Varanasi, located on the banks of the Ganges River, is one of the holiest cities in India. Hindus from all over the world come here to bathe in the purifying waters. Wide steps called ghats run for almost 7 km along the Ganges’ bank and from early morning until late at night men in various stages of undress, women in saris and holy men wearing nothing but ashes congregate on them before washing away their sins. Hindus also come here to die for death at Varanasi brings salvation—release from the cycle of death and rebirth. Fires at the cremation ghats burn day and night.
For a non-believer, the city can be appalling. I’m not new to India but the poverty in Varanasi is shocking. The congested road that runs from the airport to the river is lined with shacks. There is no greenery. The grime is slick and deep; it covers every body, every thing.
Animals are everywhere. Cows, of course, enormous pigs, black goats, white goats, chickens, dogs that travel in packs, monkeys. There are piles of garbage. I see women shaping manure patties with their hands, tiny children running around unsupervised, men having a pee. The noise is deafening: drivers here sit on their horns.
The hotel where I was staying overlooks the Ganges but the squalor was just outside the back gate. When I found myself stuck in a narrow lane of squatter homes, jeering children and snapping dogs I gave a rickshaw driver 100 rupees (about $1.80) to get me out of there. He hopped on his bicycle and peddled like a crazy guy, eventually stopping in the refined section of the city far from my hotel. Varanasi is also known as India’s centre of learning, a place of scholars, for many of the country’s finest universities are found here and they attract students from around the world.
Early next morning I was out on the Ganges in a rickety rowboat with two couples from France. A guide brought us there in the dark and an oarsman was taking us up the river and back so we could observe the rituals taking place on the ghats. The area was just waking up. Some pilgrims were cleaning their teeth in the polluted water, others washing their clothes. A couple of men were just resting on the steps with their morning papers.
In the evening, as the sun was setting, I went out on the river again, this time for a ceremony of chanting, singing, dancing, and sitar music at Dashashwamedh Ghat. The boats were tied together so they wouldn’t move and the atmosphere was intimate and warm. I was given a small lotus-flower boat that had a candle in it and with many others lit the candle, blessed my family, and set the boat afloat on the river. The whole occasion was very moving.
I did get away from the river. I hired a tuk-tuk for a day and went to Deer Park in Sarnath. That’s where Buddha gave his sermon on the Four Noble Truths, important to the Buddhist religion. There’s a museum there and you have to leave all your stuff in a locker before you’re allowed in; there are few lockers and many people and the guard was accepting bribes if you wanted faster locker service.
Varanasi is known for its production of very fine silks and I allowed myself to be taken to a couple of silk “factories” where people worked in tiny, disgusting spaces. I also saw some beautiful temples. Another one of Varanasi’s labels is the city of temples.
The very scruffy cook at my hotel served up the best Indian meal I’ve ever had. A tuk-tuk driver told me the sad story of his ‘love marriage’ to a woman of a lower caste and how both their families had abandoned them because of it. The skinny man who rowed me up the river was quick to say he was not the owner of the boat, just the rower, and rowing was what his father and grandfather had done and he was proud of it.
My flight out of Varanasi to Delhi was cancelled because of fog and I had to spend several hours in an airport where the washroom had three mothballs in every sink and no toilet paper. When the plane finally left the man in the seat beside me asked about my stay in Varanasi, his hometown. I could only talk of the poverty. He responded by telling me about karma and how our present life is determined by past actions. These poor people, he said, are probably very happy to be living and dying there.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013