vrijdag 22 november 2013

Varanasi or Where Death Is Most Alive

It started with a ten minute delay. Then it became thirty. Forty. Fortyfive. In the end we left fifty minutes later than we were supposed to and arrived in Varanasi Junction with a three hour delay. While trains are ideal for travelling (no bad roads, no crazy drivers and the option of reserved seating in the higher classes), once delayed things are only getting worse. A trip that would've taken me three hours by bus, now took me over six hours by train. Got some extra sleep though! Luckily my pre-arranged pick-up had not given up on me, though he was looking quite bored a bit grumpy. It was only the next day that I learned that was his natural way of looking at people and the world in general. 

A little inside cultural lesson about Diwali from - quite literally - a man on the streets: 
"Yehees friehend, everybody smokes on Diwali, everyone gets high."

Right. Guess that solves curious case of 'The Popularity of Diwali'. However, in India once source of information is sometimes worse than no information at all, so you may want to verify this story... (Half of this blog is made up anyway, the other half being an inaccurate description of what actually happened).

I'm not sure whether he was appealing to my cultural sensitivity or the desire many tourist apparently have to get high here, but either way he promised to have the "very best, sooo good, you never had this." He wasn't the only one. Especially when wandering the ghats or 'The Maze' there are dozens of (semi-)shady figures, who promise you the best trip you ever had. Most start with offering something else (boat rides & massages are popular icebreakers) and after you declined they switch to the less legal option B. Others just get to the point with their "Hashies-Hashies?", with opium and coke as options B and C. My favourite however, was this "Come smoke, no money" fellow who initially took my chuckle as a good sign, then got slightly annoyed when he realized I was laughing at him. Come smoke-no money, yeah sure, why not just ask for my camera, money and credit card directly..

So, what is really going on during Diwali? Again, Wikipedia is your best friend, but maybe the fact that it's known as the 'Festival of Lights' gives an indication of what it is about. On a non-spiritual, visible level it's a combination of Christmas (lots of - often colored - lights, countless candles and small oil lamps everywhere) and New Year's Eve celebrations (fireworks Gandalf!). There are even those just-some-background-noise-so-things-don't-get-too-awkward-when-the- conversation-stalls-comedy shows on most tv channels.

Not so visible and a little more religious is the story of the return of the god Rama and guiding him back home. It's a bit too complicated and I probably got everything wrong, so for a more elaborate version check the world wide web!

The festivities are spread over multiple days (providing Indians the opportunity to visit some of their countless relatives), though it reaches its peak on the last day. During the daytime it's very quiet. People either have the day off and do some last minute shopping or they just take things easy, as only the shops selling flowers, fireworks and sweets are really busy. However, the "boom-boom" (as fireworks are called here) begins at sunset, gathers pace after nine and then it doesn't stop until next morning.

Though my initial plan was to venture out into the old city, the fireworks that were lit everywhere without any regard for safety and the fact that Varanasi does not have the best reputation when it comes to wandering off at night on your own as a foreigner, made staying in the area of my hotel the wiser choice. Still got to shake the hands of a lot of strangers, exchanging dozens of 'Happy Diwali Frieeeend!'.

Though I intended to go back to Allahabad, one and a half day is just not enough time for a city like Varanasi. I had to stay for at least one more day in order to get a true sense of this amazing, almost magical place.

You get lost easily, but getting your bearings again is almost just as simple. It's like this: if the maze of tiny alleys doesn't end when you keep going straight, go either left or right and you'll end up either at one of the ghats or the main road. Even if you only have a rudimentary idea of what is where, the basic organization of the city is fairly simple. There is the Ganges (pretty big, brown body of rather filthy yet holy water; really, you can't miss it) with on its left bank (building on the right side is inauspicious) the ghats, which have both names and signs, a rarity here. So if you can figure out where a certain ghat is located relative to other ghats, you roughly know where you are. Also, since the river (followed by the city) makes a bend to the right, you have a good oversight of the have far along in the bend you are. Between the ghats and the road that runs parallel to the river is maze of tiny alleys overflowing with life. Like mentioned earlier, if you walk straight you should end up either at a ghat, at a road leading to one of the (main) ghats or at the main road that runs parallel to the river. Just keep walking and you end up somewhere, simple right? It really is. You have to be me to still get truly lost again and again.

'The Maze' is an ideal place for people who enjoy wandering aimlessly through the city streets. These tiny alleys are alive, there's something happening everywhere and while every city has its busy bazaars not one has that special vibe you have in Varanasi. You never get bored here. Whether it's a motorcycle on a collision course, someone trying to sell you a boat tour or hashies or a cow blocking the road, there's always something demanding your attention. Maybe that's why I like it so much. Not just the people are alive here, the itself almost seems like a living being made up out of numerous smaller parts. 

Out of all the thousands and thousands of faces I saw when I saw wandering in 'The Maze', there was one which seemed familiar. Sitting near the place where we met him two years there was this guy who back then gave us a 'tour' and subsequently let us to his uncle's tea shop. He had a bit of a creepy face, which was emphasized by his use of eyeliner, which made his face stand out among the crowds. His looks hadn't improved and judging by the fact he was still sitting there, his career hadn't taken off either. I think I'll look for him next time I visit Benares, make it a little tradition.

Sacred (Hindu) places are dotted all over India, but a city as religiously significant as Varanasi is a rarity even in this country of three million gods. Countless pilgrims come from all over India to wash away their sins in the Ganges and - at the end of their lives - attain liberation from the continuous cycle of death and rebirth. Dying here is extremely auspicious, being cremated here is very auspicious, being burned elsewhere but have your ashes spread out is auspicious (exemptions apply). However, if your family cannot afford the cremation (wood is expensive and you need more than just a few sticks), it's also not inauspicious to entrust the body of the deceased to the sacred waters. That means that, similar to Allahabad, decaying bodies floating in the river or even 'ashore' at one of the ghats are not unheard of. It's so not unheard of, that it's even part of this blog. As mentioned earlier the floating corpse in Allahabad was in a bag; clearly dead, clearly human, but in a bag. Its former countryman in Varanasi however, had washed ashore without a cover and face up. Yellow eyes popping out and stuff. Not so pretty. It's a part of everyday life in Varanasi though, as just twenty meters away young boys were playing cricket.

There's so much more to write about Benares, but since long post discourage people from reading and this one is taking too long to write I'll end this post with a simple, yet straight forward recommendation: if you're ever in India, include Varanasi in your trip. Maybe you'll hate it, maybe you'll love it, there's a lot to say for both. One thing is quite certain though, there truly cannot be another place like this. Not in India and not anywhere else.

A little warning: neither this story nor the pictures do the city justice. 

The little Diwali oil lamps. They were everywhere on the streets, near the river, on walls, rooftops, everywhere.

Insects celebrating the return of Rama together. Funny guys.

Fireworks are not really visible on the picture, but from the rooftop the view of the city lighting up was really nice. And a lot safer then the streets.  

There's a good chance there are more places of worship than there are people in Benares. This was particularly nice one I came across when I was on a stroll.

This past summer, major floods of the Ganges took many lives and destroyed part of the infrastructure in Uttarakhand, a state north of Uttar Pradesh. The floods have also left their traces in Varanasi, as there is still a lot of mud and - of course - trash on some parts of the less important ghats. In the second picture they are washing the mud away. Didn't seem very effective, but it employed like six or seven people.

A number of ghats. Some parts were obstructed by mud and trash, but generally you could just walk along the 'coastline', seeing people take a dip, wash their clothes, spread the ashes of their loved ones, fishing, playing cricket, selling their wares and the occasional floating corpse. Never a dull moment!

Definitely, definitely, definitely not a problem of just Varanasi, but rather everywhere in India where there are people, the trash. I just happened to remember to take pictures of it this time, since it has become so common for me. You really begin to take it for granted after a while, the only thing you can do is not to make things worse.

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