Varanasi is a place of spirituality but it takes real earthly skill to snort, gargle and spit. Amateurs may give a half embarrassed cough and then spit out. Professional runners, footballers and rugby players have a mater of fact efficiency to their spitting. The real professionals however snort back phlegm from the nose into the back of their throats, circle it around at the opening of the gullet before spitting it out into the floor, or the Ganga. For a flourish, or if they are in bed on a train, they will swallow it before repeating the same process three or four (hundred) times. I realise that I am inevitable prejudiced by my western upbringing but I am experiencing things that are quite challenging and need some considerable thought. What follows is part of that thought process.
Varanasi is a huge dusty city, dusty pothole roads, mostly twists and turns. A huge number of backstreets and alleyways. Even Tuc Tuc and rickshaw drivers don’t know their way around. They will accost you and offer to take you to temples, silk factories, hotels and the Ghats, but ask them to take you to anywhere outside the tourist expectations and they are, for the most part, lost. Within seconds there is a congregation of drivers trying to get your trade, but when questioned none of them know the place where you want to get to. The point in question was the German Bakery. We wanted to go there for breakfast after spending the sunrise on the river. Whenever we travel we try to eat in places that have some direct connection with a local charity, The German Bakery have an ethical policy and put the profits into local employment charities. According to the research Jo has done they also have a roof garden with unparalleled views over the city. Is it true we wondered – we may never know. After several hours of looking and a rickshaw ride to the locality we still could not find it. When we first gave up walking and asked a a rickshaw we ended up with the group shown in the picture above trying to agree where it was. After 10 minutes they had reached agreement. They were wrong. There are few maps of the city and those that do exist are different from each other. The streets on the map named, the real streets are not.
There are no certainties except in the answers to any questions you may ask. Those certainties however evaporate as soon as you embark on a course of action. Well this is India you say, what do you expect. Its a different culture and you have to weigh these things against the considerable benefits. This is true and the benefits are a joy indeed.
Watching the sunrise from rowing boat in the middle of the river is an experience I will not forget. The devotion and pleasure in the faces and actions of those coming to this holy place is a delight. The quality of the light is superb. I have seen some thing like it in the desert and again during sunrise on the Mekong Delta but as yet no where else. The Holy Men do look rather splendid, but don’t they know it.
There are two Ghats that are allowed to burn. Each has a priest who tends to the temple that houses the “Everlasting Flame” and sees to the administration of the process. Government forms and death certificates are taken care of. The wood for the burning is special. Sandalwood is the best but is very expensive, about 3000 rupees a kilo. Most have a cheaper wood costing about 250 Rupees a Kilo (about £2:50). Rings, precious stones and other jewelry are left on all bodies but the poor. The poor remove anything of value first. Each morning, once the fires of the previous days burnings are out, the priests family take all the ashes down the river edge where they are put in the water and sieved. All rings and other valuables are collected from the ashes. The money made from the recovery goes, along with charitable contributions, to paying for the food for the poor who are often nearby waiting for death. Any bones remaining in the ashes are offered up into the Ganges. The burning process cleanses the body. No one cries because if they did the soul that is released during the ceremony would be sad and no one wants to do that to their loved one. Children, Holy men and pregnant women are committed to the Ganges without burning. They are considered pure and therefore do not need cleansing. Instead they are weighed down with stones and committed to the river. (As I write this a rather irritating young American woman is holding court at the next table. she has just said ‘ Words are only sounds. I could give out the wrong sounds but the vibrations would give the inner meaning, even to someone who was closed to listening to me”. Her 3 acolytes sitting with her then nodded in agreement. Give me strength.)
The Ganges is a cleansing river. Not just for bodies but also for souls. So from pre sunrise to post sunset bodies wash in the river, cupping their hands and pouring the water away from themselves back to the river as an offering.
There is no doubt. This is a spiritual place. The river has a peace to it that is beyond description. The activities described follow, to me at any rate, a clear logic. I don’t believe it, but the important thing is that those participating do and it clearly gives sense and meaning, community and purpose to their lives and that can only be a good and positive thing. It seems to me a perfectly good belief system, better than most and certainly better than the belief system I grew up with. Why then do people piss and gob in the river, especially when people wash and swim in it.
Yesterday a group of students from Varanasi University demonstrated against the way people treat the town and river. The key aim was to raise awareness of the health problems caused by throwing everything into the river or gutter. I guess the point was that although the Ganges cleanses the spirit it pollutes the body. As I sat on a rowing boat watching the sun rise over one of the holiest places in the world, considering the meaning of life, reflection on the morality of my actions,and in all honesty feeling embarrassed by my shortcomings, I made a vow to be a kinder fairer person. To be less selfish and to contribute more. At that point the man whose boat we were sharing proved beyond any doubt, that when snorting, gurgling, gargling and stomach wrenching gob spitting was concerned he was an undoubted master. It was constant. As the lumps of frothy phlegmy gob floated past me I found myself looking for any flecks of red. I did not want to be downwind of someone with consumption. When I mentioned this to Jo she said that she had been checking for blood as well. Meanwhile Varanasi looked absolutely gorgeous in the early morning sun.