Varanasi is disgusting. The Ganges is equally repulsive. If you are even slightly germ-phobic, do not, I repeat, do not come to Varanasi.
I've seen a lot of cows in India. I think there may be as many cows in Varanasi as I have seen spread out over all of Kerala and West Bengal. And, they can go wherever they like.
They can also "go" wherever they like. Shit is everywhere. You know it's not like me to use the vulgar if I can find something else that is nicer, but equally effective. But in Varanasi, it can only and should only be called Shit, with a capital "S". Piles of it, gobs of it, settlements of dung, coat the streets which are narrow, too narrow for cars, and dangerously narrow for pedestrians trying to avoid stepping in shit, especially when motorbikes careen at their own speed (too fast) through the alleys.
Mother Ganga, the holiest of rivers, is, presumably, also filled with Shit. But that is the least of what it is filled with. There's your pedestrian trash and non-biodegradables, there's the snakes, there's the slimy film which might be soap or scum from all the bathers, or the laundry, or God knows what. There are also the bodies. Some you can see. There are the live ones, pilgrims doing puja or bringing their dead relatives, people taking their daily bath, Laundry-wallas doing the wash.
But there are also the bodies you can't see, the ashes of millions that have been left here for safe keeping over the centuries. And, I was told today, sunk in the bottom of the river are the bodies of those who cannot be burned: Particular Brahmins, lepers, small pox victims, and children under the age of ten.
Just as you shouldn't come to Varanasi if you are germ-phobic, you should not come to Varanasi if you are uneasy with death, with grieving, with in your face, no holds barred, "Life comes to an end and then something must happen to the empty body and the people left behind will be the ones to do it."
In Varanasi, bodies are brought to the river's edge night and day. These bodies have been washed by river water, blessed, wrapped, if they are men in white, if they are women in colors, maybe their wedding sari, and adorned with gifts left by grieving friends and family. The bodies are sandwiched between two bamboo stretchers, which are more like ladders, in that the bodies are by no means concealed. It is on these stretchers that the bodies are brought to small pyres. Wood is purchased, weighed in some proportion to the weight of the corpse. The heaviest lot of wood is stacked near the shoulders, if the deceased is a man, and under the hips, if it is a woman.
Only men may light the fire, a wife's husband, a mother's son, a husband's brother.....Women are considered apt to throw themselves on the fire out of despair if they are allowed too near. I was told once that some grown children whose deceased father married a much younger second wife might let the healthy young widow come near, in hopes that she will decide to do the honorable thing and relieve her step-children of the burden of keeping her in dal and rice for the next 50 years.
After the body is burned, the ashes are kept for a certain period with the family and then they are returned to the Ganges by the whole family who have each shaved their heads and or facial hair, depending on their faith.
These pilgrims mix with other Hindus and Muslims who have made a sacred journey, as well as, the thousands upon thousands of religious and cultural foreigners who flock here, well, for a myriad of different reasons.
My guide to Varanasi for the last two days was bequeathed to me by my hotel, Ganapati Guesthouse. I chose this place because Nicole called me up and said I would like it, plus, Ganapati is another name for Ganesha, so I thought it would be the perfect place to brave the high-octane energy of Varanasi.
Deep showed up with the driver at the airport. He shook my hand and said with a full heart of sincerity, "Welcome to Varanasi." Right off the bat, I knew Deep was, well, deep. Before we reached the car Deep had already noticed my rings and informed me that I was wearing my butter amber ring on the wrong hand and finger and that for full ayurvedic effect I should switch it immediately.
Deep's insights into my life and his homeland came so quick and steady that I couldn't and can't remember them all, even a fraction of them. A guy of about 30 who can neither read nor write, who is single, the caretaker to his recently deceased older brother's kids, Deep spent the hour in the car from the airport trying to make me laugh ("Your face looks so happy, but your heart is not".) When I did finally laugh at his proclamation that "mobile phones are for the lies," he looked at me, his heart full of sincerity and said, "Thank you for that."
Deep thinks that mobile phones are so popular in India because it allows everyone to lie from a safe distance, "Oh, yes I am just around the corner, I will be there in 5 minutes....They will not be there in five minutes. It will take an hour. You see, lies!"
I hired Deep to be my guide to the "old town" this morning after a two hour boat ride on the Ganges at dawn. I put "old town" in quotes because the city is over 2,000 years old, so when did they decide to draw the line between "Old" and "New", I wonder. Deep was patient with my incessant stopping to take photos, and he was able to ride the fine line between telling me interesting info about the city and being quiet so that I could absorb the energy all on my own without too much extra babble.
Deep is a devout Hindu. He comes from a family of believers. They do nothing without consulting their guru, who is the son of their old guru. If they buy a lamp, they must call the guru to find out where the lamp should be placed for best benefit for personal and economic health. According to Deep, in his religion his Guru is greater than his Mother and Father because the Guru teaches Deep how to release his negative traits, how to open his heart and to live in Peace. Deep's Mother and Father are greater than any God because they gave him life and make sure he is provided for on the planet. So, by my reckoning, the Gods comes pretty low on the totem pole in Deep's interpretation of Hindu doctrine.
You wouldn't know it here in Varanasi. There are, again according to Deep, 56 BILLION temples in this small city by the Ganges. Yes. Billions.
He tried to explain to me exactly how that could be, but I couldn't quite grasp it in a logical sense. However, walking around the one square mile of "Old Town" this morning, I was, admittedly, taken aback by the astounding number of temples. So many belong to Shiva, the patron God of Varanasi. But you also have your Hanuman temples, Durga, Krishna, and, my dear friend, Ganesha who besides getting some good playtime in various temples, also gets a shout out above almost every single door in town. Well, at least in "Old Town". Who knows what they do in the more modern hoods.
Besides the temples, there are priests EVERYWHERE. What's that saying about throwing stones...??? All along the water they sit under large umbrellas waiting to dole out blessings.
They'll also gladly exchange a photo of themselves for a few rupees. I've been tempted to ask for both a blessing and a photo because they do have some of the greatest faces I've ever seen. It's like their faces are painted with wisdom. In some, the eyes are what give them power and prestige. The eyes fairly dare a person to look back....they say, "Can you handle the truth? I've got the truth. Can you handle it?"
So far, the only truth I've sought, well not sought, but welcomed when it arrived, was Deep's. In the car ride into to town, before I'd seen anything of the Ganges, Deep said, "To you all (meaning us tourists) this place is magic. To us, it is just reality."
When I got here and Deep had gone, I walked out onto the balcony of Ganpati Guest House and got my first look at the Ganges and the life that swarms along her shore. I believe my exact thought bubble was, "HOLY FUCK". Again, sorry about the crassness.
But Varanasi is crass. It is rude. It is brutal. It is in your face. It is "reality." It is life and death and Shit with a capital "S". It is hiding nothing. If you look into it's eyes it is prepared to tell you the truth.
Out on the water this morning, I watched as a young widower laid his wife's body down on a funeral pyre. Her body was wrapped in the bright red sari she was wed in. He walked around her five times, then a priest brought some straw lit from the eternal fire which has been going, by Deep's account, over 3,000 years. He walked around her again, went to his wife's feet and lit the pyre. All around him, the city hummed with the visceral energy of the living. As the fire struggled to take hold, the husband stepped aside, sometimes he watched, but mostly he looked away. I saw him wipe a tear away. One moment of introspective, silent, grief in a very public ritual of death and letting go.
"We burn to learn," said Deep from his side of the boat. "This is reality."
But Varanasi is not just crass. "We are not monkeys," Deep would say. "We are not animals. We are the humans, we must make not just our bodies happy like the monkey, we must make our hearts and our spirits happy. We must make for the good Karma. We must do all this that we do when our family member dies so that they will be respected and so that their ghost will be free and not stay here to make our soul unhappy. We are not monkeys, we are humans. We must nurture the soul."
Here's where the magic comes in. What we westerners might, according to Deep, call magic, anyway, is the ever-present thrum of spirit and faith that feeds off of and refuels the mystery of the Ganges. There is no doubt here that life goes on after death, that the whole of this existence is just a chain in the events of countless existences. Everything about this place runs on that same fuel, that supposition, that fact, that Reality.