before arriving at his tiny, furnitureless, two room cement home. The whole place, for a family of five, was smaller than my bedroom at home. Lonely Planet says that 41% of Indian families live in one room homes. He had me join him in his Puja (prayers) and then fed me a really tasty spicy rice porridge. We spoke mostly with our hands. He tried to invite me to stay with his family, but honestly, I was afraid of the poverty of their lifestyle. That fear is something I will need to contemplate for a long time. Instead, we agreed to meet the next day, and I would come to temple and shopping with him. Our meeting place was a bit general, and I couldn't find him. I'm so sorry (though I know you'll never read this).

Ganga water

Nearly empty ghats

While walking in the alleys of the old city, you intermittently see a procession pass with a dead body on a stretcher. To be cremated here in Varanasi is one of the greatest honors for a Hindu person. Following a procession, you arrive at one of the two "Burning Ghats" of the city. Here, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, men burn the bodies of the Hindu dead. Stacked around the ghats are huge piles of wood, and scales for calculating the price of wood for a cremation. Standing in the cremation area, with smoke swirling around me was an extremely intense experience. The bodies are placed into the pyres covered, but as they begin to burn, the coverings burn off, exposing charred body parts. I have no photos of the burning ghats, as it's considered disrespectful to take them (unless you're willing to make a hefty donation).

Palaces overlook the ghats

Women on a boat ride

One evening, as I approached the main burning ghat, I heard the sound of far off bass that is so familiar from Burning Man. When I got close I realized a huge sound system was blasting Indian techno onto the burning ghat. The temple above the ghat was lit up with blinking lights. The whole scene totally reminded me of burning man, but it was a strange gaiety for a place that I would expect to be so somber. Really, that's the way things are here, people rejoice in the life they have.

Performing Puja (prayers)

At dawn, the ghats come alive with people bathing, washing clothing, and performing prayers. For six AM, it's unbelievably loud. Bells ring, music plays, people chant and splash around in the water. My last morning I took a boat ride to watch the happenings from the water - The classic Varanasi experience.

Steps scene

Sunrise bathing at the main ghat

Early morning ghat scene

Sunrise boat ride

Today I visited a nearby town called Sarnath, the place Buddha gave his first sermon and one of the four holy places for Buddhism. There were mostly only monastery ruins, but it was cool to be in a place so significant for Buddhism. Tonight I head back to Delhi where I'll get my cold weather clothing and head up to the mountains.


Anonymous said...

Z - "rejoice in the life they have" -- a good reminder for all of us, particularly considering how often we take for granted the things we take comfort in. I'm again awestruck by your words and images in conveying a sense of place. I've seen and read about Varanasi before, but through your senses, and knowing you as I do, life there takes on whole new meaning...

It blows my mind that you've already been there for almost 2 months, and you'll be back in the States in less than 4 weeks. Can't wait to see your take on the mountains.

Unknown said...

I want to be there so badly! Next time, we all have to go. Your pix are so amazing, especially since life is so completely different there than anything we've experienced. Love hearing about each adventure at each different place. I'm grateful you've had only positive experiences. Happy that you've been posting more frequently but I guess when you're trekking, you won't be able to do that and I'll have to suffer. Love Ma

Unknown said...

I've been reading and enjoying your blog. I was hoping you'd go to Varanasi. That's where I spent two of my three months in India and I love that city so much. I'm so eager to go back to India, but probably won't be able to for a long time. Reading about your travels gives me my India fix. Have fun in the Himalayas.
Safe journeys,
Noah DeWitt

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