05 July 2017

Varanasi, India 2009

Photo: Mary Ann Waring
Varanasi, the holiest of sacred Hindu cities, is a pilgrimage site where the Ganges River will wash away sins. This is where Hindus want to be when they die, water and fire freeing them from the reincarnation cycle. Early in our Northern India tour and knowing little about the city in advance, the visit was intense cultural shock.

Photo: Mary Ann Waring
Photo: Mary Ann Waring
In this Hindu milieu, oddly enough we start the day by going to the Buddha Centre where Buddha delivered his first sermon in about 550 BC. Our local guide named Krishna emphasizes the tolerance of the Indian system, accepting all faiths. Buddhism is now a shrinking religion here. We run the gauntlet of hawkers and street sellers between our bus and entrance to the site. Krishna explains some of the history. Of more immediate note are the beggars sticking their hands through the fence for money. Most are children. Tourists are told time and again not to hand out money but some do, regardless; big kids grab the money given to little kids. The Buddhist priests try to chase the kids away and admonish the dumb tourists.

Krishna enlightens us before we head toward the river. To simplify, corpses are purified in the waters, burnt up in the cremation fires on special river bank ghats (steps) and the remaining bits and ashes consigned to the river. Downstream from the largest cremation spot, living Hindus purify themselves by immersion, drinking, or even swimming. Respect for religious practices requires subduing our own sensibilities about the toxic potential.

Photo: Mary Ann Waring
We travel by rickshaw (bicycle-powered) as it becomes dark, not the most comfortable vehicle for about forty-five minutes. The streets are pandemonium. Small cooking fires, lights, colours, traffic of every description, wandering cattle, beggars. Many of the beggars are afflicted with dreadfully twisted or missing limbs. Women are walking together or alone, shopping. One large area we pass has no hydro at all. We are about to see an evening Diwali ceremony at the ghats.

India has had a drought for three years and the river now does not reach the lowest step of the ghats, crowded with pilgrim families, holy men, beggars, flowers, vendors, and not that many tourists. Krishna explains in advance before we load into a boat to observe on the river. Seven priests perform certain rituals with fire and bell-ringing. A young girl joins us to give us candles and flowers to float on the river as homage to Mother Ganga. We watch corpses being burned from a distance—two-three hours they say it takes—and hear the story of how an Untouchable family eventually became the most powerful in the city. Only Untouchables can handle a corpse for this purpose. They set arbitrary fees for cremations and sell the fire wood at exorbitant prices; Krisha's contempt for the system is clear. 

Photo: Mary Ann Waring
On the way back to our hotel, again by rickshaw in even more hair-raising traffic, somehow our rickshaw drivers manage to keep moving. One of the rickshaw men among our group has to be assisted by his fellows. He is an older man, and the long haul is doing him in. We are not allowed to tip him individually; tips must go to the boss and then be shared.

Next day we go back before sunrise, same place, after a 4:45 a.m.(!) wake up call. Greeting the sunrise is symbolic although omnipresent air pollution obscures the sun's actual emergence as we know it; the visual pollution is generally referred to as mist. Nonetheless it has its own muted beauty. Along the roadway we see corpses being driven, carried, or trundled toward the Ganges. Cremations at Varanasi are estimated at 46,000 per year. Now, more religious ceremonies. The Hindus do not mind us taking photographs of their preparations for bathing in the river. We go downstream by boat this time, witnessing the hordes in various stages of undress and immersion. Palaces of the rich dominate the river banks, five or six storeys sometimes. We see a yoga school in action.

Leaving the boat and climbing the steps, we walk through the vegetable market. Colour everywhere! Impressive veggies and fruits! Brilliant flowers! Boundless photo opps. All mingled with the occasional cow and deformed beggar, but for once free of pestering hawkers. Breakfast goodies have been baked or fried, awaiting passersby. The liveliness of the scenes—and no wonder why everyone mentions the colours of India—is in sharp contrast to the dirt of the streets they live and trade on.

Later to the Mehta Family Silk Factory with Krishna. Few of us opt out of such local pressures, which obviously supplement the guides' meagre incomes. Interesting to see some weavers demonstrating for our benefit, although most work is done in their homes now. Beautiful samples of intricate weaving on the walls. Upstairs, we are shown absolutely stunning bedspreads. The sales pitch is toward the most expensive items―why not? Those of us with budget concerns sit politely through it, waiting to scavenge the $20 silk scarves. Outside, a man with two cobras and two monkeys entertains us.

Photo: Mary Ann Waring
Inadequate, really, to capture the overwhelming sensations of the five senses, let alone the pantheon of religious gods and rituals.

Uncredited photographs by BDM
© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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