Thursday, 8 March 2012
Two things drew me to Varanasi. It's most famous for the burning ghats by the Ganga, where corpses are first bathed in the holy waters, then set aflame. Second, I wanted to see Holi, the festival of colours, which is a riotous celebration of spring.
OK, three things. I also wanted a few days off to rest up before getting back to Delhi to apply for visas. Felix had told me that Varanasi is an interesting place, as had Teddy in Rishikesh, both of whom mentioned the rivers of shit. they weren't wrong. It's quite the most pungent place I've ever been. My guest house is in the maze of narrow alleys which line the waterfront by the ghats (baths), alleys along which cows wander freely, and raw sewage runs down to the river. These photos really should be scratch n sniff, to get the full experience.
Obviously, since I spent two days fixing my bike, that kiboshed some of my plans, but Arnaud and I took the walking tour yesterday, and went down to the ghats to see the burnings. I had seen one of the biers being taken through the alleys when I first arrived in Varanasi. It was a colourful procession, and the body was wrapped in rich red robes, and I thought "ooh, that looks pretty," until I realised what it was.
The ghat and the surroundings are piled high with wood for the burnings, which is so expensive that many families struggle to afford it, and a common scam is to grab a tourist and tell them that they can take photos, then make a fuss and demand that they pay for the wood. Photography is completely forbidden, but we saw people with camera phones, video cameras, and even a tourist who'd made a half-baked attempt to disguise her camera by wrapping it in an orange plastic bag. It's an extremely public event, and even watching felt a bit ghoulish, so I wasn't keen on taking photos, especially if I'd end up paying for it.
The bodies are first dipped in the river, then laid down at the burning site, where a priest blesses it, and sets it aflame. This is the end of the ceremonial part. The bodies burn in public in front of huge crowds, and to make sure they all burn, workmen throw kindling onto the biers and use huge sticks to crack open the ribcages and feed the flames. As the flames grow, the wrappings burn first, revealing blackened flesh, which shrivels away from the skull and bones in the open air. There is no privacy or distance allowed. It's quite different from a cremation in the UK, where grandad's coffin vanishes behind a metal plate and you get an urn at the other end.
Arnaud and I stood on a balcony overlooking the burning site. We were downwind of the smoke, and I remembered Teddy's comment that he came away shaking, when it struck him that he was breathing in dead people. It was an intense atmosphere of burning wood and charred flesh. The heat was incredible, even at that distance. We could hear flesh popping and bones cracking under the pressure.
I came back to the guest house, and as I was sitting drinking my coffee, I noticed the stench. My clothes still reeked, the heady aroma of barbecued flesh.
And today was Holi! It's a riotous event marked by lots of drinking, bacchanalia and the chucking about of coloured dye. The guest house wouldn't let women go out into the streets, as the celebrations can go over the top, and they only let us out when we assured them that we didn't have our wallets or cameras or any valuables on us.
Even walking up the alley from the guest house, we were soon sopping wet and colourful as dye and water were being thrown from the balconies and rooftops around us. We got in a water pistol fight with some local kids, and a guy ran out of a doorway and tore the t-shirt off my back. It was hilarious. Again, there was no privacy or escape from it: if you were on the street, you were a target. A kid on a motorbike ducked his head and shouted "No Holi! No Holi!" but we paid no attention.
We decided we didn't really want to go into the main town, where things do get very rowdy indeed, and finding your way in and out of these alleys is tricky at the best of times, let alone while under fire. We decamped to the guest house, and joined the crowd on the rooftop, flinging about yet more coloured dye, covering the street below and engaging in battles with the kids on the next rooftop.
The two events, wildly different in character, both have the same traits which make India such a culture shock when you come from the West. The public nature of the celebrations and commemorations is difficult to appreciate, and what would be ghoulish or inappropriate in the UK is everyday here.
One tourist on the rooftop got very annoyed when the waiter covered him in orange dye, but if you get involved in it, you have to accept it for what it is, you can't impose another set of values on it.
Of course, another similarity is that I had to go and get a shower to wash all the dye off - it's stubborn stuff. I'm going to go and get my third shower of the day.
photos from Holi