Varanasi 06.03.11

Varanasi  06.03.11

(Pictures at

It has been remarkable, I am happy to be here in this ancient city. It is full of contradictions and I have wondered all day what is holy and what is profane, the streets themselves certainly seem to be the later but the city itself has begun to get under my skin for sure I swan across the Ganges today and I have witnessed the burnings that have gone on here for 3500 years.

I had a uncomfortable 25.5 hour train journey to here yesterday and last night. I was sat opposite a man who was simply unpleasant. Later when he was gone I was again refreshed and reminded about all that is good about the Indians, talking to a sweet man in the compartment and the train conductor was wonderfully mischievous and playful.  I had begun to wonder what I was doing here, another precious day of my life wasted on a ridiculously long journey that could have been made better with a little help and a nudge in the right direction but perhaps the cushions on my own personal pool table were a little flat and I wasn’t bouncing properly, perhaps.

I arrived into Varanasi at 12.30am it was dark and eerie, the streets deserted except for specters of lumbering bulls, cows in the shadows and skulking dogs, a street fire here and there with figures crouched huddled together keeping warm,  keeping company or cooking up chai. I ended up with a rickshaw guy who spun the finding a hotel out for a good hour and a half trying to wear me down and in fact he did, but I was already worn down and though I was fierce at times we kept driving around knocking on closed doors. We walked through alleyways and streets I could never have imagined, narrow  dark stinking, dim and spooky. He got an extra 50r out of me and later I saw him reappear to collect from the hotel.

The people who were running it though were good  bunch, 3 or 4 young guys who I managed to knock down from 800r to 700r they had a 24hour kitchen which was a god send at that time at night and they were fun and light hearted.

I got up next day with a mission and simply walked with purpose towards the river through the streets and into the lanes of the old city. Once in there I had had to ask directions to the river the guy I asked had said he knew a good hotel, everybody does it seems to but I had little choice really, but he turned out to be a good guy and the “Puja Guest house” he took me too turned out to be in the guide book, I would never in a thousand years have found my way to it. I have a very good sense of direction but the lanes of this place for the time being swallowed my inner compass.

The hotel was bare bones but pretty good I suppose from some of the places so far. The view from the restaurant balcony swung it for me with wonderful views of the crescent of the river Ganges. So I went back to the hotel I’d stayed in 2.5klms away and picked up my bags. It took all morning to get across town because of the madness of the streets beyond the lanes. I also got a rickshaw peddled by an old man who seemed to take more than his age to get there. I could have walked faster but just didn’t want to carry and negotiate the crowds and the continuous hustling with the pack and guitar. My heart went out to him so when we had my bags on his rickshaw, I insisted on peddling; he couldn’t believe it and tried to object.

I said “Listen, I am very strong, take this opportunity too have a rest, I will pay you the full fare don’t worry”

So he did, oh it was a joy just to hear him laughing in the back and all the people who as I peddled through the city with the old guy in the back stopping what they were doing and staring some even filmed us as we passed by. Trouble was when we got back to where I needed dropping he became really desperate and begged me clinging onto my shirt for 1500r for his wife in hospital, it shook me, I paid him very well but he was still desperate. I looked for him over the next few days as I wanted him to take me to the hospital where his wife was, but of course in that city it was hopeless. His feeling of desperation stayed with me for some time afterwards, for days in fact.

It took me a while to find my way back through the lanes, in fact bumped into the same guy as I’d met earlier which made us both laugh. He took me again the last 500yds of the way, and believe me 500yds in those lanes was a journey through other worlds around every narrow corner and up every step of the way. I dropped my bags, paid a deposit, the manager tried to hit me for 800r but I heard him talking with a Japanese guy and asked him why he was charging me more. I started right at him, he wobbled and gave it me for 700r. Then I went up stairs breathed out and had lunch on the roof top restaurant looking out over the Ganges. It was and is stunning that is all I can tell you for now, another moment for me.

The narrow alley ways are a place as I have said that I could not have imagined, full of cows dogs scooters well armed bored looking cops, shops shacks restaurants guest houses that you would never dream could do any business in such rancid stinking alleyways, the place is covered with shit. It is a shock and I have to say, yeah amazing, though that grew thin. I have wondered all day about the word holy, is this still a holy place? This morning I was convinced that the gods no longer dwelt here, they had left it long long ago and all that was left was habit and tradition, though I have, as I said after this evening started to come around.

Where is holiness and what is holiness, I think holiness is in the head, though spirituality and where that is found and felt is a different thing, I have felt places that ‘I’ would call holy out in the forests of England, and on the plains of Montana and the mountains of New Mexico and the lake district, in the currents of the Yellowstone and Rio Grande rivers, the temple at Orchha and Madurai, perhaps up in the rocks of Hampi and the Pandav waterfall, but along the banks here by these stinking rancid piss stained streets, I wasn’t sure.

I had a fairly decent hotel, I had a room with a view, I was fed and my card worked, I had cash. So I went to explore. I was still hungry so I ate at another restaurant, then got myself lost in the lanes and came out at the rivers edge, The Ghats are not at all what I had expected, they are more like a series of promenades joined together and made up of massive stone steps. I realized just how much of a run around I’d had last night with the rickshaw driver who could have easily dropped me here. I was still in a no nonsense mood, a few people tried it on, tried to pull me into some sort of deal, I have been offered drugs all day long and in the end exasperated I have simply said to their astonishment F… off . I have never liked street seller even when I was a smoker.

I wandered along and gravitated towards smoke at a far off Ghat and there it was remarkable, stunning, matter of fact, no big deal and deeply moving all rolled into one big ball of questions and no questions at all. Its simply there on the side of the river, funeral pyres, burning bodies, dogs, cows, priests, filth, ring tones, people sat and stood around talking, others hushed, a pair of charred legs, a head face down in the fire, men with poles bouncing the ends on the burning flesh opening the inside up to the flames, the air full of ash and smoke and the smell of burnt hair. I watched at first as a westerner in awe and something else but I couldn’t quite find the words to say what I felt, in fact I honestly didn’t ‘feel’ very much right then, it was a strange and unusual spectacle. But then a man passed me his eyes full of tears and nose running with snot and it was no longer a spectacle. It brought home what I was witnessing, I talked to my Dad and to Phil there, I missed my Dad there.

I came away and realized I had rocket fuel stored up from the frustrations of the last week and had heard all sorts of stories about the Ganges but I decided I would swim across. So changed into my primarks and sandals at the hotel and walked out into to the stinking alley ways and down to the river. I had my bearings now around the hotel. I passed Indians who just couldn’t believe my white legs, I honestly stopped traffic which made me chuckle but honestly couldn’t understand the fuss, I had a t shirt on and wasn’t naked. I walked on down the steps of the Lalita Ghat. I drew some comments from people sat around, a man was really going on and on at me about something so I said

“Shut up, you’re not the Mother Ganga police and I’ll swim if I want too”

He sat brooding at me but an old lady chided him too. I’m not sure what his problem was I think he was just having a go at a tourist. In fact as the week went on I got the distinct impression that the local were very jealous about the river though they sure as hell don’t look after this holy place of theirs, good grief the amount of filth that is daily slung into the river is appalling.

The river is wide and easy going, one side is the city built up in tiers with temples and turrets and spires that look as if they are resting on the Ghats at their base to stop it all washing away in the rainy season. The other side is a wide open sandy flood plain with the odd fishing boat moored and that is all.  I stepped in and my feet sank into its muddy bottom and then just launched out. It was a nice easy swim but I made sure I didn’t let my mouth go below the water.  I passed a few things floating that I didn’t stop to investigate, and pretty soon I came up to the other bank, which was much shallower. There were some kids stood on the sandy beach as I stood up in the shallow water and walked out, they seemed dumb struck. I walked out and just said

“Hello, Namaste”

They said “Namaste” I put my sandals on and walked up onto the hot sands. Looked back at Varanasi and was just awed by its obvious ancient magnificence. Yeah I could see it from there, an amazing city one that deserved all the reverence the hushed whispers I have heard all the way along on this journey.

I walked up onto the sandy banks and onto almost white sand, bent down giggling to myself and wrote in really large letters


The kids followed to where I was knelt when they saw I was doing something in the sand. I was absolutely belly rocking with laughter now. They were stood around talking amongst one another trying to figure out what strange and profound message I had written there.  My laughter rolled across the open space of the sand bars for quite some time as I looked back to the three figures stood around my writing in the sand, I was finally arriving in Varanasi. It was genuinely funny.

I walked along picking up little shells that I decided would be a wonderful thing to take home. Whilst I was picking a few up noticed in amongst all the trash and garbage a jaw bone, then a little statue of Ganesh and then a little further on a dog chewing on something soft and meaty and it came crashing back home what I was looking at. There were what I presumed finger bones and vertebrae and joints and of course the jaw bone I’d just seen was human. Oh my oh my, what a strange feeling it was. I made peace with it though and just carried on with the shells, when all of a sudden a great black crow called, I looked up saw the sun was about an hour off setting above the city as he flew back across the river.

“Yeah your right” I said “Time to head back”

Again the swim back was nice and easy, no great strain, leisurely swimming in-between the tourist boats. I got out the other side one of the Babas came and pointed at me and seemed happy to see me or at least amused, the old lady was still sat there looked over and said something I didn’t understand. I went across to him and gave him a little shell, no idea why, I just did, he just nodded and seemed to get my gesture. Then I went back up the Ghat steps though the alley ways to the hotel for a shower, I was absolutely electrified when I’d got back and showered and funnily enough, though I have read about the pollution and the chemicals and of course all the bodies dumped in there, I felt amazingly clean, like I haven’t felt since a sauna. It was really noticeable and have decided that I’m going to swim across each day

Later on I went for a walk down stream east along the river to a place I’d noticed from across the river just above the Ghat at the hotel I was staying at it was dark by the time I arrived there. This was the Burning Ghat, the place where the fire of Shiva had burned continuously for 3500 years, so I was told.  It honestly felt like walking into the fires of hell, there where piles of wood and timbers as it takes 200klos of wood to fully cremate a body some of the piles were over 2 stories high looming in the back ground all around the place, there were fires burning in special areas below the steps and vantage points along the Ghats, there were the pits or platforms that were surrounded by crumbling concrete and metal barriers like old football terraces, there were piles of glowing embers, limbs protruding, grotesquely and at the same time it was all matter of fact. Piles of fresh wood were stacked neatly waiting for a body, dogs curled up next to dying fires, cows and bulls picking there way through the ash and smoke. Groups of men stood or sat together, nobody saying much, shaven headed priests looking terrifying under the eerie spot lights and the glow of the fires, the air was filled with ash and smoke and the smell of burning hair. The earth was scorched, there were piles of rubble and filth at the waters edge and great piles of ash awaiting the rainy season to cleanse and wash it all away. Boats filled with the curious floated by on the current just within the arch of the flood lights and the glow of the pyres. I could see the place.

The river looked black in the night, it’s the place you will have to cross when it comes time for your own journey, on the other side the sandy banks looking ghostly and other worldly the place we are all heading, here they called it Opar (outside) the land of the dead (and Ispar inside, the land of the living the city side.) In European mythology called the Elysium Fields, Valhala, Heaven, the spirit world, the lands across the dark river between, it was right there to see.  A man told me they do not burn children or miscarriages as they are still pure, they do not burn people with leprosy or who have died with snake bites as that contagion could then get into the air and infect others, these cases were all just put into the river and left to decay there.  The whole scene reminded me of scenes out of Apocalypse now, but it was no movie.

It of course provoked great though, one of a promise to myself to live a full life, one filled with laughter and love if I could, to live a life not selfishly but for yourself, full of good heart felt deeds so that when it was time to judge yourself you would be peaceful on the way through the cleansing fires (your thoughts) to the river and across to the other side.

Still more and more bodies arrived I decided I would watch one the whole way through so stayed for a couple of hours, watching relatives dip the bodies on the stretchers wrapped in shining golden orange cloth one last time in the Ganges, then unwrap them and place them on the pyres. I have to say that the guys who built the pyres and set the bodies have my respect, it defiantly takes a special type of person to work within that kind of heat smoke ash and smells, they threw in lime and poked the bodies with poles so the flames leapt and did their job, I noted also that some bodies burned brighter than others and so it was true after all, even at the end. When the fires were just embers and the flames but a lick the priest of a particular group would walk solemnly and carefully to the foot of the glowing grey white pyre, turn his back to it and cast a pot of water over his shoulder so that it landed with a great cloud of smoke and ash in the fire. Then every one from that group or family would turn and make their way up the steps into the lanes and not look back.

I had been there for quite some time, I stank of smoke and the smell of it all was in my nostrils in my hair and soaked into my clothes, I needed some fresh air. I walked like a ghost along the Ghats quietly to myself wondering if in fact a week here would be too long, then up in the streets, there were weddings and celebration parties dancing wildly, cars and bikes hustlers and beggars, sizzling food, in the lanes groups of French and Russians passed me in the lanes I stopped to take photos got talking to the police who were sat around every few yards with their rifles and batons. It depends on how I’m feeling whether I tell people I work in newspaper distribution, or I’m a musician, or I’m a healer, or I have run away to India, that night I was a musician, they didn’t really believe I could sing,

“What you want me to sing here now?”

“Yes please, just a few lines would be very good sir”

So I did, I sang sweet medicine and it seemed to affect them, they looked embarrassed and excited all at the same time, I think I made some new friends. What a day it has been. Later I sat up on the roof top at the Puja with a cool breeze looking out onto the beautiful arc of the mother Ganges and unwound, again. I had made it, all is well in the world, and after India maybe mine will be a healthier happier place. I hope and we shall see.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s