[So far – the group has temporarily left Delhi on a tourist trip by train to Varanasi on the Ganges.]
When I re-awoke at 4am, we were somewhere near Lucknow. The air conditioning vent was right next to me, and was so strong that the bunk was actually chilly; the last thing I wanted to do was to catch a cold with shows looming. I tried to doze off again with my head inside my rucksack.
2006 November: Monday
By 6am, having given up the attempt to sleep, I went to the lavatory at the end of the carriage. It consisted of a hole in the floor and the swilling evidence of the overnight excretions of the carriage. It was gut-churningly horrible. A notice above the hole exhorted users to aim carefully. (This brought back a memory. British Rail in the past had a famous sign in each train lavatory: ‘Do not flush the toilet while the train is standing in a station’. To which some aggrieved squaddie had added the graffiti: ‘Unless you’re in Aldershot’.)
Needing fresh air, or at least different air, I joined the freemasonry of early morning (mostly Sikh) smokers at the carriage connecting door. Through the window, I could see the very flat plain of the Ganges valley. We regularly passed rudimentary huts and tents at the side of the rail track. One of the Sikhs told me that people lived there so that they could sell produce to passengers if there was a stoppage or accident, (a strong possibility if the Delhi loudspeaker announcements were anything to go by).
As I stood and smoked, a man in front of me stubbed out his own cigarette, opened the train door, took a glance around, and then jumped off the moving train. I gawped at the still swinging door. No one else turned a hair. Just life on the Indian railways.
On arrival at Varanasi at 8am, we disembarked and loaded our luggage into a taxi. A group of spectators gathered to witness this phenomenon. Wherever we went, up popped an instantaneous group of watchers who gathered to stand around like a Greek chorus whenever anything vaguely interesting was taking place – like a Westerner blowing his nose or whatever. It was a permanent feature of existence here. You are never alone in India!
We left the station forecourt and drove out into the most insane traffic I have ever, EVER, experienced. (In an inspired malapropism, Malcolm described the journey as ‘mind gobbling’.) Motor scooters, donkeys, dogs, rickshaws, tuc-tuc cabs, camels, trucks, SUVs and cars of every description (including some that defied description), sacred cows, pedestrians, elephants, cyclists hauling 14ft piles of sacks, monkeys, geese, buses, goats – plus amateurs like chickens and the occasional vulture – all wheeling and darting and dodging each other by hairsbreadth scrapes, and all vehicles capable of it honking their horns at every opportunity. Our driver led the way in this respect, leaning on the horn for virtually the entire drive. Occasional traffic police stood on daises blowing whistles and waving their arms. Nobody seemed to take much notice of them. Most of the trucks had hand-chalked prayers inscribed on their sides – the main traffic safety scheme appeared to consist of prayers to the deities.
Within five minutes’ drive we passed a very recent accident. A cyclist had been knocked over and was lying on his back with an arm outstretched at an impossible angle. He looked very dead. A curious crowd had gathered to inspect the corpse. In India death is a spectator sport.
It seemed to me that the only way one could get through this place in genuine safety was by riding a cow. They were like islands of supreme serenity in the middle of a motorised Hades – possibly that was their genuine function?
Varanasi is one of the most ancient cities in the world and the appearance of the buildings entirely supported that claim – picturesque decay was the over-riding impression. The occasional freshly built and gleaming corporate bank or office looked out of place amongst the crumbling brickwork. The streets were lined with the usual shacks selling everything from the open-air cut-throat razor shaving experience to second hand fridges. One indescribable hovel advertised itself as a bar called ‘Cheers’! We careered wildly along the road going south out of town.
Passing the Varanasi Cantonment Station, we finally reached a quieter stretch, only to be halted by a striped pole across the road and an armed Gurkha sentry waving us down. This heralded the entrance to our hotel – the Guest House of the Gurkha Regiment Training Grounds.
In the quiet of my room, I checked out a guidebook to Varanasi. Previously known as Benares, its current name was coined from its being ‘the city between two rivers’, the Varuna and the Assi. With a population of 1.2 million, it was the holiest and possibly oldest city in India, where Hindus came to bathe to wash away their sins. If you managed to die here you could gain ‘moksha’ – liberation from the cycle of birth and death. The guidebook added that the place was dangerous after dark and that at least one traveller went missing every month.
The rest of the day was taken up with spiritual matters. Firstly, we were driven out into the country for about five miles to a village called Sarnath. This was a place of great religious significance as it was where the Buddha first preached about nirvana after achieving enlightenment. Named after the subject of his sermon, it was known as the Deer Park and as the birthplace of Buddhism. The spot where the Buddha had given his talk was commemorated by a beehive-shaped shrine about 100 feet high and constructed around the 5th century AD, although later damaged by the Moguls. Further on, was a tall banyan tree (planted in 1931) reputedly grown from a sprig of the original tree under which the Buddha had received his revelations.
Nearby was a concrete moat where three emaciated deer were corralled as a living reminder of the Buddha’s inspiration. A keeper leaned over the railings to tease one animal by poking it with a stick and then laughing as it tried to retaliate by biting back. Not sure how this fitted in with the spirit of Buddhist enlightenment?
As we returned to the Gurkha Camp, I spotted a horse wearing a richly emblazoned canopy over its back. Vinod explained that a wedding was taking place and that the tradition was that one had to have a horse waiting outside the temple just in case the bridegroom had second thoughts and wanted to make a run for it.
A mile further on, we passed a group of about sixty men, some of them banging kettledrums, running along the street. When we reached the head of the procession, I saw that the leading runners were bearing a stretcher carrying a corpse covered in a golden shroud. It was a Varanasi style funeral – and not, as I had first assumed, a Fun Run.
That evening, we headed back into the city to attend the ‘Ceremony of Laying the River to Sleep’. Apparently, each dusk priests lined the banks of the Ganges to carry out rituals to ensure that the river slept well that night – it sounded rather charming. We drove into Varanasi through the same hellish traffic as this morning except this time doing it in darkness. The panorama reeled past the car window like an insane circus. By 6pm we reached the city centre and the taxi drew to a halt. We then had to leave its relative safety and walk the rest of the route.
Jaysus! The fox had just become the goose – at least beforehand we had been the bully of the road; now, we were the quarry of every homicidal driver in the business. As I dodged out into the street looking for the pavement (which inevitably didn’t exist), my arm was bashed by a speeding cyclist. A dog skidded through my legs directly into the path of a car – it gave him a glancing blow and he limped off howling. Casting safety to the winds, I dashed across the street in front of three momentarily passive trucks, their engines straining like leashed bulldogs. Sweating and breathless, I reached a wide main street, the ‘pedestrian only’ bazaar area known as the Dasaswamedh Ghat Road.
While no longer in danger of being run over, this refuge proved to be anything but. The new problem turned out to be beggars. I’d heard that the beggars of Varanasi were reputed to be the most persistent in the world – this was an understatement. As the theory went that it would improve your kharma if you gave alms to the needy before the river ceremony, the needy had arrived en masse to take advantage of the situation. This was begging on an industrial scale. Mingling with the already dense ranks of plastic Buddha salesmen, came an array of deformed humanity that Heironymous Bosch would have thought excessive. One legless beggar propelled himself on a homemade cart, darting from one prospect to the next with ruthless efficiency. Five-year-old children tugged at my trousers; their eyes stared up with no more expression than if they were jerking the handle of a fruit machine. I barged on through the crowds ignoring every plea, no matter how horrendous the amputated stump thrust in my face.
Gradually our group reassembled for the final push through the hundreds of people shuffling forward to the Dasaswamedh Ghat itself. We reached the top of a wide set of steep stone stairs leading down to the river – the ‘Great Mother’ Ganges.
Halfway down the steps my hand was seized by a crippled boy aged about twelve:
I pulled my hand away – he grabbed my coat. I pushed his hand down – he held onto my leg. I shook him off – he grabbed my coat again. I stood and glared.
Now, I think I am as liberal and tolerant as most people but I was beginning to lose it. Fortunately, he spotted the genuine threat in my face and backed off. I pushed on through more crowds and rejoined my group at the riverside. I suddenly realised that, in the space of a day, this city had wound me up to such a degree that I had seriously contemplated clouting a twelve-year-old cripple. Not exactly the path to serenity that I’d anticipated. My kharma had taken a distinct dent.
Down at the river’s edge, Ratna and Malcolm had negotiated a ride on a ten-seat rowing boat and, after we clambered aboard, the rower moved us out to join another thirty odd boats stationary in the water. He banked his oars and we turned to watch the spectacle on shore. And finally got a glimpse of what Varanasi really could offer.
Twenty yards away, separated by ten-foot gaps, seven priests stood in a line on the riverbank, each standing by a burning brazier. Above them hung electric bulbs illuminating the patch beneath like umbrellas of light. The priests rhythmically swung blazing torches in circular arcs as banging gongs and the wail of Indian pipes filled the air. Behind and above them, a thousand people sat on the ghat stairs and watched in silence, their faces lit by the fires below. It was a deeply impressive sight – the lights, the night, the stillness of the audience, the waving arms of the priests, and the dank waters of the Ganges. A close and holy commune with the river itself – and a dazzling piece of theatre.
I glanced over the side of the boat and noticed something large and white and shapeless floating past just below the surface of the water. I wasn’t sure whether it was the corpse of a horse – after all, this was the ghat where the Buddha had sacrificed ten horses – or something else. Then I saw what looked vaguely like a human hand attached. It hadn’t been a horse after all.
The ceremony ended after half an hour. As we returned ashore, some men were stripping to their dhotis and immersing themselves in the river – some ghats were used for cremations, others for bathing. This act of immersion guaranteed eternal salvation after death. However, as this part of the Ganges was entirely septic, there was a fair chance of proving the theory a lot more rapidly than you might wish.
We climbed back up the steps to run the beggar gauntlet again, then headed back in the taxi to the Guest House.
Praying Statues at Sarnath
Next week January 30 – the shows in Delhi – and a media blitz!