To conclude my trip around India, this country of varied religions and spiritualities, it seems appropriate to be spending my final three days in its holiest pilgramage site. The city of Varanasi, on the banks of the holy River Ganga, or Ganges, has been recognised as a special place by the Buddha and the Jain Mahavira as well as all Hindus, and a settlement of some description has existed here since the 6th century.
Wandering around the old city I have the sense of having stepped back into another era. Although the rest of the city is full of noise, fumes and relentless touts (Madam, Madam, rickshaw?; You want boat?; Come Madam, I have silk, very good price...), the ancient lanes of the old city are too narrow for vehicles, creating a much quieter urban area than I have experienced elsewhere in this country. At times, they are barely
broader than the cows wandering them, resulting in frequent cow jams and requiring precise footwork to avoid the inevitable dung piles. Stalls line the lanes selling perfume oils, flowers and petals for offerings, cds of mantras, and all manner of religious paraphernalia: pictures of the deities, incense and holders, statues, bottles for holy (i.e. river) water...kind of like a Hindu flavoured Knock!). I try to banish my reflexologist's knowledge of foot diseases as I see barefooted pilgrims tread the filthy ground down to the river. (Trish, you would be horrified!)
The river itself is bordered with 'ghats', a series of stone steps descending into the water and sitting here I watch the saddhus meditating: wild looking men with long matted white hair and beards framing ash smeared faces, bodies bare but for the orange lunghis wrapped round their middles. Those who aren't just posing for photos have renounced all material posseessions on their quest for spiritual enlightenment and I would like to enquire if they are close to finding it but my Hindi is not up to the job and I'm not sure I have the bottle. (Talking of bottles, I'm staying in the old city which is, you've guessed it, so holy that it does not sell alcohol...).
Taking a rowing boat along the river at 5.30 a.m., I observe the pilgrims making their morning puja, offering flowers, candles and coconuts to 'Mother Ganga', praying, bathing for ritual purification and, horror of horrors, drinking the water. I appreciate the energy of a mighty river and understand that people might believe in the power of bathing in it, but actually swallowing it?!! It is visibly scummy, rubbish floats in it, dhobi-wallahs are lathering their laundry in it, children soaping their bodies in it, body
parts appear in it and it is known to be a dump for all manner of chemical waste and heavy metals from factories. It's a typical Indian paradox: the very people who worship at this sacred flow are the ones who pollute it, just as those who revere the sacred cow are happy to add plastic bags to the street rubbish, slowly killing the cows who swallow them, by strangling their intestines.
Later in the day I witness a cremation at the burning ghats. A procession winds down to the river bank with a body held aloft on a bamboo stretcher, wrapped in orange and gold fabric. The 'untouchables' who deal with the business of death build the wood pyre and stoke it as the body loses its form in the flames, then shovel the ashes into a pile to sift through for any jewellery remaining. Death and cremation in this holy city guarantee release from the cycle of reincarnation and the burning ghats are flanked by rest houses populated by the old and the dying living out their final days in anticipation of their assured release.
I sit on the ghats again for evening puja, an intense ritual ceremony performed by Brahmin priests in extravagant silk costumes, on decorated platforms at the water's edge. They blow conch shells and begin chanting and clapping and then, to tabla and sitar accompaniment, they perform their elegant movements in unison, circling
incense, candles and fire bowls and making symbolic offerings to the river. I have no comprehension of the significance of any of this, and my neighbours in the assembled masses speak no English to explain. I am captivated, though, by the magic and mystery of the ceremony, the mood of the worshipers crowded on the ghat and the energy in the air. Again I have that sense of timelessness. A variation of this ritual has been performed here through the centuries and it is quite humbling to witness it in that knowledge, to stand on a timeline stretching so far back and to look forward.
Forward for me is Nepal. For ten weeks India has , by turns, bewildered, enthralled, frustrated, enchanted, appalled, delighted, angered, excited, infuriated, overwhelmed and entertained me. What more could I have asked? Tonight I take the the night sleeper train to Gorakphur followed by a bus, arriving at the Nepalese border by midday tomorrow. Tomorrow night I will bed down in Kathmandu.