Having just reached the halfway point, this blog was going to be my half time report. But having spent a couple weeks in Varanasi, India’s holiest city, it’s only right to address one of the oldest cities in civilization and ‘the centre of the earth’, according to Hindu cosmology.
Intense and frenetic were the two main words used to describe Varanasi to me by other travellers. I wasn’t even out of the train doors when I got my first taste of this intensity and frenetic-ism! Rather naively I left half a yard gap between me and the person in front whilst getting off the train. I should have expected to be assaulted by a mass of saris, shawls, grey hair and bindis and pushed halfway back down the train. And I was. Indians don’t do patient queuing.
First impression lodged firmly into brain I didn’t feel too overwhelmed after that, I found Varanasi to be much the same as any other Indian city in terms of noise, rickshaw drivers and touts. Full on, but nothing I wasn’t used to. The only time I felt a bit overawed was during a Navaratri carnival in the old town, which, despite the music, dancing and vibrant colours, there was danger of it becoming unsafe. But I think this was more symptomatic of large groups of young Indian men getting overexcited than anything specific to Varanasi (see my experience at the Nehru Boat Race in Kerala for similarities ), but the tight spaces of the old town can make it quite intimating. The presence of policemen holding AK47s at every corner of the mazey old town isn’t particularly comforting But it would certainly be an experience to be in the city for the forthcoming Diwali celebrations, however oppressive and intense it might be.
The city though, in a word, is a mess. It is filthy, impoverished and in some places really does smell. The combination of litter, cow and goat dung (with some human), urine and so I was told, toxic leakages further down the river make for one hell of a smell. An attack on the senses, to say the least. Yet the city is a religious pilgrimage for Hindu’s all over India. Spirituality runs throughout India. You can’t go anywhere without noticing it. From people’s dashboards, to their clothing to their faces it really is inescapable. And Varanasi is the Hindu culmination of this. It is seen as the place to die as its offers moksha, ‘the liberation from the cycle of birth and death’. The way to die in Varanasi is to be cremated in public at a burning ghat and for your ashes to be slipped into the sacred Ganges, so add burning human flesh to the list of smells. On a lighter note Varanasi must have the highest density of cows per square kilometre in any urban area in the world. There was even one ready to welcome me on the platform in the train station.
Lining the Ganges are up to 80 bathing ghats, and several are the aforementioned burning ghats. Pilgrims come here to wash away their sins, yards from sewage drains, peoples ashes, litter and the bodies of children and priests who are not to be cremated. Despite these conditions the ritual is clearly still intimate and powerful and doesn’t seem to be being diminished in practice.
Reading this creates a pretty grim image but it creates a very vibrant and colourful atmosphere and was certainly intriguing to watch, particularly from the river and at the nightly Aarti ceremonies. From what I have seen, North India is more colourful than South India and Varanasi really encapsulates such vibrant colours. The buildings, the saris and shawls, and the markets create a blast of colour. One of my favourite photos so far shows a large area of the ghats ablaze with people’s washing, with colour after colour running along the Ganges.
So far I’ve not been able to enjoy most of the religious experiences I have been too. I’ve found them oppressive and unnerving, and feel uncomfortable with their intimacies, even in the smaller, quieter venues. One thing that has stood out is the blatant commercialization of what is supposed to sacred to so many in India. Temples are frequently surrounded by gift shops which you have to walk through to exit and shopkeepers even advertise inside these religious sites. Even the most famous ghat in India’s holiest city, Dasaswamedh Ghat is adorned with advertisements for silk businesses and worse, a maroon temple to the side has a yellow and blue sign advertising a national bank. Indian commercialism and opportunism has gone too far.
And that was Varanasi: interesting to say the least. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be making my way into the North East states. It seems I’m trying to go as far away from my original plan as possible. After experiencing Indian bureaucracy at its worst I finally managed to obtain a permit to get into Arunachal Pradesh, the least visited state in India. Meaning “land of the dawn-lit mountains” it borders Bhutan, Burma and China, which should be interesting too…