Varanasi: Death and Life on the Ganges

Mist shrouds the crumbling buildings, concealing plastic bottles and garbage dumped on the steps of Varanasi’s magnificent ghats. In a trick of the light, buildings appear one-dimensional, flat as a film set, like a decaying Venice of the East. But there the similarity ends because Venice dates from around 400 A.D. while Varanasi, the ‘City of Light’ has been the spiritual capital of Hinduism for 2,000 years.

Shortly before sunset, we join our boat at Dashashwamedh Ghat. Gulls wheel overhead as our oarsman skulls downstream, passing Man Mandir Ghat and Dom Raja’s house, where a temple flame is kept permanently burning to light funeral pyres.  

Sunset is the time for cremations. As we approach Manikarnika Ghat and adjoining Jalasayin, I feel uneasy about intruding on people’s private grief.  Curls of smoke drift across the Ganges and warning signs prohibit photography. Our oarsman keeps a respectful distance while we watch a funeral party solemnly carry a saffron-robed body down the ghat steps. Bereaved families buy fire wood and charcoal for the funeral pyre, pour oil or ghee on the deceased and take water from the Ganges to anoint the body.

Dead priests, children aged under two and people who die of fever, are not cremated but wrapped in white cloth and floated down the river. Thankful not to spot any such bundles, we honour the great river and its spirits by placing lighted candles on petal-strewn paper boats, no bigger than a child’s hand, and launching them onto the water. The flames dance and flicker as they drift away.

Darkness falls. In a movement so slick it seems choreographed, all the boats turn and head back to Dashashwamedh Ghat, where they huddle together, clanking, to form a makeshift auditorium on the water. Meanwhile, on the riverfront, priests mount a row of podiums to perform the spectacular ‘Agni Pooja’ (Worship to Fire) ceremony. They chant, ring bells and hold lamps aloft, while clouds of incense billow towards us and tickle our nostrils. 

Next morning, a dense fog thwarts our plan for a sunrise cruise on the Ganges. The new time is a leisurely 7.30 a.m. when the steps of the ghat are already bustling with hawkers displaying postcards, necklaces and statuettes. One man attaches himself to me.

“What is your name?” he asks.

I tell him it’s Jane.

He strolls by my side as I walk towards the boat. “That’s a garden,” he says, pointing out a row of wilting plants shoved into recycled oil cans, painted banana yellow. A sign close by reads: ‘Gusset is God’. Could it be something to do with underwear? I ask my new friend what it means.

“It means you, Jane,” he says. “You are guest. Guest is god.”

As we join our boat, he makes me a solemn promise, “Jane, I will wait for you.”

The sun climbs higher and the ghats come alive in a panoply of colour. We travel upstream, in the opposite direction from the evening before, passing Munshi Ghat, where Varanasi’s Muslim community come to bathe. Men, young and old, cluster together and lather their half-naked torsos and duck beneath the water, laughing. At Dhobi Ghat, we watch as laundry is battered clean on grubby stones and spread out to dry along the bank.

All human life is here with strong anti-microbial resistance. Further along the river bank, women in jewel-bright saris are shampooing their children’s hair. We watch open-mouthed as fathers fling their offspring into the Ganges, unsure if this is bath time, an impromptu swimming lesson or a solemn ritual. As the children resurface, screaming and crying, their fathers scoop them up in their arms and carry them to safety.

At Varanasi we see life as it’s been lived for thousands of years and learn that trades, such as washerman and oarsman, are handed on from father to son for generations. Will these traditions survive or be swept away in the name of progress? 

Two hours speed by and we are some distance from Dashashwamedh Ghat as we prepare to disembark. I screw up my eyes against the strong sunlight and peer at the shoreline. A man breaks away from a knot of people, raises his hand to wave and calls out: “Jane, I waited for you.”

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