Descending in to the Chaos of India is an experience that nothing in life can properly prepare you for. No amount of literature, no transitional culture, no mental preparation can pre-condition for the shock that awaits. Entry at Varanasi, as we did, is a particularly rapid immersion directly in to the deep end of India – a swan dive in to the Ganges..
We crossed the border from Nepal to India at the crossing north of Gorakhpur on a hazy afternoon in the beginning of March. Loaded down with massive paraglider bags like a couple of turtles, we felt vulnerable and exposed as we squeezed through the chaotic crowds searching out a ride to the train station in Gorakhpur. We eventually found a driver with a trunk large enough for our bags and started our way south. By the time we arrived in Gorakhpur we had lost our nerve for the train ride onwards to Varanasi – which is notorious for having a high frequency of theft – and the driver easily convinced us to continue the whole way by car.
Driving in to Varanasi in the late hours of the night was an unnerving experience that would set the tone for one of the most disturbing, but ultimately most memorable, experiences of all our travels. For what felt like a half hour, we drove past sleeping bodies squeezed side-by-side along both sides of the road and tucked in to every possible nook along the way. Rolled in ragged blankets, the experience had the dream-like air of driving through a perpetual morgue. It was a feeling that we would not shake for several days, as death is the over-arching theme of the city of Varanasi.
Known in the Hindu faith as one of the most auspicious places to pass onwards from this world, Varanasi is the final objective for many throughout India who are well enough composed to prepare for the closure of their life. Here the sick and the elderly come to wait out their last days. For those with any remaining wealth, the final task is to pay for the wood with which they will be cremated along the banks of the Ganges. For those without, their corpse may simply be thrown in the river to rot downstream. Cremation isn’t cheap: being in the barren lowlands of India, the wood must be brought down on barges from distant forests.
Down on the burning ghats – the long, stone-stepped banks of the Ganges where the cremations take place – the wood is stacked in massive piles to dry. Wood dealers abound, transactions facilitate the use of giant balance scales, and the exact amount of wood necessary to completely cremate a body is carefully negotiated. In plain view the wood is arranged, the body wrapped in a garland and placed on the pile, and additional wood stacked on top in delicate proportion. After a brief ceremony, a small piece of the garland is lit and placed at the bottom to ignite the stack. Four, five, six or more bodies burn in separate piles throughout the day, which are carefully stirred by the Untouchable fire-tenders until the last remnants of wood, flesh, bone and skull are incinerated. Then the ash is shoveled in to the sacred river Ganges and fresh wood is stacked to start anew.
Standing back, aghast, the whole scene is difficult to comprehend. The light of the sun takes a deep orange hue from the smoke, which is overpowering in its scent yet dwarfed by the rest of the sensory stimuli that abound. A large cow, sacred and therefore deeply assimilated in the Indian culture, stands by on the steep steps and absorbs the scene, hardly bothering to notice as passers-bye stop to rub his neck. Mourners watch as their loved ones are engulfed in flame. A couple mongrel puppies with scabbed, mangy flesh stretched over protruding ribs balance delicately on the border of death – only the slightest twitch of breath in their bellies and the occasional mammoth effort to search out shade in the blistering heat show which side of the border they currently occupy.
It is all so much that our own personal boundaries break down as well, and we struggle to know where we end and the experience begins. Engulfed in the orange haze of a dream, in a portal between this world and the next. Our thoughts are stretched in such a strange manner that we could not fathom taking a picture, and we know without being told that this is no place for a camera. Finally we unlock our feet from where they seem to be fused in to the granite steps, and began to swim our way out of the dream. With every stride upstream along the river we slowly shake it off, yet these fifth-dimensional experiences do not completely abate for a long time yet.
The remainder of our short stay in Varanasi was spent engaged in the more palatable sights and experiences of the place. At night, a vibrant music and dance performance was held at one of the prominent piers (ghats) overlooking the river. Early the next morning, we chartered a small rowboat and went for the quintessential pre-dawn river tour along the Ganges. As the sun broke over the horizon and the vibrant colors of the morning bathers along the banks ignited in the light, it was enough to briefly re-awaken sentiments of the fresh beauty and dawning of life.
But turning to head back downstream, the burning ghats came once again in to view in the distance. By the time we stepped off the boat the heat was sweltering, and the smoke of cremation and the passage of life was billowing upwards once again.
Our last experience of the place warrants a single image: Loaded with gear on an over-burdened rickshaw en-route to the train station, we came upon a roundabout intersection with a traffic jam to end them all. 4 directions of cars, bikes, animals, and rickshaws scrambling to pass through each other – so tightly intertwined that the peddles of the rickshaw were tangled in the spokes of the neighboring vehicle. Yet lumbering casually against the gridlocked traffic was a Regal Bovine. Amidst the impossibly constricted din and chaos, the traffic parted seamlessly around the Cow so that not so much as a tire flap brushed the royal beast as he slowly made his way through. This is India.