Varanasi ( Part 1 of 3) : Mourning Mists Upon the River of Myths

Varanasi Travel Blog

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Varanasi ghats and boats before dawn.
Only under the cloak of uniformity spread by the shadow-palette of pre-dawn does the appearance of Varanasi hang together with any semblance of unity.  Colours, shapes, structures and slumbering Gods fused under cover of a night conspiring to conceal the fractal nature of the city.  A city that slips, as if multi-dimensional between the lines of history, time, culture and faith.  Darkness, whilst breeding many fantasies and fears in the minds of men stitches the physical world together as much as it encourages us to push and pull it apart with our imaginations.  Varanasi by night or day is a fabulous playground within which to push the envelope of one's mind.

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.
Bathing in the Ganges
  It would be all too easy to lose one's footing.  Varanasi shifts beneath your feet.  By the ghat side a young boy waits beside his boat ready to row us out onto the Ganges.

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.
'WELCOME TO VARANASI!' where the cows (and their bi-products) rule the streets! :)
  They disappear off into the mist and dark.

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.
  Men descend into the now pale grey-green waters to perform their daily ritual ablutions.  The traditional 'purifying' drink of the holy rivers waters from a small brass pot.  Ganga Jal.  One Indian custom best avoided by the visitor with their heart set on a life of continued health and travel.  On the ghat steps a saddhu, holy man, holds up a palm-sized mirror to apply the sacred makeup of his trade.  With luck he will please both his Gods and many camera lenses today.

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.
'OM'
  Once pummelled into submission these are stretched out and daubed, wide bright streaks and swatches of colour, across the steps-without-end of Varanasi's eighty-odd ghats.  A whole colour spectrum laid out and drying in the sun.  One of the many visual treasures that this city will impart to me over my two week sojourn by the Ganges, who now viewed from the rooftop of my guesthouse stretches away silver grey toward a hazy blur that swallows her before she can meet the horizon.

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.
'Ganga Puja'
  She is name dropped in all of the major Hindu holy texts and one of India's ( Hindu Brahmin-dictated) Seven Sacred Rivers.  India takes her name from one of the sister rivers.  The Indus.  Her source and main flow now residing in Pakistan though.  Ganga's waters have collected as many tales as tributaries swelling her body to overflowing with endless variations of myth and yarn over the centuries.  Paying heed to the shop keeper's warning in an R.K Narayan novel ( A Tiger For Malgudi ) I read whilst here - 'Don't probe too far into the origin of a river or a saint.  You will never reach the end.' - I will offer only the most cursory sketch of her main story here.
Goat Land


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.
Kiddy & the river
  Following Bhagiratha upon his horse from her Himalayan source (the Gangotri Glacier) to the oceans edge to set the sons' souls free, Ganga flowed her 2,506 kilometre course to dissipate in the ocean at what is known to us as the Sundarban Delta system which resides, for the most part, in modern day Bangladesh, Ganga's many mouths forming the largest delta network in the world.

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.
River Boats
  A healthy trade in flowers takes place at the main market at Dasaswamedh Ghat for the purposes of river puja offerings.  Strings of marigolds and fantastically long hemp-string ropes entwined with these and hibiscus flowers too to be let out metre by metre from the boats that cross from here to the far riverbank all day long with ornately dressed newly weds on board to perform a special marriage puja.

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.
'Ying and Yang' :)
  These tourist rides are a mainstay of the local river-based population.  Irksome though this eventually gets I love the little kids deployed by their ferryman fathers to launch the one-snatch-of-breath greeting cum proposition 'Hellohowareyouboat?'  All syllables and words blurring to one.  I suppose I should have responded 'Hellofinenothanksallthesame.'

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.
Ta-daaaaaah! Another shirt cleaned whiter than white by the browner than brown Ganga.


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.
Aarti or Diya lamps for putting in the river as an act of puja/ prayer. They look quite beautiful lit and floating down the Ganga.
  Instead these bodies are weighted with large stones and sunk whole in the centre of the river.  Large carrion birds - something between an eagle and a small vulture - prowl the eastern bank and are not short of food.  Bones picked dry.  As Lucy, Lorissa and I stroll along into the purple dusk a solitary human skull rests upon the desiccated earth staring into eternity.  Raj explains that Indians consider this side of the river 'a bad haunted place'.  Unsafe after dark be it for the prowling of ghosts or other more tangible human threats.

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.
'Cracks'
  As usual at this time of day, as in the morning, to look up and down the Ganges, she, and the city disappear, floating upon the field of tangible reality like a half-dream, before being swallowed by mists in either direction.  Varanasi is a truly spectral, phantasmagorical city in form and spirit.  And this visual erosion of the line of sight reinforces this sense of a formless, boundary blurring city.

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.
Lucy learns the flute with a 'bansuri' seller
  In her own descent from the Heavens to earth and onward to the Underworld Ganga becomes a tripathag or 'one who travels all worlds.'

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.
'Baba'
  For the Hindu faithful to die and be cremated besides the Ganges, and have your ashes interred within her waters is to instantly achieve moksha, transcendent liberation from samsara, the unending wheel or cycle of life, which is suffering, death and rebirth.  Instant Nirvana.

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.
Life on the river.
  So I only spent a few fleeting five chai sipping minutes or so sat staring, watching matter merge with the infinite at Manikarnika Ghat during my two weeks here.  Others talked of spending whole days entranced by the flame-flickering dances of death.  Morbid, yes, but understandable.  So far removed are we in the West from direct contact with death that witnessing such things can begin to re-educate, reconnect us with a lost sense of mortality.  My friends and I talk over riverside chais time and again about Varanasi's ability to do this.  To jolt the soul.  To make you sit up and see things so familiar - yourself, your life, your very existence - as subjects quite neglected, possibly misunderstood and in need of being viewed from new angles with new vigour.
'Scrub-a-dub-dub'
  No wonder I hear Varanasi referred to as 'the city of learning and burning' (though the 'learning' more specifically refers to Varanasi's proud history as an ancient centre of academic excellence for classical music and Hindu scriptural scholarship).  And I agree whole-heartedly with my friend Camila (a minor miracle of a travel reunion being as we last saw each other in Mardin south east Turkey four months ago) when she observes 'There is a culture here that starts to teach us about ourselves.'

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.
The long lengths of hemp string rope laced with flowers that are let out from boats carrying newly weds across the Ganges for puja ceremonies
  The marigolds and shiny gold cerements that formerly garlanded the body long since burnt away to reveal crooked, blackened bones.  The flames continue.  So many fingers ministering to the corpse.

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.
The phantasmagorical city

peapodesque says:
great writing,,i am about to go there!!
Posted on: Apr 15, 2010
melworthit says:
good one! makes me want to pace up and move my feet over to India quick.
Posted on: Mar 04, 2010
esposabella says:
I am soo honoured to say...been there done that!~!!! :)
Posted on: Feb 23, 2010
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Varanasi ghats and boats before da…
Varanasi ghats and boats before d…
Bathing in the Ganges
Bathing in the Ganges
WELCOME TO VARANASI! where the c…
'WELCOME TO VARANASI!' where the …
OM
'OM'
Ganga Puja
'Ganga Puja'
Goat Land
Goat Land
Kiddy & the river
Kiddy & the river
River Boats
River Boats
Ying and Yang :)
'Ying and Yang' :)
Ta-daaaaaah! Another shirt cleaned…
Ta-daaaaaah! Another shirt cleane…
Aarti or Diya lamps for putting in…
Aarti or Diya lamps for putting i…
Cracks
'Cracks'
Lucy learns the flute with a bans…
Lucy learns the flute with a 'ban…
Baba
'Baba'
Life on the river.
Life on the river.
Scrub-a-dub-dub
'Scrub-a-dub-dub'
The long lengths of hemp string ro…
The long lengths of hemp string r…
The phantasmagorical city
The phantasmagorical city
The large wood yard at Manikarnika…
The large wood yard at Manikarnik…
Washer caste men at work.
Washer caste men at work.
I swear this guy literally dropped…
I swear this guy literally droppe…
Resting from ghat sweeping
Resting from ghat sweeping
This is little Shiva with his litt…
This is little Shiva with his lit…
I Heart India
'I Heart India'
Kite over Ganges
Kite over Ganges
Rahul pulls the boat across the du…
Rahul pulls the boat across the d…
Marigold and Green
'Marigold and Green'
These are clay puruwa cups for t…
These are clay 'puruwa' cups for …
Try 7up!
'Try 7up!'
Puja cups to be taken into the fam…
Puja cups to be taken into the fa…
Oversize scales for weighing crema…
Oversize scales for weighing crem…
GSN
'GSN'
Painted boat (abstract)
Painted boat (abstract)
Boatman and his river
Boatman and his river
The boys wash their bits
The boys wash their bits
Ganges sun rise
Ganges sun rise
Pin Stripe Shirt
'Pin Stripe Shirt'
Kushi and her Sitar at the Kumiko …
Kushi and her Sitar at the Kumiko…
Ancient Flowers
'Ancient Flowers'
Cycle Rickshaw Back (detail)
Cycle Rickshaw Back (detail)
Naga lamps used as part of the ela…
Naga lamps used as part of the el…
Marigold Lamps
Marigold Lamps
Fabrics drying on the ghats.
Fabrics drying on the ghats.
Ganges
Ganges
Stevie in Krishnas lassi shop
Stevie in Krishna's lassi shop
Sari in the Ganges
Sari in the Ganges
The Land of the Dead
'The Land of the Dead'
Ganges Boat - rainbow elipses
Ganges Boat - rainbow elipses
Varanasi Restaurants, Cafes & Food review
India's finest lassi (?) : a secret to be found in Varanasi's Blue Lassi.
Lassi is the traditional Indian drink made from a pounded liquefied mixture of yogurt and/or curd and ice. The most common varieties are plain, salte… read entire review
Varanasi
photo by: rotorhead85