There is the import and export of desires in one of the oldest cities in the world, beside one of the most revered rivers, as Keith Lyons discovers in Varanasi.
Most who come to Varanasi, deep down, are seeking peace. The ancient city formerly known as Kashi and Benares is the holy site for three religions: Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. For Hindus who flock to India’s spiritual capital from all over the country, bathing in the sacred Ganges is said to wash away all sins.
For me, as a non-religious outsider, I was also seeking inner peace, and perhaps a deeper understanding of the questions of life and death. But amid the surrealness of the labyrinthine old city, with its wandering bulls, revered shrines, marauding monkeys, and burning bodies, one thing I found was a place to satisfy my earthly material needs.
“It’s to die for,” exclaimed an American bohemian I’d met a few weeks earlier in Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha gained enlightenment. I ran into him strolling along the ghats — steps down to the Ganges that line the western bank of the curve in the wide river. Despite the 1256-page heavy Lonely Planet India, TripAdvisor and social media, there is nothing like word-of-mouth recommendations from fellow travellers. “So you are already at that party,” said Brad, impressed that I too had made it that far along the waterfront almost 2km from where I was staying. “Well, you can’t miss it, can you,” I replied. “It’s probably the only place of its kind right at the water’s edge, and if you don’t see it, you probably smell it.”
For many travellers who don’t want to be seen as sightseeing tourists but are in search of the authentic and the local, Varanasi seems to offer quite an array of experiences, some beyond the comfort level of leisure tourists who keep to the beaten path. Of the 88 ghats of Varanasi which are used for bathing, washing and ceremonial worship, there are two which are synonymous with the spiritual centre. Those two are exclusively used for cremations.
The same reason for bathing in the sacred waters to obtain forgiveness for transgressions applies, but for the recently deceased, it is believed that if their ashes are scattered into the purifying Ganga, their reincarnation cycle will end — and they will reach nirvana.
As the one of the ‘seven sacred cities’, the place supreme deity Shiva (known as ‘The Destroyer’) brought into being by meditation, Varanasi and its cremation ghats represent the ultimate ‘geographical cure’. There are rest homes and ashrams where the elderly and terminally ill wait to die, believing that if they die in the old city, they will be redeemed of all their sins by Lord Shiva on the cremation pyre.
Varanasi straddles the known world and the hidden, with the Ganges a crossing point between earth and heaven. For tens of thousands of foreigners who have Varanasi on their itinerary routes, it is fair to say many are seeking peace, but definitely not of the kind that involves the death of their current material existence. Instead, there is a curiosity about the openness of death and its rituals, and the chance to bear witness to the process which can be at the same time sad and soul-destroying yet also joyous and life-affirming.
For those that don’t share the faith that propels people to this city, perhaps any visit to Varanasi could be described as macabre or dark tourism, fueled by the antagonism between testimony and voyeurism. The epitome of this is the quest by foreigners to get as close as possible to take photos of burning bodies. As if normal travel isn’t stressful enough, the macabre tourist seeks out encounters that have the potential to be emotional and even traumatic.
I must admit, I did have a certain curiosity about witnessing wooden pyres where corpses were placed to be burned. And I did have a fear that I might identify a limb or hand being consumed by the fire, or even that somehow a writhing contorted face might emerge from the flames and snarl at me menacingly.
That didn’t happen. What did happen is that I passed the cremation grounds numerous times during my walks up and down the riverbanks, occasionally pausing to observe from a distance, but the sight didn’t stir me as much as the reflection that this was how a culture and a religion farewell their dead. Having been an altar boy in the Catholic Church, I’d seen my fair share of embalmed bodies in coffins at teary sad funerals, but there was quite a different feeling at Varanasi. Anyway, I didn’t want to intrude as a gawking foreigner.
I was just as interested in the negotiations for firewood between relatives and the lower-caste Doms. The price for 400 kg of wood can be around Rs 4,000 (around US$52), a visiting insurance broker from Mumbai tells me, as we stand on the steps beside towers of split logs from the Himalayas. “The better wood is more expensive, but the government is trying to encourage using things like coconut shells and cow dung cakes instead of cutting down more trees,” he says, before the discussion turns to cricket, and a New Zealand cricketer I’d never heard of who played for his beloved Mumbai Indians. Later that evening, to make up for my lack of patriotic sporting knowledge, I impress some local boys playing cricket on the uneven surface of a terrace by catching a whizzing ball with one hand.
I noticed that after the initial shock of seeing dead bodies, and after a few days, the constant exposure to these late rites meant that I could be sitting in the open-fronted government-approved 70-year-old Blue Lassi Shop and I wouldn’t even look up when a procession march along bearing a body destined for the Manikarnika ghat. Everyday hundreds of bodies are burned on the riverbank, with the no-frills natural gas crematorium operated 24/7.
I had already taken on board — and possibly ignored through denial – the message of Varanasi: Death is unavoidable. One day, I will die. My body will be destroyed. Life on earth is finite. Make the most of it.
So what else did I discover among the maze of alleyways, the crumbling palaces and the riverbank steps down to the river? Don’t dismiss me as a lousy traveller who can’t be without the comforts of home, but I have to admit one of the finds of my waterside wanderings was a red tent erected on the wide path, where a family had recently set up a low-key pizza eatery.
Pizza? Yes, hand-made, wood-fired pizza. When I first visited, Sunil has only just started the venture. He was going to get some pizza boxes and a label for Euro Pizza and arrange a takeaway and delivery service. The only seating was a few plastic seats.
Diners waited patiently in the cool evening, not so intent on breaking the cycle of death and rebirths but wanting respite from the hot spicy food served up in train stations and roadside dhabas.
In the distance, only a few minutes’ walk away, flames could be seen from the Maharaja Harishchandra ghat, Varanasi’s second, and smaller burning ground. Further along, sounds from the evening ceremony could be heard. But none of that mattered really. There was always a friendly grin from Sunil or a nod of recognition from his family members who cranked out the vegetarian pizzas. It was Rs.150 (US$2) for a ‘small’ pizza, but it was large enough to share. Which people did, with fellow travellers they’d just met, the whole of life made up of many triangle segments, their Varanasi stories to be told later about the burning corpses, the ashes scattered into the river, and the weirdest yet most wonderful thing: a pizzeria perched by a crematorium and a crossing to paradise.
 Savoury snacks
 A yoghurt-based snack
 Roadside eateries
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
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