Photos at: www.icelu.com/Benares
Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varanasi
I'm in Benares. Also called Varanasi.
I was anticipating a "cultural / historical /
educational" experience. The guide book quotes Mark Twain: "Older than
history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and it looks
twice as old as all of them put together." I've been
surprised to find a vibrant, and friendly town. It is
old. But my guide pointed out much new construction. Rebuilding
old buildings in a newer style. These are, I think, signs of the
flat world. This is Hindu's most sacred place, a place of
pilgrimage. The tourist industry is not geared to westerners, but the
Indian making pilgrimage and holiday. Surprisingly Benaires is
much better organized than Delhi and Agra. Check out the electric
wires. Power poles. What a concept. Life happens on the rooftops.
I've been watching the children flying kites. Must have been 100
of them up this afternoon. The Indian tourists, cruise the
river in open row boats and walk and picnic on the far beach.
They are flying kites too. The hotel manager mentioned a half a
dozen schools that give sitar lessons and there are many Yoga
teachers. I've been having interesting, personal and enlightening
conversations with many of the hotel staff. A Nepali from Pokara
has been engaging. This is the first place in India I could
imagine staying for a length of time. I'm writing this after
being here a couple days and getting my bearings.
The account below is of my encounter with the "Ghats" when I
first arrived and was sick. I warn you it's not pleasant. I
include it because it captures an aspect of the place and my experience
that's real. I must say that I appreciate the Ghats because they
are real, - not institutionalized, sanitized, .... how life has been
lived for the 10,000 years before the world began to flatten. And
I appreciate flatness and our sanitized culture more. Though,
something has been lost.
************************* Written day before yesterday
First full day in Varanasi, Benairus. Got totally exhausted in the
morning in an hour. Went for a walk. Down to the Ghats. Amazed and
overwhelmed at the piles of wood, used for cremation. Emotionally
stressed that people continually accost me trying to sell me things.
Also, I'm trying to take pictures that I feel are an invasion of
privacy. But I want the pictures. I'm afraid that I won't believe this
really is so when I get home if I don't take the picture. On pins and
needles that people will be upset. No one seems to mind or notice.
Except when I come around the corner and see the burning Ghat. I don't
know what I expected, but the reality of seeing the fire, and all the
ceremony going on around it ... with hundreds of people all around
carrying on their lives, bathing in the Ganges. I'm staggered. I run my
camera on automatic. A man grabs my arm. I'm shocked. I shake him off.
He explains that photographing the burning Ghat is not permitted.
People will be angry and break the camera. He speaks pretty good
English. I suspect a scam. He insists that I talk to another man. I go
halfway and motion the man to come to me so we meet in a street. He
says photographing the Ghat is not permitted. I say fine, put my camera
away. He seems satisfied. (I'm surprised.) Though 10 feet down the
street a man approaches saying I can photograph the Ghat, if pay money.
I'm convinced it's a scam. I go back down toward the Ghat.
A man approaches. He seems less aggressive. Says he will take me for an
hour in his boat for 150 Rs. I don't respond. He doesn't persist, but
steps aside. After a few minutes I ask him about his offer and we
I discover over the course of the boat ride that he is capable and
knowledgeable. His morning fare did not show up. I was the
opportunity. He tells me:
There are 2 burning Ghats. Only rich people can afford them. He point's
out the house of the man who owns the main burning ghat. Says he is an
untouchable, but he's rich since he owns the ghat that rich people pay
a lot to cremate their relatives. People who are not rich cremate their
relatives elsewhere and bring the ashes, hire a boat and put the ashes
in the river. Five kinds of people who have died can not be cremated:
babies, women who are pregnant, people with small pox or leprosy.....?
They are tied to rocks and put in the river. After a few days the
bodies and body parts come up, float down the river and wash up on the
shore. He points out a baby that is being prepared on the shore for
water burial. Along side this are people bathing and performing rituals
and washing clothes. There are “sadus”, holy men, all over
the shore. Many are sitting completely still, meditating. Children are
swimming. My boatman says that there are many kinds of Ghats. Just 2
burning ghats. There are Ghats for people from different places.
Nepalese people have a temple and their own ghat, the Nepal Ghat.
There's a Rajistani Ghat; a Muslim Ghat .... There are bathing ghats,
clothes washing ghats, puja (cerimony) ghats. When tourists learn that
their clothes were washed in the river they are upset because of the
pollution. Of course the locals think they've been blessed. He points
out animal bodies in the river goats and a dead cow. He points
out the fishing boats and says the fish brings 100 rs a kilo in the
local market. He says there are dolphins in the river. He points out
mud on the lower ghat steps. He says that will be cleaned off. Two
weeks ago the river was twenty feet higher and he says that it took 4
men to row upstream as he is doing by himself now. Then the river was,
I'd guess, a mile wide. Now it's 300 yards. The water is muddy with
sediment. He says that in a couple weeks it will be clear, white. The
water has come from the Himalayas. It runs swift and cold. He hails a
man who greets him. He says that the man is his sister's husband. He
owns many boats and is rich. He says his sister is lucky. The man
looked like anyone else ... another boatman.
There are many people taking boat rides like myself, but most in groups
of 6 to 12. The vast majority are Indians. They are enjoying
themselves. They are on holiday. The sky is full of birds. Flocks of
eagles and swallows. The parrots stay to the trees.
The boat ride ends. I give my boatman 300, rs, twice what we'd agreed.
He asks for more. I'm upset. Why? What does it matter? What is it about
money transactions and human interactions that are so emotionally
confusing and upsetting, for me.
I am not 100 yards from my hotel, but hopelessly lost. I have to ask
for directions 5 times. I am emotionally exhausted. I stagger up to my
room. I have the penthouse apartment at the top of this hotel
recommended in the guidebook. It cost several times the rate of the
other rooms and the manager only showed it to me since I wanted a
window. He seemed to think it was unreasonably expensive. 600 rs, about
$15 a night. It's on the 6th floor with views up and down the river and
most of the roof tops around where the children are flying kites,
playing cricket and roller-skating. With my binoculars I watch the
eagles and the activity of people across the river. I'm recovering from
diarrhea and a bad cold. It is a sanctuary. I am fragile. I am aware of
the people around me, the Indians. They are so full of energy,
ambition, playfulness. They retreat to their family compounds. This is
mine. And I write to you.