Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Varanasi - burning bodies and all

I am not sure how or why I have conjured up images in my head of Varanasi being a sea of orange. Perhaps it is the thought of the baking sun's reflection turning the city orange, maybe it is the idea of red dirt surrounding the Ganges or simply the saffron robes of Hindus and golden sari-clad women that has implanted the idea. Needless to say I am initially disappointed when I step out onto the hotel's balcony overlooking Meer Ghat and the holy river to find stretches of grey. Grey muddy water surrounded by grey dirt, grey monuments and an equally grey sky. It is somewhat disheartening to come to India's holiest and most sacred river to find scores of rubbish floating down it. People are ogling at the rivers beauty and I honestly feel like I have either spiritually missed the point or am becoming very cynical. I berate myself for having expectations of the city in the first place and try to erase all 'orange' glistening images still left in my mind.

If you can look past the filth (of which there is plenty and is only magnified in the rains as it floats between  your ankles) then there certainly is an element of intrigue and magic to Varanasi. Walking the Ghat is prime people watching material as devout Hindus flock to the holy waters like moths to a flame. Every conceivable task takes place along the waters from clothes washing to bathing, swimming and boat ride, religious offerings, men, women, children and babies having their heads shaved, farmers washing their cattle and of course the deceased being doused in the holy waters before being cremated on piles of expensive wood for all to see.

I am not as troubled by the sight of burning bodies as I thought I would be. What I am troubled by is the scene that surrounds the cremation. The filth honestly resembles a tip, complete with cows, goats, buffalo and dogs defecating, urinating or sleeping nest to the fires. Some men chat loudly on their phones while simultaneously urinating next to the body, oblivious to the solemn occasion. Others bathe in the waters next to where the corpse is washed. The scene is confronting and made more so by the fact that the wind is blowing the ashes of the dead into our eyes and mouths. It is a complete sensory overload. Sometime later as I stop along the ghats to look at the view I realise rather abruptly that I am standing next to a corpse. My childish reaction brings me filthy looks from the locals and I am embarrassed at my behaviour.

Aside from the Ghats, the tiny alleyways of Varanasi are amazing to walk though and simply get lost in. Filled with every imaginable kind of Indian food, silks and crafts with chanting constantly filling the air, we have managed to eat and drink our way through the labyrinth maze that is  Varanasi. A chaotic and candid place, well worth the visit. 

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