life and death in Varanasi

Varanasi is India at its extreme: most colourful, exotic, exciting, spiritual and chaotic. Located in the middle range of Ganges in Northern India, it is the most spiritual city in India and the oldest in Inida if not in the whole world. Mark Twin remarked "Varanasi" is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” It certainly looks old with its tired buildings and crumbling temples. Pilgrims flock here to dip the river to rid of their sins and other come here to die – Varanasi is supposed to be an auspicious place to die for the Indus.

You’ll never get bored here as there are so many spectacles. Colourfully dressed Pilgrims chanted as they walk around in procession; music erupts from time to time from temples or indeed anywhere for god-knows-whatever reasons. Once, attracted by the music, I wandered into a temple. Three Indian men and a French woman were playing. They invited me to join in. so I did, trying my best with the percussion I was given. There are show men with their dancing monkeys and snake charmer with their snakes. Devotees bath bravely in the cold river, doing a semi-butterfly swim. The Sadhus are quite something to look at. A Saduh is a Hindi holly man who has given up all emotional and material attachments. They are usually clad in bright yellow robes, their faces painted, their hair long and matted, and their feet bare. They hold a holy stick or something more dramatic. Once I crossed path with a Sadhu who was holding a metal fork and I worried that he might stab me accidentally with his holy toy.

Every evening, there is a puja ceremony in front of the main Ghat (temple), by the river. It is a dramatic ritual performed by Brahmins, accompanied by music, chanting, singing, candles and fire. Pilgrims, locals and tourists crane their necks to watch the spectacle. Others watch from the boats. One image imprinted in my mind was a boatful of pilgrims placing candles on a bed of flowers onto the river, under a bright full moon.

Another daily ritual was the burning of the bodies in public. The deceased’s body is tied to bamboo poles, covered by a piece of cloth, decorated with flowers, and carried to a certain Ghat by their family members – if they are lucky. I watched the burning at a Ghat that accepted people from all casts. Even in death, the cast system doesn’t die away. The bodies of Brahmins are burned on a raised platform, the middle cast by the river and the low cast on the ground away from the river. I stopped by at the burning sites several times. Once I saw a man – he must be an ‘untouchable’ – hacking at a skull to smash it to smaller pieces. I was one meter away. Some tourists found it disturbing but I myself didn’t particularly so. If anything, the person was lucky as he/she fulfilled his wish to die in Varanasi. One guy told me that the men’s chest and women’s hips don’t get burned completely. So they are dumped into the river. Not all Hindis can get burned. Pregnant women, people died from snake bites, and criminals are chucked directly into Gange, the mother river, the lifeline for the people live by it.

Dying is obviously a big business here. Some dying people come accompanied by their family other on their own. They stay at special ashrams or hospices or by certain places close to the Ghats if they are really poor. An old Canadian man by his Indian man Gouind told me that you could only spend 15 days at a hospice. Then they kick you out. One man has been touring around the hospice for 23 years!

Life slips by easily in Varanasi. Today, the last day of 2012, was my sixth day here. I would enjoy a leisurely breakfast on the roof top of my hotel if it is sunny. The hotel is a piece of man-made haven. There are paintings, antiques and fresh flowers in my room. The steps leading up to the hotel are sprinkled with rose petals. A few meters beyond them, the reality hits: touts, beggars, rickshaw drivers, salesmen of all sorts would siege upon you. And there’s rubbish everywhere. That’s the down side. Otherwise, life is easy. I do yoga; I explore the ghats that are lined up along the western bank; I take boat rides; I walk through the maze of the old city or sit to sip sweet chai and chat with people.

There are all sorts of interesting and colourful around. Some come to study Indian music – Varanasi has been the center of learning since ancient days. I met a Greek guy learning to play sitar, a Japanese girl learning Indian singing. Some came here for spiritual quest. The Canadian man, dressed like a sadhu with long matted white hair, is indeed a Sadhu as he has given up all the earthy things. He has spent ‘a hundred years’ here. When I asked him what he does, he said: “I am a mediator.” What about making a living? He said “God always provides.” Quite an intellectuals, he spends a lot of time at the local book store every day.

Others are simply attracted by the cheap life style. I met a friendly America lady who works for four months at a resort in Alaska, which is enough to support a comfortable living in Varanasi for the rest of the year.

That’s not a bad idea. As a writer, I can go anywhere once my children grow up. I’ll probably not go for Varanasi but somewhere a little gentler. But I do think this is the right place to spend the New Year – a time to contemplate one’s life, especially when you are confronted by death at such close range.

Varanasi isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. For most visitors, it will likely prove to be a very memorable experience. It certainly the case for me.

One thought on “life and death in Varanasi

  1. This is a lovely piece, and I really enjoyed the perspective about the approach to life with little attachment to earthly things. Beautiful.

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