Travels in India, 2001: (4) Varanasi

Varanasi, where are hats, ghats and goats, where Indians come to pray and widows to die.

After New Delhi – even after Old Delhi – I found Varanasi a shock. So many people lining the streets, so many cows, scooters, dogs, bikes, beggars and knee-deep rubbish – and that was just driving in from the airport.

I checked in to a hotel and had my bags taken up to a clean, tidy, but not very restful bedroom. Coming through the walls was the arousing call of a woman emphatically rejecting her last meal. Then, in case, I hadn’t heard the first time, she gave me an encore, after which the power failed (a not-unusual, indeed everyday, occurrence in India) and I decided to find a taxi, take my life in my hands and venture forth.

The day was hot and the first order of business was to buy a cap. Well, actually, the first order of business was to communicate to the driver that this is what I wanted to do – something that was achieved by means of arm gestures of the sort that a traffic cop would have employed if he wished to invite oncoming cars to park on his head. It seemed to work. The driver drew to a halt and, pointing to his head, nodded encouragingly in the direction of ramshackle curb-side kiosks on the other side of the road. All I had to do was get there. Women and children, I noticed, were taking this furious highway at a stroll, as if out for an after-dinner constitutional on the M25; so I could hardly duck the challenge. Besides, the driver was looking at me in that way which said, ‘well then, my friend, what are you waiting for?’ I tucked in nonchalantly behind the plumpest lady I could find and made sure to keep her between me and the oncoming traffic.

On the far side, my safe arrival greeted rapturously by the local vendors, I found a stripy, peaked cap, with an Adidas motif on the front and Nike on the clasp. ‘Very good,’ I said, handing over many fewer rupees than such a pedigree would seem to have demanded. Branding is big in India. The most hopeful sticker I saw was on the door of an ancient and decrepit repair garage. It read, ‘in collaboration with Mercedes-Benz AG.’

Now I had my hat, I could venture on to the Bharat Mata temple, which I had read about in my illustrated Varanasi guide book. ‘Bharat’ means ‘India’ and ‘Mata’ is mother, mater, mama, mutter: in Sanskrit as in the tongues of Europe.

Bharat Mata was a temple dedicated to Mother India, and its big feature was a relief map in marble of the whole country. My kind of map, in fact. Not one of those totally inadequate fold-away things, which has squiggly lines that professional map men look at and immediately recognise as a sheer cliff face, while some of us see only squiggly lines and are surprised when a distance the size of a thumbnail takes eight hours of furious driving round hairpins. This particular map had a 3-d mountain range rising vertically from the plain, like a thick collar of rough on the edge of a closely cut green – a sort of ruff of rough. Even I could see that this was the Himalyas, and flowing from it, clear as day, were the great river systems of the Indus and the Ganges which sustained the Aryan settlers of Northern India while they dreamt up the Rig Veda, the Mahabharata and other great treasures besides. It was a stirring sight.

Forbears of these Aryans spoke the common Indo-European language, so who they were and where they came from has been much debated. Hitler had rather particular views on the subject. He thought they were blond and blue-eyed, which from my experience of Indians thus far seemed a curious idea. The Führer’s other contribution to racial history was to suggest that the Aryans came from the legendary island of Thule, in the North Sea. This, so he believed, was where Aryans, fleeing from the lost continent of Atlantis, sought refuge before setting forth to seed the Master Race. (Support for this view declined rapidly after 1945.)

The marble map was endlessly fascinating and I remained for some time bent over the rail that protected it, and talking to myself. ‘Oh, look, the Khyber Pass’, I heard myself saying to absolutely no-one at all, picking out a slit in the mountains which may well have been the Khyber Pass, if it wasn’t something else altogether. ‘Sri Lanka’, I shouted excitedly, pointing at the far end of India with the enthusiasm of a Columbus catching, on the distant horizon, his first glimpse of the new world. Utterances of similar perspicacity continued to be coughed up for a while, until an old man, who was probably too deaf to be alarmed, bumped into me. This was a timely reminder that I was not alone and should leave before they started selling tickets.

Having eaten nothing but bananas and water all day, I decided the time had come to let the local bacilli have a crack at me. I chose cautiously – black bean stew, curried cauliflower, rice, a roti and two bottles of beer – and survived long enough to get back to my room and turn on the TV.

Only Indians could have come up with the idea of Bollywood: no other nation on earth has eyebrows which dance. I watched them perform for half an hour before switching to a sports channel fronted by an American who called himself, as far as I could make out, Randy Boss, though I suppose that could have been his job description. Randy was a deeply worrying sight. It wasn’t just that his eyes opened wider than anyone’s you’ve ever seen, but that they never blinked. Not once. Randy had eyes as motionless as those that stare back at you from fish tanks. His mouth was going nineteen to the dozen underneath but, above the moving parts, his unflinching globes remained inert like a couple of frying pans waiting to receive their bacon. I wouldn’t say it was entirely un-watchable. It was just that you didn’t feel good when you caught yourself doing it.

I went back to the gyrating eyebrows. There wasn’t much choice. Channel 8 was showing endless pictures of models parading up and down a catwalk. Without commentary. Without so much as a whisper. It was utterly mute. So was Channel 5, which had managed to procure ten second clips of old Hollywood movies and were showing them one after the other in some random order that must have made sense to the producer: ten seconds of soundless Cary Grant on a roof, then a micro clip from Abbot and Costello, then over to Gary Cooper being shot, noiselessly.

I was collected at five o’clock the next morning by Dhanajay Singh, who was to be my guide for the day. By five thirty, we were stepping into a rowing boat on the Ganges waiting for the sun to rise over the ancient ghats that lined the shore. It was as calm and as colourful a scene as you could wish for: pilgrims about their early morning devotions, meditating, praying or bathing in the river, smoke from cremation fires wafting across the river, cows and goats wandering unhindered, monkeys scampering on the ancient walls. It was a scene that might have been repeated every day for the last 3000 years, and perhaps longer. Varanasi, which used to be called Banares, and before that, Kashi, is a city almost as old as time itself. It was around in 1100 BC, and in spite of the fact that Muslim rulers for five centuries destroyed just about every Hindu temple that was standing, it has rebuilt itself generation after generation as the holiest of Indian cities, on the bank of the holiest of Indian rivers, the Ganges. There is no better place in India for a Hindu to pray, or to die.

Death was not part of my plans. I was here strictly as a spectator. Nor was prayer, although I have to admit that, bobbing up and down on the lapping waters with the chaos of Varanasi a million miles away, I did feel a slight spiritual tingle at the end of my toes. At which point, as if on cue, a small wiry man with dark spiky hair clambered aboard and offered his services as a masseur. Well, he didn’t so much offer, as take my arm and start to manipulate it – but since I didn’t physically remove it or tell him to take his ministrations elsewhere, the contract between us was, I suppose, agreed.

We paddled out into mid-stream and I lay on my stomach with my chin on my arms, while he pummelled my back, pulled my fingers out of their sockets and pushed my legs into positions they haven’t been in since a couple of fellows on a rugby pitch many years ago mistook me for a wishbone. No part was left unattended, including my head. He scooped up some Ganges water, which – as I was thankfully unaware at the time – has a faecal coliform count 250,000 times higher than the permitted World Health Organisation maximum! and poured it over my hair. He then proceeded to karate chop my scalp. For his final coup de theatre, he took my eyebrow between his finger and thumb, and squeezed.  Whether there were chemicals in the water that had numbed the nerves in my face, I don’t know, but I have to admit I found the experience vaguely pleasurable. At least it was when he stopped. In fact, I felt a new man, ready to appreciate the stunning beauty of the sun rising suddenly, and casting its golden shafts across the rippling water and onto the ghats, bringing colour to the cheeks of the stone steps and attendant pilgrims alike.

As the sun rose, Dhanajay put his hands together with his fingers pointing upwards in the position of greetings (namasté) and prayer, and bowed towards it. ‘We worship the sun,’ he told me, which is the kind of remark that has had generations of poke-your-nose-in-other-peoples-business Christians believing that Hindus are idolatrous heathens and in urgent need of the salvation of Jesus Christ. Which they are not. They are just about the most spiritual people on earth, as you can’t help but notice nearly every time you talk to a Hindu for more than five minutes. Besides which, while the religions of revelation – Christianity and Islam – have been bent on blood and conquest in the name of their God for centuries, the Hindus have quietly gone about their own personal quest for truth without feeling the need to invade another country or convert anybody, forcibly or otherwise. This has to count for something.

The sun sat quietly in the sky, uninterrupted by even the vaguest suggestion of a cloud. We drifted downstream, out of reach of the crowd on shore, and feasted quietly on the extraordinary medley of life paraded before us. Women, wearing saris of every colour, were knee-deep in the water, cupping it in their hands and then pouring it back as an offering. Men were bathing, washing themselves or simply standing in prayer. On the bank, sadhus (holy men) were sitting cross-legged staring into space, while monkeys looked down from the walls impassively, and dead bodies were burnt prior to their ashes being cast into the holy Ganges. Babies, apparently, (and animals) are thrown into the waters un-cremated but, fortunately, – or I might have screamed – none washed up against the side of our boat. I asked Dhanajay if he ever swam in the river. He did, regularly. ‘The water is dirty outside’ – he was right about that anyway – ‘but it cleans the spirit.’ He then went on to say that he drank it frequently and had suffered no ill effect. Akbar, the greatest of the Moghul emperors, only ever consumed Ganges water, but I daresay it contained a few less additives 400 years ago.

Dhanajay told me the names of the ghats as we floated past and none meant anything to me except the Dasashvamedha. The Ashvamedha was the horse sacrifice of the ancients. A King established his power over his territory by turning loose his finest stallion and letting it roam. Any land it happened to cross would become his unless the current owner felt inclined to take issue. When the horse had finished his year of walkabout, he came home and was suffocated to death. A sad end, you might think, for doing the king’s business. Except that this was not the end. Not quite. One further duty awaited. The stallion, you will understand, represented royal power. The King’s number one queen represented fertility. The two had to mate. So the poor queen lay down beside the still warm animal and inserted its penis between her thighs. While this was going on, the king and his other wives offered encouragement of a sort that would not have been out of place in the royal barracks. The Dasashvamedha ghat celebrates ten consecutive horse sacrifices, (‘das’ means ‘10’) once performed in the mists of time by a king of Banares, Divodasa – but as to the logistics of doing ten at a time, your guess is as good as mine.

The great thing about the river was that you could watch without being accosted, which was more than you could say for the old City of Kashi, the labyrinth of narrow, snaky lanes that ran just beyond the ghats and was dense with humanity. Thank heavens for Dhanajay. He walked in front while I zig-zagged behind like a second-rate private detective tailing a co-respondent. All human life was in those lanes, some begging, some blind, some with grotesque mutilations, some with no legs. There were neatly dressed children off to school, and smartly clothed businessmen going to work. There was a girl, who couldn’t have been more than ten, carrying a baby, and demonstrating her hunger by placing one small cupped hand against her lips. And on it went, street vendors, destitute widows waiting to die, all concentrated in an area the size of a pinhead, and most of them interposed between myself and Dhanajay.

We emerged onto a wide road and sunlight, and made our way back to the car hounded by a man, with two bandaged stumps for legs, sitting on a trolley pushed by his business manager. He tracked us until an American lady, with a scarf wrapped round her nose and mouth, who clearly thought Varanasi the most appalling spectacle she had ever clapped eyes on, came past the other way. She, he decided, was the better prospect.

I spent the afternoon at Sarnath, a quiet place a few miles from Varanasi, where the Buddha gave his first sermon and where is to be found an edifying pillar put up by the great Indian Emperor, Ashoka (269-232 BCE).

Ashoka’s pillars are an object lesson for all would-be emperors. ‘The people of the unconquered territories lying beyond the borders of my dominion should expect of me only happiness.’ So says one them. And there were plenty more, in similar vein, placed strategically around his kingdom. Some have lions on top, a reminder (should one be needed) that lions once roamed the sub-continent. Today the only lions to be found in India cling on in the Gir Forest, Saurashtra.

Varanasi airport was basic and overcrowded: the sort of place that, in Europe, is reserved for charter holidays. The plane was three hours late but either I was getting used to IST, otherwise known as Indian Stretchy Time, or that early morning massage on the river had done the trick. I was happy to wait.

A goat wandered in to the terminal and headed for the check-in. It turned out that it was going to Kathmandu, so that was OK. No need to worry about whether it had been properly potty trained. Actually the goat was looking rather pleased with itself, which could only mean it was unaware of the gastronomic preferences in those parts. When it wandered past, I took the opportunity to lean across and whisper some advice into its rotating ear. ‘Pretend to be a cow,’ I said, but I don’t think it heard.

By the time we boarded the airplane, the captain was anxious to make up for lost time. This was the gist of his brief announcement, and he clearly meant it. No sooner had the stewardess begun her safety speech, than we started to taxi down the runway. The poor girl looked rather alarmed and pressed the fast-forward button. She raced through the seat belt and oxygen mask drill and, in a blur of waving arms, was demonstrating the emergency exits, when the plane took off. Whereupon she was tipped down the aisle, and only by hanging on to a chair back and swinging into an empty seat, did she manage to stop herself being skittled into the rear lavatory. Actually I thought she executed the whole manoeuvre rather professionally. I looked across to check that she hadn’t forgotten to fasten her seatbelt and was pleased to notice that she was doing this in the prescribed manner: passing the strap in front of her and clicking it into the buckle provided. Not long afterwards, the supper trolley came round. I toyed with the boiled goat but, out of deference to absent friends, chose instead the curried chickpeas and lentils in a black sauce. Pretty soon we landed in Khajuraho.

… to be continued

© Michael Tobert