Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Born to die in Varanasi

According to the guide book Varanasi is one of India’s holiest cities. We got off the overnight sleeper train in it after not getting very much sleep. Opposite us in the carriage was a fierce unsmiling man with the face of a 19th century political assassin. He wore suspicious shiny shoes and dusted his spotless trousers with the Indian Railways towel every couple of minutes. He did eventually lie down, fully-dressed, on the bed, as if to sleep, but he was sitting bolt upright in his original position when I was jolted back to consciousness a few hours later.

As far as holy cities go, Varanasi gives the impression of being a religious tinderbox. There are armed police on nearly every street corner, although with the amusing informality of Indian police, they stare over their cumbersome and antiquated Lee-Enfields at the child and wave back happily at him if he deigns to notice them. They appear, one assumes, to be guarding the innumerable shrines which pepper the old city near the edge of the sacred river Ganges. Even someone as ill-informed as I am knows that India has a solid history of religious conflict, so presumably the police, with moustaches, torpor and out-dated weaponry, will leap to the well-drilled defence of crumbling shrines in the event a riotous multitude presents itself. It is reassuring for a boy from Belfast to stumble into a foreign city in July and discover that the holy places need permanent armed guard, and that the religious fanatics all wear orange. On our first day we ran straight into a religious procession, complete with marching band and maniacally enthusiastic drummers, and nervously tailed it in the hope of a good photo or two. In return we were regaled with free drinks (close your eyes and take a good visible draught for fear of offending, and just hope your own personal god is protecting you from celebratory drinks made with actual Ganges water) and sweets, although I couldn’t establish if the sweets were for me or for me to give as an offering to the idol being towed through the narrow streets in a handcart.

Varanasi is where the devout come to die, to be cremated in the open air on the “ghats” on the banks of the Ganges. Despite the heat, this fact chills me. There is a morbid tourist route which involves faux-respect for the sanctity of the cremation zone (keep your cameras out of sight) while all the time gawking to catch a glimpse of a singed body part. In the narrow back alleys of the old city the most unlikely men double-take us and fall in step with directions to the “cremation ghat”. It can only be touting, but what business is there in tourists rubber-necking death? We decided that we weren’t going to venture too close. We’d met a Danish couple the night before who told us of their regret at having seen burning limbs. I didn’t fancy the sort of explanatory contortions that a scene like that would require for the ears of a three year-old. He hasn’t quite yet come to terms with the loss of his toys to the monkeys in Simla. Yet as we wandered the lanes, hopelessly trying to locate one of the largest rivers in the continent, we inevitably ended up being guided to the site. Smoke curled around the last corner, and for a moment I thought of trying to hold my breath, keen not to be breathing in the last motes of someone’s loved one on the breeze. Oddly neat stacks of chopped wood, the height of two humans, dotted the steps down to the river, and an old man swung an ineffectual sledgehammer at several chisels that he was using to split open a sizeable tree trunk. I hid with the child behind one pile of timber as Pati went forward for the tour, in the company of a gentleman who purported to run one of the hospices in the area. The embers of a cremation were still sending tendrils of smoke out into the air around us, yet she said that the heat was incredible as she got closer. Then she was taken upstairs to the hospice, where among a pitiful assortment of human frailty and mortality, she was invited to make a donation – to cover the cost of the wood for the burnings. 250 rupees buys a kilo of timber, apparently. On a balcony next to her an American man stood taking pictures with a long-lensed camera. Different donations garner different privileges and religious strictures wilt in the face of the death business. Devout Hindus come here to die, in order to be cremated next to their holy river, and yet its condition seems to matter less to the living. A local holy man turned environmental campaigner for the state of the river recently died after a hunger strike to protest against the government’s inaction over protecting the Ganges from increasing levels of illegal industrial pollution. Regardless of the number of body parts floating in the waters, it’s the heavy metal pollution that proves the greatest risk to human health. We head back in silence to the hotel, change all our clothes and take a long shower.