05 March 2008

What I saw in Varanasi

I saw men carrying body after body to the Ganges to be burned, each sprinkled with little, orange flowers and draped in gold-embossed shrouds.

I saw the corpse of a small child, bloated and floating face down in the river.

I saw people washing their clothes and washing themselves in the same water, sharing it with cows, the scattered remains of cremations, and all the junk of civilization.

I saw boats crammed to capacity with tourists bewildered, enchanted, and taking photos of everything.

I saw a train station carpeted with people inside, outside, on the platforms, along the rails--everywhere.

I saw a tall white guy with a ponytail, glasses, sophisticated mien, and red Fremont T-shirt.

I saw the most colorfully-dressed women in the world laying out on the ghats to dry the most colorful laundry in the world.

I saw a man crouched over the edge of a step, defecating without shame, in daylight, in the open and full view, though his back was to the river, in which he wiped himself--with his right hand.

I saw children playing games with discarded tires, swimming with livestock, and laughing about everything.

I saw two dogs on the riverbank ravaging a dead body wrapped in a white bag, one dog using his front paw to hold it in place while it tore off a pinkish limb.

I crossed the Ganges over a rickety bridge made of floating pontoons.

I saw men building a giant Shiva symbol out of small candles argue about the best way to light them. Then, I saw it lit.

I saw the Shivaratra festival, or all the individual celebrations and public devotions which comprise it, which I hadn't even known was on.

I saw a performance of classical Indian music. The singer bobbed his head, gesticulated wildly, and shook his head thoughtfully, as though singing were only an afterthought to his private meditations. Later, on the ghats, I ran across another one.

I met Veer Bhadra Mishra, a professor who is trying to save the Ganges River, and about whom I read and taught using Rutgers' New Humanities Reader. He was surprised that Alexander Stille included an article about him in a book and asked me to get him a copy.

At Sarnath, I saw a giant, ruined stupa that marks the spot where the Buddha preached his first sermon after achieving Enlightenment in Bodhgaya. I also saw the most impressive Tibetan temple I've encountered outside Tibet.

I found an upscale, Japanese-style cafe and restaurant in the rather unsalubrious backstreets of the city behind the ghats. I had tempura udon. As a Shivaratra special, for every 100 rupees you spent, they allowed patrons to roll two dice. Doubles won a T-shirt. I won.

I saw candles, incense, flowers, colored powder, and offerings. Everywhere.

I saw enormous crowds rushing into the water and enormous crowds huddled together on one ghat while neighboring ghats were empty.

I saw holy men.

I saw more dread-locked hair than I've ever seen before in one place.

I saw more garbage, shit, and beggars than I've ever seen before in one place.

I saw a beautiful, ancient city struggling for space with the ugly, modern city superimposed on top of it. I saw a vibrant people, both ancient and modern, struggling for the same.


kajori said...

Glad to know you're doing ok! We were worried that you had disappeared into the great Indian unknown.

Jhenn said...

but the right hand is the good hand!!!!!!!

The Steve said...

I think I have, Kajori, I think I have.

Jhenn, it is the good hand, hence my shock. You're supposed to wipe with the left. I had an extra hand attached in China for this purpose; I wipe with that one.