Varanasi ( Part 1 of 3) : Mourning Mists Upon the River of Myths
Varanasi Travel Blog› entry 230 of 268 › view all entries
December 6th, 2009 – by: Stevie_Wes
We make our way carefully along passageways and down stone steps made treacherous by the broken paving, water, waste and cow excreta that form the city's uniquely pungent carpet.
But where is she? The great river concealed also by the night. Her glassy surface capable only of reflecting the black void above her this time of day, she remains invisible. Only a few faint amber bulbs strung high above the ghat steps throw any light and definition on our scene. Then cutting in from our left a flock of gulls skim along, inches above the rivers surface. Their clear reflections, mirror or spirit images that streak beneath the waters skin, revealing her presence. Something causes the flock to raise a few inches in flight stretching the distance between themselves and their reflected souls.
Pushing off in our boat, the oars now routinely break up the taught body of the Ganges, sending out oily black ripples tinged with gold as they play with lights sent from the riverbank. At this time of morning their is yet little activity at Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi's primary site of ceremonial cremation. A pair of shadows tend to a couple of gently smouldering piles of ash and former lives. These throw milky wreathes of smoke into the air. Mingling with the eerie morning mists that collect and whisper on the ghats before daylight disbands their congregations. These are mourning mists.
By the time we return to shore the red disc of sun, now dressed in a strange haze-induced cloak of bright white, has lifted to the sky and life besides the river is awakening.
If I were further along the five kilometre stretch of ghats in either direction I would soon be able to hear the 'slap-slap-slap' and paddle-beating rhythm of the 'button breakers'. The men and women of the washer castes tasked with violently battering cleanliness back into the city's lungis, undies, bed sheets and saris upon their smooth stone slabs set upon the rivers fringe.
The holy river Ganges or goddess Ganga is venerated by the millions upon millions of souls who depend upon her life-giving waters. To worship rivers and build myths and cities around them is a universal trait of man. A pan-cultural phenomena. The Ganges is revered (nowadays) above all other rivers in India.
Born of King Himavan and Meru (The Himalayas), sister to Uma (or Parvati, later Shiva's Mrs and the Goddess Kali) and tutored and raised in the Heavens by Brahma the Creator, Ganga is requested by the latter to descend to Earth to set free the wandering souls of the sixty thousand sons of King Sagara all of whom were burnt to ashes by the blazing eyes of a saddhu they disturbed, where he sat in meditation in the Underworld. Deeply affronted at such a request Ganga contrives to throw herself to Earth with such force as to wash the entire place from the cosmological map. A prayer from Bhagiratha ( a descendent of King Sagara) to Lord Shiva causes the latter to step in and catch Ganga in the long matted tresses of his hair, breaking her up and letting her complete her descent to Earth in the rivulets that flow from his locks.
In Varanasi Ganga's waters support many a livelihood as well as underpinning the heart and soul of the place in less tangible ways. Despite the fact that the Ganga by the time it reaches Varanasi is so polluted it is barely capable of supporting life according to most indices used for such assessments, fish amazingly can be seen jumping the waters from time to time and fisherman ply the waters with nets.
Another of Varanasi's visual joys are the long lines of beautifully coloured wooden row boats that rest at mooring along her banks. Beautiful bright ellipses of purples and whites and yellows, blues, greens and reds strung together and set off by the dull base colour of the Ganges. Strolling up and down the ghats you will be propositioned approximately once for every three steps you take to take an excursion in a boat.
Returning one evening from a long walk to Varanasi's southern extremity, across the crazy clattering pontoon bridge to the Ramnagar Fort a young German lady approaches Lucy and I as we sip recuperative chais. Would we like to share the cost of a sunset crossing to the far bank with her? It's been a long day but 'Sure, let's do it!' A price agreed and we're soon being rowed across to the bleak, mysterious looking east bank of the Varanasi Ganges by Raj and his little boy Rahul.
It's an eerie place. Particularly at dusk. Out of the monsoon season as we are the Ganges is at low water so this area is the dried, cracked riverbed stretch reclaimed by the sun. I'd already nicknamed this place 'The Land of the Dead' before making the crossing but the name feels only too apt. As undeveloped tidal land whatever the Ganges cares to disgorge upon the east bank remains to fester in the sun. For the most part this means large piles of refuse but it's not uncommon for human remains to wash up here too. Six kinds of people are forbidden to be cremated by sacred Hindu law, these being babies and children under ten years of age, pregnant women, saddhus, lepers, those that have died of small pox and, curiously, victims of the Cobra's bite.
We do an about turn and head back to where we docked. Rahul pulls the boat toward us with his little arms and all his might. A long silhouette gliding through waters reflecting a pink-purple dusk sky shot through with the firefly gold glimmer of the electric ghat lights upon the far bank.
Lorissa and I muse on the cult of myth making that rivers inspire. Returning as we are from the 'Land of the Dead' we both riff about the River Styx of Greek legend and the fabled ferryman Charon. Two pieces of silver to cross his skeletal palm with. One to row you over to the Underworld. The other required if you ever wish to cross back. Its sister the River Lethe too, souls made to drink deep of her waters to erase memory of former lives ahead of reincarnation.
Night drawn down now. Lucy and I stroll back towards home. An orange glow defies the night around Harish Chandra Ghat, the second of Varanasi's two crematorial ghats. Another lost loved one being transformed into light and transfused through fire into the night and forever beyond. The family, male members only, stand in an arc around the funeral pyre. Others look down from a wide stone balcony platform above where Lucy and I join them. Hypnotised instantly. The flames of life and death reflected in our eyes.
The crematorial burnings of Hindu culture are acts and images profoundly associated with this sacred city.
For the curious traveller (and their audiences) these burnings often become a point of morbid fascination. 'So what did you think of the burning bodies?' often the first thing anyone asks you about a visit to Varanasi. I had observed the full ceremonial process of a Hindu cremation a year ago in Pashuputinath, Kathmandu on the banks of the holy Baghmati River.
And tonight for fifteen minutes or so I have become transfixed by death. Yellow and orange ribbons of heat and light wrap themselves endlessly around the now black silhouette carapace of what was once a life.
A youngish man dressed in nothing but a white lungi around his waist steps gingerly back and forth to the waters edge. Either the husband or eldest son of the deceased bringing back a clay pot of Ganga's waters to pour upon the smouldering last embers of a loved one. Dousing the heat. Releasing the soul from samsara as Ganga did with those of the king's sons. The clay pot is smashed. Tears fall. New tributaries for the river. Smoke and steam released, curling up into the night sky. The conduit to Heaven. A passage to eternity the soul; for these mourning mists.
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