The Banks of the Ganges at Varanasi are constructed a bit like an old fashioned football terrace. Lots of steps going up from the river bank almost 40 meters high. They provide seats for the worshippers to sit on and also a flood defense for when the monsoon comes and the river is in full flood. Like football terraces they have vertical walls reaching up from the river with narrow gaps so that people can get from one section of the terraces to the other. These vertical walls are only about 1 metre high but they play a crucial role in crowd control and lessen the risk of people being crushed during a major festival. A gang of four people had constructed a toll gate made out of bamboo and were refusing to let any western people through unless they payed a toll. This was of course a private enterprise scheme and in no way official. I rattled the sticks and showed that I could break my way through. While I was doing this Jo slipped through a gap and got to the other side. Knowing I could break my way through the gang looked less confident. I suggested a compromise. I would go through for nothing, but If they were still there when I came back I would pay them. The leader agreed. He placed his thumb in a bowl of bright green powder and then pressed it on my forehead thereby giving me right of passage. Such entrepreneurial actions from a group of 5 year old children.
Elsewhere along the banks other groups of children played cricket and other more usual games. Groups of young people hung around on street corners and creating absolutely no antisocial behavior whatsoever. As we walked we stepped around sleeping dogs, lots of sleeping dog and not a dangerous, or even barking one in sight. It did make me wonder why “problem young people and dangerous dogs” are such an issue in the UK. There are so many positives that it really does amaze me that any search for “enlightenment” does not seem to extend to having any sort of personal responsibility for caring for the city, the river or the wider environment. It seems somewhat, well, unenlightened. There seems a basic lack of education and willingness to change some behaviors despite the clear evidence that the current actions are unsustainable. Things may be changing. There are a couple of new Municipal toilets and there are some new green toilets and the cleaner end of the Ghats. There was also an advert for the Galaxy Hospital on a roundabout in the town centre which said ” We Treat, He Cures”. I thought that was a nice balance between some sort of self determination and the belief that everything is down to the particular God you believe in.
While I spent the day in bed Jo went into the old astronomy on the banks at the other end of town. Among the helpful signs, such as “ When the planets line up, this machine knows” was a notice that said (among other things)
- Do not throw rubbish in the river
- Do not litter Do not shampoo in the river
- Do not dispose of dead bodies in the river
- No frolicking
When she walked out she saw a man who had been washing in the river put his business suite back on, pick up a bag of refuse he had brought with him, and throw it in the river.
It appears that problems related to the upkeep of the city are not new. I have just read the following: “In 1897, author Mark Twain, said of Varanasi, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
If only the strength and beauty of the religious spirituality to do with the “self” and family could be extended to the secular and the environment. Still I have to admit that the Religious is still wonderfully awe inspiring.
The next day the cloud cover was low and moisture hung in the air. The clouds stopped the fumes of the city escaping, so by the afternoon the smell of rotting food and petrol fumes were overpowering. Some periods of heavy rain brought some relief but the problem lasted till nightfall. We decided to spend the next morning, our last in Varanasi, by visiting some of the Buddhist temples in Saranath about 10k outside the city centre.