The City Of Life And Death – Varanasi, India

  Ground level, travelling with the locals, sleeper class on the overnight train to Varanasi. Tight, cramped quarters with eight bunks, somehow crowded with at least twelve people. I landed the top bunk, which I considered lucky having the option to escape the crowded bunks of the bottom, the bustle at every stop as people got on and off selling chai, cards and snacks, being able to catch a few hours of shut eye with my feet hanging off the edge into the aisle for all to smell. Striking up a conversation waiting for the sticky heat inside the train to subside, led to meeting some of the friendliest and courteous people, always interested in where I am from, what I think of India and offering a taste of their dinner. Always prepared and loaded with homemade vegetable curries, dal, rice and chapatti kept warm in their tiffin carrier (lunch box). The cool night air began creeping in refreshing the compact cabin as I climbed up to the top bunk to read until I clocked out.

From the back of the cycle rickshaw
From the back of the cycle rickshaw

Following the normal routine of escaping the clutches of the touts right outside the train station, posing to look helpful, preying on the unknowing that just down the road a cheaper ride exists. Heading to the old city along the Ganga, I was dropped off at the entrance to the alleys where the rickshaw could no longer venture and given brief directions towards my hostel. Intensity began weighing in on all the senses and it was only the tip of the iceberg. As I infiltrated the dense, narrow passages, walls towering to either side, blocking out any landmarks I could use, even the sky in spots and with it any sense of direction I had. A maze filled with motionless cows except the slow grind of their teeth, slowly chewing what they’ve combed through the abundant garbage for. Bikes honking as they plowed through the hordes of slow moving people, many with bare feet, somehow skillfully avoiding broken tiles, clay, glass and loaves of steamy fresh cow shit right out of the oven.

Stained and grungy with a pungent odour that lingers in the street making my nose cringe, I was envisioning things to be different as I turned towards the river. I guess I was just hoping for a fresh, clean, refreshing breeze coming up off the Ganga, even though I knew it was nothing but a contaminated, disease ridden stretch of water. As I walked up and stood at the top of the ghats overlooking from a distance kids playing in the water, laundry being scrubbed, while others meditated by the edge, one of the holiest places in the country, with at least a cool breeze regardless of its other attributes, it seemed placid, harmonious, where life and death came to meet.

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Then my stroll down the bank of the river began and with it my opinion changed. A holy pilgrimage site, ancient city with such a strong spiritual culture, sadly given over directly towards tourism. What I thought of as a greeting, many men reach out to shake hands, then begins molesting your hand in a death grip. Ripping it free with most of its integrity, trying to walk away, he followed to clarify that I didn’t want a massage. I thought it was obvious and no head massage either. Escaping one only to walk into another, while being asked for boat rides in between. Drugs on offer consistently, a handful of times within a half an hour walk, everything from weed to ketamine to heroine. Then the burning ghats. It is believed that if one dies and is cremated on the banks of the Ganga and their ashes spread, they are reincarnated into their next life. Hindus travel from all over to live out their last days to be close to the sacred river. People hail you in to explain the details of the ceremony, being shown around the ghat, while families mourn the death of a loved one. Trying not to gag on the acrid smell of burning flesh, visibly able to see feet and head sticking out from the temple of wood built around them. It was a morbid sight. After this the price of the wood is explained claiming it at three hundred rupees a kilogram. Talking to locals becoming informed that it’s a scam and it only costs twenty rupees and the remainder of the donation is used to support habits of their own.

The Blue Lassi Shop was famous for a reason. Smashing fresh fruit and curd with a wooden pestle in an urn to a creamy consistency with chunks of fruit throughout. Each one served in a disposable clay cup with the time taken to garnish. Quietly inquiring about the bhang lassi, I was brought to the corner bench away from crowded little shop. I ordered up a banana bhang lassi, and it was covertly made and sent my way. Bhang is a cannabis product generally baked into delicious treats or blended into a lassi. Taking about one to two hours to feel the effects, I sat outside the shop and patiently awaited the subtle side effects. After an hour or so, my body became mellow, sinking a little deeper into the chair.

Banana Bhang Lassi
Banana Bhang Lassi

I watched as funeral processions took place walking right before me in the narrow lane heading directly to the burning ghats. In such a short amount of time, five people were paraded down hoisted over heads weaving through the obstacles of the street, as their family paid tribute to their life. This continues almost all day and through the night. Not being one who reads obituaries and in western society death is kept more private, a family and close friend celebration of one’s life. This really put into perspective how much constant death and suffering there is in this world seeing it so openly in one mere city, just one corner of the map. It’s disheartening to see a place such as this, thousands of years old, one of such culture, ritual and tradition, being raped and pillaged by tourism and the large number of people feeding off it. I was only there for a day and a half before leaving, wishing I didn’t really take the advice of others on this city, feeling as if I was merely adding to the exploitation of death and mourning of others.

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