Sacred curiosity: a meditation
Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
37Trip End Jun 01, 2010
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Confusion: /kənˈfjuː.ʒən/ – when I do not understand what is happening.
There's Mama Ganga, the all-cleansing Hindu headstream of life, the river of the gods, her amber-brown life fluid imbued with heavenly powers of purity, good health, enlightenment and liberation in this life and the hereafter.
Daily, thousands flock to her Varanasi banks located midway between Himalayan headwaters and her great, volatile Bangladesh delta.
Ritual, cleansing and worship ceremonies (pujas) are performed at every sunrise and sunset
The sun rises from the flat, dusty eastern horizon, across the mighty river, shining squarely on to the steps of divine absolution, the kilometres of ghats facing the birth of the day. Sun worship of the original kind.
White and red loin wraps mirror the colours of the dawn. The sadhus strip down to less.
All pray. The very visitation is a living prayer. The river is a temple as well as an incarnation of the goddess Ganga.
Thin, vibrantly coloured cotton saris cling as women descend into her reverentially, sit on submerged stones, fill brass and silver urns and decant the precious liquid over their heads. Bells tinkle. Undertones of repeated mantra Om Mani Padme Hom (I honour the jewel within the lotus bloom) linger hauntingly in almost unconsciously comforting resonance
Many imbibe, drink deeply, suck and sup on the eternal waters, the waters of god, the blood of Christ. They brush their teeth, sit down and soap up a good sud. The sun rises, bodies dry, clothes dry, all the city's washing dries on the steps and banks.
The risen sun's heat drives the flocks and pilgrims into the shade, sane and cool, to bask in the glow of the morning's communion with earth, water, sky, sun and soul.
Later, dusk beckons and long steps issuing from tiny, intricate old-city passageways fill again with soft shoe shuffle, along old, hardened, sun-baked stone.
The setting sun glides behind the Gothic skyline, where elongated temple tops vie with cupolas, mosque domes and an anarchic roofline.
Throngs descend the aisles to attend the formal evening services. Rows of acolytes on platforms raised from the river’s edge attend to ritual. Marigold garlands are carefully positioned, oil is loaded into lamps, candelas, cobra-hooded lanterns in preparation for the descent of the dark
The milling, spilling crowd exudes joy. The ceremonies begin and smoke and fire and dance and music and bells and chatter add closing complement to day, sun, river, body.
Verbal responses and chants rise and drift away. Hundreds of tiny candles on little paper saucers are launched into the current, each with their own particular wish, each from a private, loving hand.
Rowboats with pilgrims from afar settle themselves metres from the bank to gaze upon the splendour. There is glory in the air. Transcendental. Mystical. Rapturous.
But that is why I am confused.
For this amphitheatre of worship to a billion is also splattered, riddled, infested with all the squalor, filth, flotsam, and decrepitude known to man. Sacred cattle, herds of water buffalo roam, and shit and piss
A dozen sightings of men pissing on the river bank each day.
Grime and glut. Plastic is heat-glazed over steps, into cracks – of which there are thousands upon thousands – human discard drifts or lingers. 1,500km of upriver pollution, industrial pollution, human pollution drifts down a river at low tide, concentrated. It is not uncommon to see dead bodies and animals bobbing, bloated, past. Pregnant women, children, those who have died of snake bites, the poor, are not cremated. They are floated, or sunk with stone.
A boy, naked, river wet, squats 10m in front of me, in the middle of a set of steps. There a many people about. No one takes notice of common activity. A perfect steamy coil beneath him soon festoons the stone block he has chosen. I am so gobsmacked I reach for my camera too late. He stands, walks 3m, and a mutt ambles over for breakfast. Before the dog has even finished, a holy man squats two metres away, lifts a loin cloth, extends his dick and issues forth a stream.
Walk 50m down the river, only one set of steps away, and there is 100m of clothes washers. Soaping, sudding, rubbing mankind's urban filth out, and into Mama Ganga, into another holy man's next toothbrush gargle. Thud, thud, over-shoulder beating the dirt out, beating the dirt into the holy water.
The ashes of more than 200 bodies daily, in Varanasi alone, are cast on the riverbanks, allowed to breeze and blow and anoint the water. And that is before the flood’s great scour.
Flies buzz, step by step down the lanes, swarms of flies hover over each pile of shit, each few metres, over each pile of discarded food, over each corner of uric acid stench.
Woman squat more subtly, do not lift their saris, or, I am told, simply stand, and smile.
The belief is that bathing in the holy waters washes away past sin. Drinking the holy water purifies the body.
By day, rowed garbage barges creep along the bank, fighting a losing battle collecting refuse. Stacked 2m high with detritus, they navigate to the far bank to add to eyesore dumps, awaiting the next monsoon’s flood, awaiting convoy across India, through Bangladesh, into the Indian Ocean
In times past, all matter was biodegradable. Pre-industrial era foodstuffs and cloth, if dropped, would decay and return to life's cycle. But no longer. Plastics, nylons and chemical food additives carry uncomfortable half-lives. Industry has no instinctive environmental consciousness.
The consecration practices in the Ganges of old have been corrupted. The sadhus seem trapped in the innocence of the past. Not yet their own innocence lost.
Celebrants tell me I do not understand. The water will, and does, cure all. I am not a believer in the true almighty, they tell me, how am I expected to understand.
I ask about incidences of alimentary complications, for local hospital statistics. Heresy.
I tell them of modern-world illness, of pollution, of water-carried, fly-carried, air-carried disease. They tell me about god's water.
Talk to an adherent about doubt, about war, about ugliness and evil. He tells me about god's water.
Yet still, I fall under the spell of the riverbank, become entranced by a city with such rare devotion and serenity, and open my heart to Varanasi, a paradox of the ages.
You go and have a sip.