Varanasi – On river, religion and ritual

Varanasi, Benaras, Kashi …

City of a thousand years.  City of the Sadhus. City with a list of names as long as it’s list of attributes. The city of Temples, Religion, Art, Culture, Tradition and Education … one of the oldest, still very much alive and very vibrant, living cities in the world.

The famous Ganga (Ganges) River flows through the city and it is the aim of every Hindu to die in this city and receive good karma through this final act which will confer salvation on their transitioning soul.

It is estimated that the city has over 3000 individual temples and having seen just a fraction of these in my immediate locality whilst spending time there it is entirely possible.

Time spent in Varanasi was unfortunately plagued by sickness but nonetheless the city has left me with solid, impression of an immense, vibrant city with a historical, artistic and spiritual core.

Walking the maze of alleys and following the ghats beside the river it is easy to become metaphorically and actually lost.  Within the city can be found vices for every temperament. Hashish … bang … try it with the local lassi. Opium, ketamine, alcohol … everything is possible here. Masala chai and milk sweets.  A local shop keeper was initially happy dealer to my raging sugar addict, scoring dominating my waking hours and India fuelling the urge through its socially sanctioned past time of sitting for conversation and sweet drinks and snacks at any and all times of the day.

Start the day with a full throttle caffeine, dairy and sugar fix.  Maintain with regular refills of raw and refined sugar masquerading as local delicacies and end with more of the same.  Easy to slip into a languid, opioid-appearing, smiling, sweetened food coma.

If, however, you want to gorge on a buffet of artistic and spiritual delicacies (the 2 heavily interrelate) there are opportunities for observance and expression of all kinds and classes for every interest.  More shrines and temples to visit and rituals to observe or bells to ring than is surely possible in one lifetime.  Flute, sitar, tabla, raga singing and temple dancing to learn and practice.  All can be easily arranged by the shop keepers selling both knowledge and equipment and if they don’t have it in stock or provide it directly then their cousin definitely will.

Sitting or lying in Munna Hostel for hours on end, sweat pouring out of every pore from the early summer heat and a nasty water borne sickness I watch the ebb and flow of the River Ganga as she is toyed with by the tides.  The banks of the river slowly changes shape and will change back again over time.  Boats filled with the faithful crossing the river to picnic and pray on the other side, adapt their crossing routes as befits the time of year.

The river is at the heart of the city.  Cremations happening daily, if not hourly along the banks.  The physical debris of this practise being washed from the shore, further on into India, eventually out to sea and en route to near atomic disintegration and the enlightened Hindu/Buddhist age old tangent on physics as we all eventually become part of the universal whole.

Sunrise and sunset rituals are of such extravagance and populated by vast numbers of people who come to Varanasi on personal, often large scale, family pilgrimages.  The religion business is booming in the city.  Individuals with a blanket on a well-trodden thoroughfare and shop keepers alike are able to sell candles, incense, marigold garlands, red powder for a tika on the forehead.  Brass figures contorted into the shapes of deities; printed laminates, postcards and fabric banners or flags depicting your families’ favourite deities.  Ganesha, Shiva and Kali (both with and without consorts and familial entourage) are all readily available for a few rupees.  A walk on any of the side alleys can furnish you with offerings for any of the thousands of temples and shrines you could easily fall over on a short wander in the city.

Goats, cows and dogs are everywhere – which means an incessant supply of smell and shit, to mingle with the explosive amount of rubbish that the human inhabitants of the city produce.  In the early summer, as the temperature soars, the air in the alleys becomes fetid with rotting matter.   Unfortunately static due to being trapped by the high walled, narrow nature of the alleyways, breathing the air becomes an unpleasant necessity and the sensation of the city invading the body through the unguarded, open pores becomes an undesirable reality.

Given the size of the population of this city my thoughts turn to concepts of recycling and of ‘improvement’.  I see it as a danger to consider how to situations can be ‘improved’ in ways that might work well under different circumstances and to try to impose them wholesale.   There are systems in place here, flawed but available and local people are deriving a level of finance from sifting and collecting plastic, metal, paper and fabric from different sources for repurposing and recycling.  I sort my limited waste and add in some of that from the hostel so one morning when I spot the young local man who has started sifting through a waste mountain outside I am able to mitigate some of his initial sifting with a bin bag of plastic.

By doing this I am actively choosing to support a specific individual and not his companion, who on arrival has no chance to get involved in the sifting, since its already been done pre-contact – nothing is without impact … it’s always how I choose to (consciously or unconsciously) direct that impact.

Given the level of veneration that the local bovine population are given I briefly find it amusing and bemusing to see an older woman squeal in fear at the sight of a large cow blocking her path.  I take charge and escort her past only to realise the common sense of her angst when the truculent cow turns her head and butts me hard up against the alley wall, almost winding me.  Being crushed by a large beast is not on my agenda and and (again) I make a mental note to be more cautious of what appear to be local ‘idiosyncrasies’.

The love of the arts professed by Varanasi’s inhabitants stretches to the sharing of musical moments where the houses are so close together that the playing of religious mantras is an experience that the neighbourhood shares.  I confess that listening to one particular mantra (3 minutes on its own, eons in total) on repeat did take me near to insanity.  Undertaking flute or sitar or singing practise cannot be concerned with other people’s impressions or ideas … or would never be undertaken. There is very little concept of ‘private’.  All experiences are shared ones in places where all the aspects of living (and dying) happen so close together.

Animals and children are not given the sort of protection that I am used to in the West. Yes, thats a generalised statement but its more about the general concept than the individual reality.  In Varanasi (as in other places) I see children, ragged clothed and dirty, begging for money, sleeping rough both with and without families … I see cows and dogs with any number of ailments and injury, evidence of broken bones badly ‘healed’ and sickness and sores on every and all bodies.  It’s traumatic and the things I see are not even the tip of the iceberg.  There is no way to convey the amount of need that there is here in the city.  The inequality as evident here in India as it is in any other country.  The middle class of India exploding over the past 10 years and the divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ expanding in proportion.  That is not to say that I don’t see happy, well fed or apparently contented animals and children … but these are less in need of visibility.

My time in the city, mediated by the distressing behaviour of a broken body and molten, messy mind, is punctuated by various religious festivals.  I experience the joyful colour of Holi, the riotous noise of Hanuman’s birthday along side the ghats and the cultural delights of a music and dance festival at Sankatmuchan Temple.  Its the sort of music that wrenches the soul from the body and transports you to another place – the sound is often alien and the syncopation of the type that I am not used to but perhaps this helps in the transportation!

The sounds emanating from the city during festivals are of the normal kind but with the volume turned way beyond the usual maximum and with intent and purpose …  spanning greater localities and crossing water from dusk to dawn, no actually from dawn to dawn.

The ritual proclamation of daylight from hundreds of households across the city with the tinkling of a tiny brass bell becomes magnified and a tide of sound sweeps through the area with the light.  The city, home to vehicles of all imaginable shape and size, wakes fast and the noise from a thousand horns, buzzers and bells increases from a dull, night time rumble to a fully-fledged roar which permeates even the most protected, walled off nooks.

During festivities it’s entirely normal to round a corner and be confronted by a wall of sound from a top heavy sound system.  Or to see and mostly hear a small boat with an enormous, impossibly stacked set of speakers, decked out in red and gold flags and ribbons, motoring its way up and down past the ghats, supported by a large ensemble crew of fist-pumping locals all madly gyrating to music more at home in the local club than temple … but then India is more competent than any other country I know to fuse the religious with the ‘real world’, the numinous with the ‘normal’.

As a result of Life, Death is, of course, the counterpoint and a daily occurrence in this city, as any and everywhere else.  However, death here is a very much more public event than in many places.  Death on the banks of the River Ganga, within the city of Varanasi is a much desired (we all have this aspect of being human in store for us so why not create the ideal version) end for Hindus who believe that their location will assist them in attaining some karmic points and achieving a positive transition for the soul.

Varanasi can also amongst all its other names be considered a city of death since this is an aspect which so many desire, here of all places. Walking in the city can involve the sound of one (or more) cremation entourage chanting its way up and down alleyways, which deceptively bounce sound off their high, narrow walls, and into the midst of which I often inadvertently found myself.  Pinned up against the walls, often at the same level as the barefaced, marigold bedecked, body on its way to Manikarnika or Harish Chandra ghats (aka the burning ghats), I was neither disgusted nor afraid.  A body is just that, no longer the person it once was … for me, just a shell.

Time spent walking past the ghats … the smell of burning wood, the acrid smoke in my eyes and lungs, the flames, the charred remains of the pyre which I can’t decide are either body or wood (often deciphered as views of both), the dirtied, bright orange/yellow of the marigold wreaths and the burnt red/gold of the material used to cover the body … the starkness of the metal cradles holding the last vestiges of life, the shoreline black from hundreds and thousands of previous gatherings which remind me that we all end up the same way in the end … these sensations all gave me the gift of foresight … not that I often use it.  They reminded me of my own mortality and of that of those around me.  Life is seldom, if ever as long or as positively eventful as we desire it to be. Whilst I remain aware of it, being reminded of this is a grateful gift.

Life and death intertwined outside, lying in sweltering sickness on my bed inside, some days I hear the sounds of a death ensemble enroute to the ghats one moment and then the shrill annoyance of a local housewife screaming at one of the monkeys who has stolen some fruit or the batch of roti’s she was just baking, the next.  The revolving cycle of life is in visual, auditory and emotional technicolour.  Here, moment to moment, it is more tangible than any place I have ever experienced it, perhaps due to my sickness induce vulnerability but possibly because of the thousands of years and millions of people that this city has seen come and go.

Attending the morning and evening aarti’s on Assi and Dashashwamedh ghats is an intense experience.  In the morning the sight of the sun rising over the river and the sound of the singing would be peaceful and reverent aside from the creeping sensation that its mainly the tourists who want to be up that early.  In the evening there are several thousand people sitting on amphitheatre style steps stretching down to the river and boats filled with people, rafted up and stretching far out into the middle of the Ganga, all watching the bright, visual spectacle of a highly choreographed religious ritual.

The beautifully dressed priests, wearing cream and gold clothing, perform the ritual swinging of brass lanterns and peacock feather fans, methodically ring brass hand bells and liberally throw holy water and rose petals around all the while moving to the beat and intoning of their musician companion’s voice, drum and hypnotic harmonium.  It was impossible for me not to be swept away in the visual and musical drama of the moment.

Beside this river live numerous Baba.  Religious Baba who have left all worldly possessions and social ideas behind them.  Baba who have found that they can carve out a living by creating/fulfilling religious necessities and duties for individuals who will pay for the privilege of being blessed or having their fortunes told, or essential rites being performed on behalf of their families (living and dead).  Baba who can also cater to the masses of domestic religious tourists and international cultural tourists by fulfilling the stereotype and by providing the necessary photographic pose.  There are also Baba who are living beside the river and whilst waiting to die keep everyone plentifully supplied with cups of hot, sweet chai or honey lemon … after all its just another way to make ends meet at the sunset of life.

Varanasi. Alongside the river all manner of  life and death is possible.  Everywhere there is a photo. Every alley twist and turn produces iconic images and every moment is decisive.  Every second here is filled with sensations and colours, textures, smells and sounds which threaten to sweep me away into a hedonistic oblivion.

Varanasi may well be the oldest city in the world which remains in current, lived existence.  The layers of its past, present and future are all evident moment to moment and the interrelationship between what might be seen as distinct aspects are blended to form a place as cohesive and (sometimes sickly) sweet as any dessert I happily, if intermittently, enjoyed there.

 

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