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The Bowels of Varanasi

I haven’t been posting much lately because I’ve been busy doing some freelance work. I’m now in Varanasi with the lovely Goddess Shiva, aka Kristin Sullivan. Having successfully finished the Delhi-Taj walk, Kristin and I cycled around Rajisthan, and we are now moving North East through Varansi to Bhodgaya, the place where Buddha gained enlightenment.

I am writing about the walk, and will post more soon, but in an effort to be current, I’m skipping ahead to the present.

Varanasi was waiting for us as we pulled in, a maze of filthy streets and dust-strewn alleys. Kristin and I had booked an overnight sleeper train from Jhansi, a beautifully dull transportation hub, and as we emerged bleary-eyed from our overnight cocoon we were besieged by an army of auto-rickshaws. Once aboard, our driver was nice enough to drop us off from the train station a full kilometer from our hotel, forcing us to camel our way through the narrow pedestrian alleyways.

Varanasi, being the holiest city in India, is a tourist enlightenment package haven. Our bartering power was severely compromised by the constant business of long-haired hippies and suitcase soul-searchers. The owner of the Hotel was a stiff negotiator, he turned back wave after wave of offers, even rejecting Kristin’s bearded volley, saying the price would actually jump from R 1500 to R 1700 ($34) if she continued to sport her fake beard.

Once immersed in the old city, the famous Ghats (steps) of Varanasi proved their mettle early on, rolling out a brown carpet of shit which yanked my legs out from under me. The city is lined with steps which lead down to the Ganges, the holiest river in India. It is also dotted with fecular street-piles (animal and human) which I seemed to find with startling regularity. Luckily as I felt my greased Indian slippers come out from under me, I seized on my recent Sullivanyana yoga training and was able to save myself.

Bathing in the Ghats

Bathing in the Ghats

Meer Ghat

Meer Ghat

We loped along the Ghats, dust storms swirling, our eyes denaturing, and our focus hardening on finding the Lotus Lounge, a supposed peaceful oasis of a restaurant above Mother Ganges. Kristin embraced her Indian culture by draping her shawl over her eyes, countering the blanket of dust Varanasi was rudely choking us with. Post dinner the adventure continued - we took the long way back by getting supremely lost in the dark alleys of the old city. The passages had a peaceful, but dark sensibility, as if we were peering into the bowels of a sleeping animal. We made our way carefully through the narrow streets. Animals took up the entire lane; scooters careened by making us press up against the ribs of the alleys.

Monkeys leapt onto corrugated roofs from above, creating a barrage of guerilla warfare sounds. We nervously tried to follow their route with our ears, counting the seconds before seeing them as if gauging an incoming thunderstorm. “Monkey problem, no picture!” A boy ran up reprimanding us. I complied immediately - I had already had my fair share of monkey incidents, having pissed off a protective alpha-male in Pushkar. Never point a telephoto lens at a monkey – they will seek to usurp your phallic focus with a menacing glare and a bearing of razor-sharp teeth that will strip your banana peel in seconds.

This way to enlightenment

This way to enlightenment

The back alleys

The back alleys

After procuring some delicious chocolate balls from two separate German bakeries - presumably the Indian market for German baking has not yet been saturated - we stumbled upon the Manikinarka Ghat, the main burning Ghat in Varanasi. Hindus cremate their dead, and scattering ashes in the Ganges is auspicious in a fire and brimstone sort of way. Logs of sandal-wood were stacked high, the claustrophobic piles indicative of the pyres to come. Fires burned in several areas, some small, some big, some old, some new. The cremations run 24/7 in Varanasi, a repeated epilogue of finality.

Several men dragged a flower adorned corpse into the Ganges for one last holy bath, and then brought it out to lay on the steps. A priestly guide explained the process. The corpse will dry, and then be cremated at one of the fire pits. A surviving relative (usually the son) will complete the ceremony by dipping a clay pot in the Ganges and throwing water on the burning corpse five times. On the fifth throw, he must crack the pot on the fire, signifying a final break with the dead.

Kristin was looking wide-eyed at several K9s by the river. “Are those dogs eating the remains?” “Yes”, the guide explained. “You see, even in death we are useful to life.” It seemed incredible that these last earthly remains ended up as food for animals, but there was also something beautifully humbling it all. Once you were laid to rest, there was no more self, no more ego, you were part of a chain, and your worth was no longer measured in substance, but in sustenance for others.

The seriousness of the holy city crept into my psyche. The casino-like temples and silly Hindu God manifestations that we had seen in past weeks seemed to take on a more serious, somber tone. Krishna, Radha, the Gopis, they were all Saturday morning cartoons compared to this, a more profound and moving experience. The part of Hinduism that seemed most alive was the part that ended in death.

Onwards to Bhodgaya, and then some relief from the hot weather at Darjeeling

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