From Varanasi

May 2, 2010

This is written during my stay at Rajghat, the Krishnamurti school near Varanasi, India, on the banks of the Ganges. It is the hottest time of the year, with temperatures exceptional even for the northern Summer, touching 47 degrees on some days. Very dry and dusty. One doesn’t venture out of the house much before evening, or in the early morning. zone room of the house is kept reasonably cool by a rather odd contraption, a sort of vertical fan that dips into water, spreading it onto a frame of dried grass, where evaporation cools the air which is driven into the room through a vent in the wall from outside. I am told as the weather becomes more humid, the devise becomes ineffectual.

My time in India draws to an end, and the Rajghat campus, high above the River Ganges, seems an appropriate place for these last days. The paths are stained yellow, mauve, magenta, in places, from the falling flowers from the tall spreading trees. Or carpeted with strange shaped seed pods. The buildings, though concrete, have a certain charm and simplicity.

Walking in the fading light of the evening, one sees many peacocks, and Hornbills, perched on the branches of the trees, their characteristic shapes silhouetted against the sky. The mournful cries of the peacocks punctuate the night, as do, if Ayan is to be believed (6 yo) the howls of jackals. And he is the expert on the natural history of the campus.

The Ganges is a remarkable sight from the “K trail” high above the river. It is very wide, and hardly seems to flow, here on the plains. Such a timeless feel to it, with the simple fishing boats drifting so silently on its slow currents. This morning there was a herd of buffalo grazing on the flat strip along its sides.

Some closer contact with the river yesterday, as we took a smallish boat from the landing stage near Rajghat to the ghats of the city. The water is turgid, thick, almost like oil. The smell pervades everywhere, distinctly unpleasant. The two boatmen, rowing, kept the boat close to the shore, where it as difficult to detect any flow, any current.

The water level is very low at this time of year. The banks are strewn with rubbish, plastic mostly, like some modern mulch over the land, as in so much of India. As one approaches the lights of the city there are the mouths of great pipes gaping into the river, discharging sewage raw sewage, in this year of 2010. And among the pipes and rubbish, in the midst of the smell, were groups of people, and individuals, standing in the water bathing. Bathing both ritually and practically, and washing the clothes they had worn in the day on flat stones at the water’s edge. As people have been doing for thousands of years. There is a huge metal bridge which crosses the river, carrying both road traffic and a train line – the train whose rattling also regularly punctuates the nights here. One thundered over our heads, and there was a joke about the dangers of being hit over the head from the train’s toilet – they are merely holes in the floor in Indian trains.

Past the bridge, the light was fading quickly, softening the lines of the temples which were beginning to line the shore, both ancient and modern. And now there were happy groups of children swimming, shouting excitedly in the polluted waters. I was in the middle of the boat, rather shrinking from the idea of any contact with that germ-filled water, when the children swam out to the boat and started splashing the water over the sides of the boat. It soaked our clothes, and some landed on my lips, to my horror, shattering my dream-like state. Suddenly the ghats proper started, series of terraced wide steps coming down to the water edge, at least they would when the river levels were higher. There were temples and lodging houses for pilgrims towering above the steps. Varanasi is said to be the oldest surviving city in the world, and it is regarded as being very holy. Merely to die near the river here is believed by the devout to be a passport to salvation. In the day the ghats are an indescribable bustle, but at this time of the evening they were relatively quiet. half deserted.

There were many lights ahead, but before we reached them we pulled past an area of ghats when large fires were burning. Perhaps a dozen blazing piles of logs – with another object seen in the embers. These are the burning ghats, where bodies are cremated. Small groups of relatives were gathered by each fire. Impossible to describe the solemnity and the depth of feeling arising from the sight of those fires from the river.

But quite another scene awaited us a little further down the river. A great crowd had gathered around two adjacent ghats, under blazing lights. A great religious performance was going on, a sort of circus of people blowing conch shells, ringing bells, swinging towers of candles, chanting, singing – all perfectly orchestrated, with a central character in white singing powerfully, his voice amplified across the river. There was a backdrop of strings of coloured lights, and even a video screen reflecting the performance, the “Arathi” as it is called, the invocation to the gods.

Out on the dark waters, boats were packed tight together, full of people who had come to watch the performance, as they do every night and morning, Indians on pilgrimage to the holy city, and plain tourists from all parts of the world. There was a young woman with a basket, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, stepping agilely from boat to boat, selling objects constructed from leaves and flowers. They carried a small candle, which, when purchased, was lit and the whole floated on the waters. Some escaped the boatmen’s oars and general crush to float out into the stream at the centre of the wide river.

Strangely, there were actually two rival performances going on at adjacent ghats, in competition with each other, vying for the greatest extravagance, the loudest, the brightest.

We landed, and climbed the steps, leaving the religious extravaganza behind. Passing in the dark through a few simple market stalls selling vegetables, we were suddenly subjected to one of those instant changes that India specializes in. In a few steps we were in a different world, a brightly lit street, unbelievably crowded, with motor bikes and rickshas forcing their way through the crowds of people packed shoulder to shoulder. Street vendors, their eyes always alert for potential customers, were selling exciting-looking toys, (and demonstrating them among the feet of the crowds), oddly shaped balloons, ice creams, all sorts of snacks. Lining the street were brightly lit shops selling everything imaginable, their wares overflowing into the street. Again, it is a scene only imaginable to those who have visited or lived in India.

We were carried along by the crowd, rather than walking, and somehow found the place we had in mind, yet another world, a restaurant in an ancient courtyard, quiet, isolated from the bustle of the streets by a passageway with archways, walls and ceilings of crumbling plaster. Somewhere near there was a sound of a cow.

Returning to the waiting boat, there were few signs of the performance of earlier. A couple of people were sleeping on the steps. A woman was arguing, or complaining to someone who was obscured by the dark shadows. Some faded flowers scattered around. The boat pulled out to centre stream, where the current would do most of the work of carrying us home. It was a trip of enchantment under an almost full moon, with some stretched out sleeping on the wooden boards.
Fires were still burning brightly at the funeral ghats. Probably there had been fires there continuously for hundreds if not thousands of years. Death is something that never ends.


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