Drifting uneasily in Varanasi

By Emma. Pour l’article de Damien, cliquez ici. Click here for photos of there.

Watching Varanasi through fever-glazed eyes was probably a mistake. No, it was definitely a mistake. The most revered of Hindu cities pierced my barriers in a brutal assault on my emotions, my beliefs and my senses. The city made me uncomfortable. Profoundly so. Its presence crawled on my skin and my consciousness. For me, the city is a twisting, multi-faceted nightmare where death brazenly coils around life. The crumbling walls of the labyrinthine city lean together oppressively. No signs, no clear views, no direction. The clacking of hidden silk looms in the pervading false dusk is relentless. Constantly shifting clouds of black flies shimmer in alleyways where sacred cows graze on grassless mounds of rotting garbage. Pariah dogs, riddled with mange and hunger, cringe away from the constant flow of footfalls and wheels to lie silent in the shadows. People, bicycles, rickshaws and goats vie loudly for the dusty space between the fetid open sewers in the dusty, pocked streets. Lepers wrapped in dirty bandahes stretch their decimated fingerless hands towards us. Beggers cluster, tugging blank-eyed at our elbows. The cries of wallahs compete with the alarming blare of horns. The effect is immediate. There is no air and my stomach churns.

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Amid the chaos, instinct steers us towards the river. One of those inexplicable things. Varanasi sprawls along the banks of the Ganges river, its waters sacred to Hindus. It flows swiftly, darkly past the city’s ghats, a series of stone steps leading to the water, each assigned a different purpose. It is by these ghats that Varanasi seems to truly live. In a tiny boat, guided by our own Charon, we glide past, glimpsing the lives of others. On the banks, everyday intimacies are laid bare. We float amongst private moments, the mundane acts of washing laundary or bathing, unbearably sweet shared intimacies of age and marriage, open pleasure in friendships and the deep sorrow of goodbyes. Beautiful peeks at lives we don’t know and jarring flashes of moments we have no right to witness. The experience is both lovely and acutely unsettling.

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Life takes place unapologetically on these banks. Cricket is played, kites are flown, and entrepreneurial schemes are masterminded. Tourists are prey.

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Signs of the spiritual importance of the Ganges are everywhere, people’s faith unabashedly and emotionally displayed.  Saffron-clad sādhus chant on the banks, begging for alms to continue their path to enlightenment. Their eyes become eager when they spot Western tourists. All at once, I sigh with cynicism and yet find myself held rapt by their difference, their beauty.

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Hindus believe that washing in the Ganges cleanses the soul of a lifetime of sin. The water stroking and lapping at the edges of the Indian city is unspeakably filthy and yet, watching the faces of people taking a spiritual bath, you can’t help but forget the pollution. Their faces are an incredible sight. I find myself envious of that depth of faith, a voyeur on the edges.  Unsettled, uneasy.

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Our little craft carries us by the cremation ghats. To be cremated and to have one’s ashes scattered in the Ganges is believed to offer liberation from the cycle of life and death. Bodies, still and wrapped tightly in white sheets, lie in neat rows on the banks while the wood for their pyre is carefully chosen, weighed and paid for. Mourners seem to be absent. The process is steeped in commerce and the mounds of ashes heaped on the river end leave me cold. The smell of burning wood and person hangs in the air and the surface of the river is clouded with clumps of black ash.  Bathers laugh and dunk themselves only a few feet away. It’s a sight, an atmosphere, that is impossible for me to understand. A flower offering floats by but it’s too late.  Physically and emotionally, I recoil.

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Life and death don’t seem like opposites here. They aren’t two sides of the same coin. Life doesn’t feel like a contrast to death. Here, death feels like a process. Here, that inevitable slide is on display at every turn, every corner. The sounds, smells and sights of this ancient Hindu city have been too much. Varanasi has made me recoil. Life seems too close to death in Varanasi and in my addled flu-y state, I can’t process it. Both abit shaken, Damien and I wander back to the safe, annonymous comfort of our hotel, where swastikas are not and waking nightmares become sleeping.

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