Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, 2010
Varanasi, the city of Shiva, is one of the holiest places in India. The Ganges, known to Hindus as the Great Mother, is regarded as a river of salvation and pilgrims come to do puja on her ghats (literally meaning respect, offering or prayers) and cleanse themselves of sin.
Long before dawn, sounds herald the break of a new day. Temple bells clang rhythmically, a thin tinny sound. Devotional singing wraps around the bells, one voice rising ever higher to a crescendo while others chant in unison. A flute weaves in and out of these intermittent sounds. A conch shell sounds clearly above all else. Dogs yap, yelp, howl and bark furiously at the occasional passer by. Voices echo and coughs resound. A distinct ebb and flow of sound, first one is prominent and then another, all distinct, but all merge to form a complete whole.
A chill hangs in the air and a mist lies low over the river. It’s still dark, but pilgrims are already bathing. Men stripped to their underwear and women wearing thin cotton sarees immerse themselves in the cold, dark, dirty water. Some swim, shrieking and shouting. Some perform puja, offering water to the Great Ganga The first oil lamps are floated on the water. Minute pin pricks of orange flickering light – like stars fallen from the sky – they bob gently and drift almost imperceptibly, stretching to form strings of brightness in the hazy smoky grey. As the sun rises, sadhus smeared with ash offer prayers to the sun. Some begin their day with yoga exercises, vigorous stretching and bending using the rails along the ghats as support. Some sit in lotus position, in quiet contemplation, distant from the age-old customs and rituals unfolding around them.
Yet others carry out more run of the mill tasks, washing themselves – lathering first with a thick white layer of soap – their pots, their water buffalo. Others drink the water or clean their teeth. Countless dhobi wallahs stand knee deep in the holy water slapping clothes onto flat square stones at the waters edge. Raising garments head high, they are pounded over and over – a huge resounding slap/thwock as the clothes hit stone. ‘He fights with the clothes – this man’, said our boat man, one morning. ‘Everything broken – buttons, strings, everything’. Clothes are then twisted into bulging ropes and the Ganges water is squeezed out. This endless array of garments is then laid out on the mud, the dust, the ghats, to dry. How it ever gets clean is one of life’s great mysteries. Goats, dogs, and cows meander through the empty lifeless clothes. The ghats are a mass of shit, urine and rubbish, but the laundry somehow survives.
To walk along the ghats is the most amazing people-watching spectacle. Kids play cricket, sell postcards, flower lamps, tikka powder. Men sell flutes, offer massage, shaves, palm readings. Paradoxically, in an intensely spiritual place there is no peace. Even on a boat, sellers row alongside – ‘Ganges supermarket’ laughed a man selling statues of Hindu gods, and little bottles full of Ganges water. ‘You want flower?’ asked a woman – ‘for long life, good karma, for the well-being of friends and family, for the river’? There are also beautiful buildings – decaying palaces, ornate balconies, mammoth water towers, houses painted turquoise, lilac, yellow, and coloured deep ochre red. Steep flights of steps lead back from the ghats to the galis of the old town, alleys too narrow for traffic, a labyrinth of twists and turns, pakora sellers, chai wallahs, and shops. Dank, smelly, cloying annoying, exciting, fascinating.
Varanasi is a joyful noisy clamour of folk, a visible spectacle of faith on a grand scale. It’s a constant jigsaw of shifting, interlocking parts. First one part becomes prominent, and then another cries out for attention and claims it’s place in the whole.
It’s a kaleidoscope of colour, a symphony of sound. Impossible to get enough of it.