Life on the Ganga in Varanasi, India
24.09.2007 - 25.09.2007 25 °C
The fierce storm that met us as we landed in Varanasi, India, turned out to be a fitting metaphor for my first 24 hours in this country of stark contrasts. While I had seen many pictures and video from Jacquie’s first trip here 3 years ago, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the dizzyingly hectic pace, the diversity of the population, the array of bright colors, nor the unexpected warm and open human interactions. Certainly India was immediately a storm on my senses, with a completely positive impact.
Varanasi is about the root of the Indian culture. It is a holy city situated on the banks of the Ganga (aka Ganges) river: lifeblood and mother of India. Impossible to sum up her significance simply, she is a place where the people of India come to celebrate life, to seek miracles in her waters, to make pilgrimage and ultimately, for some lucky few, to die and be washed away in her flow. As such an important place, Jacquie put us directly in the middle of it all, selecting a hotel right on the water, between two of the busiest ghats (stairways leading to the water, used for differing ritual acts, like prayer, bathing, cremation) on the riverfront in the Rashmi Hotel.
Our first night treated us to uncharacteristic weather – monsoon like strong gusting winds, and heavy rains. Exiting the plane, Jacquie was hit by a gust so strong, it blew her glasses off her face from the top of the jetway stairs. I made a dash at the bottom to get them, before they were crushed by ground crew, or sucked into the intake! We made our way from the airport by car, then by cycle rickshaw, and finally on foot through a labyrinth of alleyways and cows leading us ultimately to our destination. At once tired yet exhilarated, we were also treated to the celebration of India’s victory over Pakistan in the first World Twenty20 World Cup of Cricket. Storms battering our windows, with a flood of rain seeping through, we were kept awake by the addition of screams of exhalation and fireworks until the early hours. Nothing could dampen Indian spirits – not even unexpected monsoon rains!
Our day in Varanasi left us touched. We awoke early after our short night to take a boat ride up the river to experience the essence of Varanasi: life on the water. Here people pray, bathe, celebrate, sell, beg, buy, worship and, for some, die. It is all the smallest and biggest things in life along a ½ mile stretch of water. Water that, while brown and murky with the debris and detritus of everyday life floating by, it is worshipped, drank straight and bottled for home-bound consumption as medicine for the body and soul. More than life being on the river, life IS the river.
Whether boating or walking along the mud lined banks, it is all here. You pass by a rush of colors, smells, sights and sounds, yet nothing simply passes you by: crows picking at a floating, bloated, hairless dead cow; brown and white goats (big ones!) menacing visitors; pottery washed up and half-buried in mud along the banks; naked men, women and children bathing or doing laundry; yogis in yellow, faces painted or not, smiling, staring, chanting, singing; monkeys swinging wildly, throwing themselves up and down trees, buildings and temple walls; flower sellers peddling yellow and red marigold chains to adorn people’s necks; golden shrouded dead bodies lying on bamboo stretchers angling towards the river along the ghat stairs waiting for their turns on the funeral pyre; smoke announcing another in an endless 24-hour procession of cremations; temples spires accenting the sloping, undulating edgewater skyline; and boats, endless boats of tarred wood or painted metal with oars or diesel inboards bobbing, floating, rowing, motoring, bumping, even sinking, along the water. Always it comes back to the water. Ganga. Life. A never ending steady pulsing flow.
Setting out after our morning, we spent time in the labyrinthine alleyways and the main road just up from our hotel. As we walked, we were swarmed by people, bicycles and rickshaws – both auto and manual – and nothing could stop or move the flow of traffic. Nothing but – you guessed it – holy cows, Batman! The sea of humanity parted, we walked a bit close by one such holy beast, and as Jacquie passed (not quickly enough) by, it reared its holy head and horned her in the back of the thigh! Holy Bad Karma, Batman!
Walking later along the water after our first foray by boat, I passed a sign reading “Yoga Training Centre”. Being the child I am, I sat next to it, struck a very un-Yoga pose and looked for Jacquie to take my picture. Eyes shut for the picture, I opened them to find some Indian ladies passing by. Instead of a reprimand (which I probably deserved due to my antics!), I received a quick incantation lesson from one of them. She coached me on the proper mantra, smiled, and went on their way as sun began to break through the morning clouds. It left us smiling as well, and when we saw them passing on a boat not 10 minutes later, they beckoned to us to join them. Having just completed our own ride, we demurred at first before giving in and joining them. After all, the price was better than out first ride – what could we lose??
Lose we did not, but what we gained was more than we could have hoped – certainly more than just another boat ride. In just 45 minutes on the water, we gained better insight and warmth than we could have hoped on our own. First hand, we got to experience the Ganga and the banks of Varanasi with visiting pilgrims. For no certain reason, other than perhaps our smiles and foreign looks, these ladies invited us to join them on their holy ride. One spoke excellent English and chatted with us about the river and its meaning to them, while the others communicated with us through gestures, smiles and bright eyes. The ride ended, we parted ways with invitations to visit their homes, and genuinely kind words.
It is almost impossible to describe what we got from our ride in that boat, suffice it to say we made our way from the banks of the river with deep appreciation of India’s warmth: her people, her culture and her grand diversity. These ladies shared their time, gave us each a blessing with their holy Ganga water, and somehow imparted on us each a sudden calmness and sense of peace. Noon still some time away, we felt our day complete, our trip to Varanasi richer than we could have hoped, and our start in India magical. India is life at its purest. As soon as you think adrenaline has subsuded, you get another chance to feel the pulse again – and at checkout from our hotel, we got another opportunity to experience one of the iconic modes of Indian transport : the “Tuk-Tuk” or Auto rickshaw!
The auto-rickshaw is many things to many people– transport, taxi, pickup-truck. For those of us from the west, it can be a thrill-ride, a rollercoaster, or an absolute terror, as you sit inches behind a driver steering the single wheel up front of this metal framed passenger cage throught harrowing traffic situations. The tuk-tuk drivers seems trained to know the absolute limits of their vehicles, from the width and height to a millimeter, to the absolute top speeds possible to bob and weave through the ever-presetn flow of vehicular, human and animal traffic, as well as dealing with multiple obstacles and road conditions. Needeless to say, sittin ginthe back of a tuk-tuk is hairy enough, much less doing it with large backpacks on your laps and knees hanging precariously out of the side of these little death-traps. Not our first ride and by no means our last, the tuk-tuk is literally a moving event not to be missed in India. It is perhaps the best way to experience the essence of India and get to the heart of her excitement.
My senses still tingling, we prepare to move onwards to our next stop: the magical white spires of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India!