It’s appropriate that we finish our trip in the one city that most embodies the beauty, the history and the insanity that is India – Varanasi.
Oh my God, Varanasi.
It’s impossible to translate the utter shock, dismay and overwhelming fascination that you feel when confronted with this place that’s “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” (Thanks Mark Twain!)
This is the famed city where the faithful come to die so their spirit can be released from the cycle of birth and death. Where male family members cremate their loved ones in open funeral pyres and scattered their ashes into the Ganga. The very same water where thousands of people dip to cleanse their souls and wash their laundry. Where toxic runoff from local factories mix with cow excrement and untreated human sewage to form a potent brown liquid with 120 times the level of fecal bacteria permitted by international safety standards.
We woke up early to visit the flooded ghats. Stairs leading down to the bathing area were covered with water and lonely traffic signs in the river marked the height of the monsoon rains. We gazed at the current for a few minutes before spotting a large tree trunk floating our way, hitting into boats and getting caught in the fishing wire. The tree moved closer, it’s flexible branches spread in a distinctly familiar position, wrapped in what looked like gauze… What is that? Could is be? Is it possible?
The tree rushed closer to the bathing ghats where several people were washing and drinking the water. The tree slowly came into focus. We blinked. Nooooo…. It was not a tree. IT WAS A BODY. An uncremated, decaying, human body floated down the water, brushing against the pier where we stood, staring slack jawed in shock.
It was at this moment that we decided that we would NOT be joining the bathers as they dipped in the most polluted river in the world.
The next few days were no less interesting. We wandered around ancient alleys, maneuvering around massive cows and into crowds of colorfully dressed pilgrams carrying bottles of dirty brown river water. Skinny sadhus and gregarious holy men approached, asking for food or money, dabbing your forehead with color or shoving a basket of hissing cobras in your direction. Images of Lord Shiva were painted on every surface, flower offerings and remnants of milk colored the narrow walkways. People stood with their heads bowed, lighting candles at small shrines or smoked charras in front of the tall temples that line the river.
The monsoon rains poured down and the Ganges rose to meet the flood water on the street. We walked through the knee deep brown rapids trying not to think about the potential for water borne illness.
In this crush of humanity, with cows, traffic jams and millions of people, it was impossible to forget the reason why we were all here: the spectacle of life and death.
The sandalwood smoke from the funeral pyres drifted over the city, through the ancient walkways and temples. The alleyways spread between two burning ghats, a walk in either direction would eventually pass by the very open display of life passing from it’s physical form into ashes. Beside the burning ghats, children climbed the massive trees that were soon going to be sold for fire wood. At the water men carried their dead loved ones for their final bath in the Ganges. And in the street, right in front of your eyes, fire envelopes what used to be a living person. A foot turns brown, curling backwards as it’s reduced to charred bone. The untouchable man whose family has been burning bodies for centuries pokes at a wayward arm, returning it into the flames.
Varanasi marks the end of our time in India, it’s truly the culmination of everything that we’ve witnessed in this country. A place where striking poverty blends with unparalleled color and beauty. Where life screams past you in a rickshaw and death is just a part of the journey. No matter what God you believe in, he’s waiting for you in a temple, at a shrine or under a Bodhi tree in India.
And let’s not forget those Holy Cows.