I M M E R S E D I N varanasi
LEAPING INTO THE HUMAN STREAM
OF INDIA'S HOLIEST CITY.
BY FELICIA CLARK | the train station at Mughal Serai throbs with passengers
traveling through India's northern states. Red-clad porters scurry back and
forth with suitcases piled on their heads. Women in flowing saris follow
casually as yet another antique train, packed beyond capacity with weary
Indians, crawls up to the platform. Vendors race toward the train to sell
warm snacks and hot, milky, cloyingly sweet tea to outstretched hands.
My father and I leave the train station and wander into the cool, dark
evening tired and confused. Ours has been a relatively short journey from
Agra, but no train ride in India is easy and we're anxious to get to our
hotel and have a celebratory meal. We have been traveling through the
subcontinent for over a week now, making the requisite trip to India's
triangle of tourist stops: Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. We're on our way to
Darjeeling, where my father attended kindergarten, and Calcutta, where he
was born; but first we long to experience Varanasi, the timeless soul of
My father has been planning this journey for most of his adult life. He
says that he is like the elephant going back to its birthplace before it
dies. And I, who grew up hearing tales of the British Raj and eating
pungent curry with mango chutney -- all legacy of my grandparents' 17 years
of missionary work in India -- have jumped at the chance to explore the
land that left such a lasting impression on my father.
Born in India during British rule, my father refers to Varanasi as Benares,
the British attempt at the Mughal version of an ancient Hindu name. But
neither a name change nor ceaseless attempts at Christianization could
change the character of Varanasi, where religion, art and education
flourished long before the arrival of Europeans. In Indian mythology, the
city is known as Kashi, which comes from the Kashia tribe, who first
settled here 3,000 years ago. After independence from the British in 1947,
the name Varanasi -- which stems from a combination of the nearby Varuna
and Asi rivers -- came back into use. But the most important river for
Varanasi is the Ganges, whose holy waters are said to wash away the sins of
all who bathe in it. Most Hindus make a pilgrimage to the Ganges at least
once in their lives, and Varanasi, as the holiest of the cities along the
1,565-mile river, gracefully hosts thousand of pilgrims each month.
[RK: bzzt. the myth is 3,000 BC = 5,000 years old. Second, the city is
defined by its ghats, the block-long stairways down to the river that are
the focus of neighborhood life. Varanasi comes from the Varuna ghat at one
end, and Assi ghat at the other. My mother's house is the Maharaja of
Banaras' former guest house at Assi (pronounced us-see)]
The dirt parking lot at the train station in Mughal Serai is filled with
men idly smoking cigarettes next to their Ambassador taxis and motorcycle
rickshaws. We descend into the field of potential drivers burdened by
luggage that seemed light when we left San Francisco. With hand motions and
broken English we negotiate with a Sikh driver to take us to Varanasi,
which the Indian travel agent who booked our train passage assured us was
"just across the river."
Within minutes of leaving the train station we are stuck behind a seemingly
endless line of battered cargo trucks laden with produce. There are trucks
as far as the eye can see, miles of trucks, none moving. Our driver,
determined to get the fare he negotiated so hard for, swerves around them
and takes us on a white-knuckle ride along the shoulder of a dirt road,
barely wide enough for two-way traffic. We are on the wrong side of the
street going head to head with motorcycle rickshaws and bicycles. The
Ambassador pushes forward, forcing smaller vehicles off the road and into
the moonlit fields. This is the ride of our lives, I think -- possibly the
last ride of our lives.
[RK: in case some FoRKers are wondering where I learned to drive... even
*I* wouldn't drive in India]
to ease the stress of the journey, the cabbie prepares himself a hearty
portion of paan -- a mixture of betel nut and spices wrapped in a betel
leaf. One eye on the road, one eye on the paan, his hands move dexterously
between the two tasks. Then he chews the concoction desperately. We
continue past miles of stalled trucks until we reach a fork in the road.
Our driver mumbles something in a mixture of English and Hindi. Through his
thick accent we understand "short-cut." We're in no position to argue. The
hefty old Ambassador crawls onto a pontoon bridge, taking us closer to the
surging Ganges than we ever hoped to be.
We check to see that the doors are securely locked and cross our fingers.
Our driver is silent. Concentrating. Perhaps praying. With each dip in the
bridge we slide wildly from side to side across the red vinyl seat. Pinned
between my father and the door, I thank God my mother elected to stay home
and wonder why we didn't opt for a tour with air-conditioned buses and
pampering guides. Another dip and I slide back into my father, forcing a
smile to calm him and myself. Oh yes, I remember: We wanted adventure. The
planks of the bridge ripple beneath us like piano keys as the car presses
onward. When we finally touch terra firma, my father throws me a
why-am-I-here? I'm-too-old-for-this look and slumps back in his seat.
Indians come to Varanasi not only to bathe in the Ganges, but to die. One
look out the window tells us that: Muslin-wrapped corpses are being carried
to the river on bamboo palanquins. So holy is Varanasi that it is believed
that those whose bodies are cremated at one of the funeral pyres that line
the Ganges will attain moksha, breaking the Hindu cycle of birth, death and
pay our driver more than he asked after he delivers us, nerves frayed but
unharmed, to our hotel door. Never before have we been so happy to see a
weathered, mildewed hotel. We are quickly escorted to our room and order a
hearty meal of Indian comfort food -- mulligatawny soup, spicy potato
curry, chicken tikka, naan bread and a few local beers -- and settle in for
the night beneath the gentle whir of the ceiling fan.
As in every city along our journey, a relentless local waits outside our
hotel in the morning to explain how we must have a guide to show us the
sites. His name is Khan and although he speaks good English, he pretends
not to understand when we say that we don't want a guide. His persistence
pays off. After several minutes of haggling we acquiesce. By motorcycle
rickshaw he will take us on a half-day tour of the city, its famous ghats
and beguiling marketplace.
We squeeze into a tiny rickshaw -- my father and I in back, Khan next to
the driver on a tiny seat that straddles the motorcycle. We fight our way
through chaotic streets mobbed with all manner of traffic, horns honking at
the slightest delay. Only the cows are motionless. In this holiest of
cities, the holiest of animals -- Indians are prohibited by Hindu law from
harming the beasts -- clog the streets, plopping down peacefully wherever
they please, usually in the middle of traffic. Drivers steer around them.
We make our way through the tumult, choking on dust and exhaust, dodging
bicycle rickshaws and napping cows, to the Chowk, the heart of Varanasi's
The Chowk Bazaar is a dizzying maze of merchant stalls. On one side we are
tempted by naan bread fresh from the fire and rich Indian sweetmeats. On
the other side vendors sell brassieres, leather-soled slippers and brightly
painted puppets. Up ahead, a young man peddles used locks, a basket of
orphaned keys at his feet. Next to him is a stall bedecked with rows of
silver bracelets and earrings. As far as the eye can see, a rainbow of
colorful products fills the ancient arcades: perfumes, soaps, henna
shampoos, plastic hangers, cotton shirts. The narrow alleyways, cloaked
with white canopies to keep out the blistering sun, taunt us, daring us to
find our way out of this labyrinth. Dazed and vulnerable amid the teeming
crowds and constant calls of "sahib" and "memsahib," we are actually glad
to have Khan guide us.
Suddenly we come upon a kaleidoscope of sumptuous silk, bolts of turquoise
blue with vivid green flowers, majestic crimson with golden borders, bright
orange dotted with fuchsia paisleys. At one shop a silk merchant sits
crossed-legged on the richly carpeted floor entertaining customers with
small talk and cardamom-spiced tea, yards of fabric stretched before him.
Khan tells us that Varanasi silk has been renowned for centuries, and that
well-to-do young women and their families still make pre-nuptial
pilgrimages to the city to buy saris for their trousseau.
Sitting serenely among the tangled alleyways of the marketplace is the
Temple of Vishwanath, also known as the Golden Temple. This is Varanasi's
architectural and spiritual jewel, revered as the home of Lord Shiva, the
Hindu god of creation and destruction. Since it is believed that Shiva
resides in the temple, the site is too hallowed for non-believers, who must
resign themselves to a view from the shop window across the way. We climb
three cramped flights of stairs for this view, which Khan assures us is the
best way to see the temple. Much of India is not built for men my father's
size and these stairs are no exception; he bends to a 45-degree angle and
slowly makes his way up. But the view is spectacular. The Golden Temple
seems close enough to touch. The heady scent of sandalwood mingles with the
dust and heat as we watch the flowing saris of the faithful slip behind the
silver doors of the temple.
We make our way out of the market into the open air, passing Buddhist monks
clothed in rich saffron and crimson robes, many of whom are making the
six-mile trip to Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first sermon. Muslims are
also well represented in Varanasi, Khan -- himself a Muslim -- informs us.
But Hinduism clearly takes center stage here. We pass rows of women
squatting in the street selling marigold- and scarlet-colored powders and
rosaries of dried lotus seeds to worshippers on their way to one of the
city's more than 800 Hindu temples. The pantheon of Hindu gods is well
represented: There are temples dedicated to Hanuman the Monkey god; Lolark,
the sun god; Rama, the hero of the Indian epic, the Ramayana; and my
favorite, Ganesh, the god with the head of an elephant.
We walk through a humble vegetable market until we find ourselves looking
out on the Ganges. Khan suggests a stroll along the west bank, where
worshippers young and old throng the city's famous ghats -- stone steps
that lead down to the river. My father decides he needs a break from the
heat and humidity and sits at the top of the stairs to rest in the shade
while Khan and I meander along the river. The water is filled with women
soaking unabashedly in clinging saris and men in dhotis and loincloths
immersing themselves in the water, some gulping mouthfuls. Besides bathing
and drinking, Hindus come to the ghats to sit beneath tattered straw
umbrellas and listen to holy men preach from the Vedas or Bhagavad-Gita or
to sages recounting stories from the Ramayana. There is an aura of serenity
about this place. Buildings look timeworn and forgotten, but the fervent
quest of these people keeps the city alive.
We pass a group of women dressed in white saris with freshly shaved heads.
Khan explains that they are widows observing the traditional practice of
shearing their coveted locks after the death of their husband. They stroll
along the riverside seemingly at peace with themselves and their fate.
They've been spared by modern Indian law from sati, the ancient custom of
wives throwing themselves on their husband's funeral pyre. They will live
out their lives in religious devotion.
When Khan and I return to the stairs we find my father surrounded by
excited boys in short pants eagerly asking him where he is from and what he
thinks of their city. He is a big man among Americans and a giant among
Indians. He tells them stories of his boyhood in Calcutta and his love of
Indian food, and as we rise to leave, they call out, "Have a good trip,
burra sahib!" -- and wave and smile at "Big Sir" until we are out of sight.
[RK: pun alert: it is unclear from the transliteration whether they are
calling him a big man or an old one :-]
The next morning we wake before dawn, eluding Khan, and wander in pilgrims'
footsteps to the river. The chaos of yesterday has given way to calm. We
make a deal with one of the many boatmen along the river and climb aboard a
wooden vessel, not very seaworthy and barely big enough for the three of
us. As the boatman looks toward the sky, we quietly hope that the rain
clouds won't go through with their threat.
As if racing against the clouds, our guide rows energetically up the river,
past other boats filled with Indian tourists, past hundreds of bathers, as
the day dawns around us. We float past a beautiful mosaic of Indian fabrics
laid out on the river's edge, the product of dhobi wallahs who wash the
day's laundry in the river, wringing the cloth into tight knots before
laying it out on the banks to dry. There is no sign of the
much-talked-about bodies that float in the water, the remains of funeral
pyres that don't have enough fuel to finish the job. We see only boats and
rejected garlands of flowers.
The sun rises like a halo above the city, illuminating the countless
temples that form the west bank's skyline. We glide past edifices so worn
and haggard that they look as old as the city itself -- though in fact they
were built in the 18th and 19th centuries by faraway maharajas who wanted a
residence on the sacred waterfront. These once elegant homes now have
brightly painted ads on their walls marketing yoga classes and youth hostels.
The rains arrive and we are forced to abandon our tour for the shelter of a
houseboat moored in front of a temple. We don't get to see the famous doams
at work, the untouchables who preside over the burning of the dead. But as
the temple bells peal through the moist morning air and the river's edge
comes to life with pilgrims unhindered by the rain, we feel that we have
been touched by India's soul. There is no Taj Mahal here, no ostentatious
monument to the British Raj. There is simply a feeling of peace, a
spiritual beauty that has sustained India and her people through centuries.
For my father, this epiphany is bittersweet. Far away from India for so
many years, his imagination -- stoked by the works of E.M. Forster and
Rudyard Kipling -- created a world where the best of Britain and India
lived together: Hindi nursery rhymes sung by his ayah, warm chapattis with
marmalade for breakfast, tea at 4, freshly painted buildings and well-kept
streets. That was over 50 years ago -- before an "upstart" named Gandhi ran
around making noise about independence. Walking the streets of Varanasi
today, the tattered vestiges of colonialism that remain only serve to
remind my father how much time has passed since his boyhood. His India has
ceased to exist -- and in its place is a dynamic, chaotic land with little
nostalgia for the way things were.
After a relaxing lunch back at the hotel, we are whisked away by Khan to
the train station. This time he drives a "proper taxi," the ever-present
Ambassador. The rickety pontoon bridge that carried us across the river two
days earlier is now underwater. The streets outside Varanasi are clogged
with more trucks than before, and joining them are city buses with
commuters spilling out the windows. We sit in traffic for half an hour
until we realize that we will miss our train if we do not act. Khan
suggests that we walk ahead past the jam and hail a cab down the road. This
turns out to be a horribly muddy decision, but we follow, certain that he
knows the ways of Indian traffic jams better than we.
There are no cabs up the road. There is only one option: My father and I
cram ourselves and our luggage into a city bus. Without being able to see
where we are going, we head slowly down the road to Mughal Serai, pilgrims
to the end -- immersing ourselves in another river as we bid farewell to
the mighty waters that wash away sin, and the occasional bridge as well.
Aug. 5, 1997
Felicia Clark is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco.
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