Tuesday, March 22, 2005

From Dawn till Dusk

This morning I woke up at 6:30 to Hindu prayers broadcast over loudspeakers from down by Pandhey Ghat. Dhobis (clothes washers) were flubbing garments against the rocks in the Ganges, next to Varanasi's bathing denizens. Already, sharp sunlight cut through the fog--aka pollution--resting over the old city. Boats ferried wide-eyed (and wide lens-toting) tourists back and forth down the river to gawk at the puja-making, and body burning.

Right, the bodies. Varanasi, an ancient city built along the west bank of the revered Ganges River, is the holiest city in Hinduism. Devout Hindus go to this city to die. Families bring bodies to be cremated. Cow owners bring their well-kept herd (these are the best fed bunch I've seen) to swim.

But I didn't head to the ghats right away. Upon arrival in Varanasi I was feeling way, way over stimulated. The Mahrudhar Express, which runs all the way from Jodhpur to Varanasi, pulled into the last station at 12:33pm, just over 3 hours late.

Actually, though, for a 23 hour and 30 minute train ride, it was downright relaxing. I napped on my top bunk (of three), under three whirling fans, and later sat on the steps leaning outside to watch the sunset over the desert--for the last time, dammit!--chatting with some Israeli hippies from the next car over. All six of them, like many of their fellow dreadlocked, drum-toting countrymen have been shanti-shantiying abroad for over a year.

I waved goodbye to them at the train station, expecting to run into them on the ghats in town. But as always I met others a few minutes later. It's funny how the backpacker scene works like this. It's like hey, where're you from, wanna come with us to the market? How about dinner?

Actually, the market was too much, much too much. So I broke away with one Israeli guy, a laid back but tragically dust-allergic teacher, to explore the ghats. Sadhus give neck rubs at the nearby Dasawamedh Ghat (named for the 10 horse sacrifice done by Brahma, the creator), wiley children hawk postcards, boat men vie for business, offering us rides first for Rs 200 then going down to Rs 25 per person. But it was too hot.

It wasn't until late evening that we passed by Harishchandra, one of two ghats where bodies are cremated after an elaborate, if rapidly carried-out (there're always more bodies in the queue) ceremony, their ashes then scattered in the Ganges. First I saw the massive stack of firewood, and a small crowd of tourists gawking from a platform. We walked closer. No one's really paying attention to you, it's just business as usual: kids run around, goats blessed with red powder (tika) eat flowers already used in the ceremony, fat black cows swim nearby. There was a charred torso in the fire, and another corpse nearby on a bamboo stretcher, covered with a gold cloth and flower necklace. A man in flip flops pushed more wood on the fire, which was smoking a lot. I felt uneasy standing so close, and the smoke was quite thick, so we walked away, up the stairs past a rushing small river of sewage.

Later, at night, we walked by the ghat again. The drumming hadn't ceased, the bells still rang out, the fires still burned. Death stops for no man.

1 Comments:

Blogger GeoffyG said...

Rose, those guys at Daswasamedh have magic fingers, don't they? Glad you made it to V. It's def worth a few days, but I know you've got to push on to Calcutta. Sent you and e. Geoff

12:54 PM EST  

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