Friday, August 10, 2007

The City of Purification


"Welcome to the Holy City" the sign proclaimed at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport at Varanasi (named after India's second prime minister). The Hindi, however said, Pavan nagari par aapka swagat. Welcome to the city of purification.

And they come, over a million every year. Not just to take a purificatory dip in the holy waters which wash away sin; for Hindus, this is the place to die, this is the place to have one's ashes immersed in mother Ganga, a sure path, so it is said, to moksha, freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth. The ghats (steps leading down to the riverbank) are lined with palaces built by the erstwhile native rulers of India, (who no doubted wanted to ensure that they did not return in a lower station in their next birth!), and are known by their names, as well as numerous temples, pilgrim guest houses, hotels, and private residences. There are over one hundred ghats clustered together on a bend in the Ganges.

Boats line the shore

Cars are banned from the road leading to the river in the old city. Of course, this doesn't make it any less congested. The road is like any other, in any Indian city -- chaotic traffic of cycles, cycle-rickshaws, horns blaring, vendors shouting, cows everywhere, and noisy, smelly, colorful humanity. From the Kashi temple (see above), it is a short walk to the Man Mandir ghat. Public cleanliness has never been a hallmark of Indian culture. The steps are steep and filthy, puddles of urine, piles of cow dung, goat dropping and dog poo scattered about like olfactory landmines. Families of beggars and rag-pickers have staked out various areas on the steps. Mangy stray dogs wander about hungrily, sniffing and scavenging. The area where the famous evening aartitakes place is right next door, and preparations are underway. Orange-clad kanwaris are everywhere. People line the riverbanks, bathing, swimming, taking a dip, washing clothes, expectorating or just enjoying the slight breeze that tries vainly to penetrate the oppressive humidity. The brown, muddy waters of the Ganges swirl past rapidly. A few boats can be spied in the river, most seem to be docked, awaiting the evening's rush of tourists. The opposite bank is completely bare, nothing but tall grass and the occasional tree. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world has not yet found it necessary to expand to the other side of the river.

The evening aarti

Our guide mumbles something about "adjusting" the price because of the high water level. "Nothing doing. The hotel said we had to pay Rs. 100 to the boatman. That's what he's getting. If he wants more, we'll find someone else." I'm absolutely sick and tired of being treated as an endless font of rupees. If they persist, they'll lose my business, or at least my baksheesh. To his credit, he drops it and goes over and whispers something to the boatman who doesn't look too happy. We get into a rickety boat (no life vests in sight), manned by three oarsmen, one of whom could not have been more than 12 or 13 years old. Two other tourists get in as well -- a thirty-something NRI from the US and a 40-something gent from Sri Lanka (or so one of the boatmen tells me later -- our fellow travelers don't say a word throughout the trip, and remain stony faced. Actually, I thought they looked quite miserable.) First we head upstream, hugging the riverbank, or rather the boats that lined the riverbank, bumping into one on occasion. We pass the various ghats, named after their royal patrons -- Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore, Rana Pratapsingh of Mewar, the Peshwas of Pune, Ranjit Singh of Punjab, Vijaynagar -- a parade of beautiful old buildings, some still inhabited, some crumbling shells, silent witnesses to a vanished age. The line of ghats on the left bank of the Ganges runs for about a kilometer and half. Towards the very end are the smashan ghats, the cremation grounds. We can see the orange glow from two pyres, the charred remains of several others. At the very edge of the river, a corpse lies draped in red, its feet just above the level of the water, awaiting its turn, family members sitting around. A stream of ash and flowers flows rapidly downstream away from the ghat. Sticking out above the water on a covered wooden platform is a gleaming, polished copper lingam. The lower castes made this themselves, since they are barred from entering the Kashi Vishwanath temple. There's just one more ghat, used mainly by Gujarati Vaishnavites. "They say their prayers while invoking the name of Krishna, not Shiv," explains the boatman.

Princely Palaces

The sun had set behind the layer of light clouds, and darkness falls as we journey downstream at a rapid clip, to the site of the evening aarti. The stage is floodlit, and bhajans performed by live musicians blare out from loudspeakers. Seven small altars covered in saffron cloth have been set up at the edge of the ghat, and seven gaudily dressed young men (I first thought they were women, the outfits looked like saris, but they were actually elaborated tied dhotis with bright red colored tops) took their places, performing the ritual with dhoop (incense bowls) and lamps, to Sanskrit incantations chanted by priests over the loudspeakers. There was a huge crowd of devotees and worshipers all over the ghats, and a dozen or more boats crowded along the riverbank, weighted down by (mainly foreign) tourists, cameras and camcorders awhir.

The walk back to the car park takes a good thirty minutes along busy, crowded road. Once we clear the "pedestrian" zone, the lights wink out, and a hum of diesel generators fills the air, and lights wink back on in a few shops. The street remains dark. It's incredibly crowded. A thin stream of sweaty, smelly, pedestrians practically at the edge, in the gutter, a cow or two, and a jumble of cycle rickshaws, rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, and the occasional brave car struggling in the flow, like an island in a river. The air is filled with soot and exhaust fumes. At one traffic circle, a couple of traffic cops in white uniforms chat idly. A non-stop chatter emanates from some invisible loudspeakers. I catch something about driving carefully, "otherwise, from having two legs, you'll go to having one!" I am certain that whoever was sharing this profound wisdom had absolutely no sense of irony. And over it all, like a thick, smothering blanket, a layer of heat and humidity. I grab mom's hand firmly and weave in and out of the river of cycle rickshaws. Crossing the street involves stepping out into the flow and inserting one's body forcefully in front of a vehicle and screaming at the operator to stop. The noise, the darkness, the heat, the sweat, the strident didactic noise from the loudspeakers, the press of bodies. It was hellish, a surreal nightmare. We reach the waiting car and collapse into the cool relief of the air-conditioned interior. I have rarely felt more like a foreigner in my native land.

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