Monday, 28 February 2011

Varanasi......astounding


Last night, a traditional Indian dance show in town: very nice, but notable only for the final dance, a patriotic song in which I recognized the word "watan", Arabic for homeland, and the sign of the cross incorporated into the dance. Our guide later explained that the dance represented the diversity of the Indian watan, and that references were made to all of India's religions in it; I confess I only recognized the sign of the cross.
Today by plane to Varanasi, the holy city of the Hindus. A member of the group tells me very pointedly that this is the part she was waiting for, the Hindu part; she couldn't wait to get through the Mughal. In thay case the golden triangle of north India seems like an odd choice of tour. I did remind her that she was the one who complained most of not having enough time to see the Mughal miniature painting at the museum; she nodded emphatically.
Security at the airport at Khajuraho is taken very seriously by resolutely grim-faced, khaki-uniformed security personnel. Women go through a line monitored by women and men through one manned by men. "I'm not used to people not smiling back at me," Linda remarks in her soft voice.  "Do I look like a Pakistani!" Bob, the tall psychiatrist, complains, blue eyes glaring.
A short flight to Varanasi, formerly Benares, and we regain the world of smiling Namaste-gesturing tourist havens; big bowls of jasmine flowers and glasses of mango juice await us in the lobby. We are given, instead of the usual flower leis, wooden bead necklaces.
That same evening we take a long rickshaw ride out to the Ganga (Ganges) riverfront. We have been warned about odors and noise, and I tie on a surgical mask and cover my hair with a scarf against the dust, ending up looking like a few veiled women we see, or even some of the male cyclists. The streets we go through our quite wide but choked with traffic: the yellow and green rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, and a handful of private cars jostle one another. I am used to close encounters in Cairo but nothing like this.
Varanasi is the holy city, the mecca for Hindu pilgrims, but there seem to be quite a few mosques along the street to the waterfront. The street theatre is incomparable: men being shaved on the side of the road, a gorgeously caparisoned horse in red and gold, ready for the bridegroom, the color-coordinated wedding band following behind. The beggars of course are ubiquitous, and the odors send several of the women in our party fishing for their scarves to cover their noses.
Once we arrive at the Ganga waterfront, we quit our rickshaws and make our way through the crowd descending to the ghats, the steps that lead down to the river. I think I have stumbled into an early Renaissance painting: the scene of the quiet river and the row boats floating in the hazy twilight, fabulous building rising along the banks. "Alma-Tadema", retorts David, a large, bon-vivant, celibataire endurci retired teacher of French, who lives in a tony in the New York suburbs. "
Our twenty-some group piles on to a boat rowed- somehow- by only two young men, and we set off on the river to watch, from a distance, the scene of funeral pyres and mourners carrying shrouded bodies down to the river, immersing them, then laying them in the flames. "You can't smell burning flesh," our guide Ritu points out, "because the bodies have been covered with ghee (clarified butter), herbs, and sandalwood." She is in her element here, eyes flashing with passion as she tells us the tale of the goddess Ganga and the god Shiva, or alternately eyes misting with emotion as she talks of the burial and prayer rituals of the Hindus. She tells us that Goldie Hawn has a home in Varanasi, where she likes to come.
Along with the funeral incinerations, people are bathing, cows and dogs are wandering in and out among the pyres and paddling in the river bank, and beggars and vendors are plying their trade. Death here is not separate from life. One of the little girl vendors sells us foil bowls of flowers with a tiny candle inside. We light them, make a wish or a prayer, and set the little boats afloat in the river. The air is heavy with haze or smoke, and hundreds of moths flutter around our heads.
After dark our boat lines up behind scores of other tourist boats to watch the prayers about to begin a little further on the ghatts on the riverbank. Hundreds of people are sitting and standing on the shore, as in a stadium, and seven podiums are set up in the front. Melodious chanting is magnified by loud-speakers. Seven young men, the priests, get up on the podium, first collectively, and then on separate podiums, and take turns leading the chanting while swinging incense burners. It is a unique sight, certainly the most amazing spectacle I have ever witnessed.
We leave before the end of the prayers, to beat the rush, and find our rickshaw drivers for another hair-raising ride through the old town to our bus then the refuge of our hotel.

6 comments:

  1. I am absolutely pea green with envy, having been to neither Khajuraho or Varanasi. Too bad about the group member who couldn't wait "to get through the Mughal" part of the trip. She is missing so much that is beautiful, historical, and sacred. Poor thing.

    Enjoy our beloved India!

    Judy

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  2. Thank you Judy! I'm sure you will see all of India before you are done.

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