Varanasi. the Hindu holy city on the banks of the Ganges. OK, I knew it wasn’t Peppa Pig world, but nothing really prepares you for this particular assault upon the senses.
We arrived, 8am, in Lord Shiva’s city, in Lord Shiva’s holy month. This, it turns out, is a big deal, and the city is even more crazy than usual. Cows wander the streets, monkeys leap over the powerlines.
Added to the crowd of rickshaws, tuktuks and optimistic LandRovers (are they really going to get through that gap?) is a stream of people wearing orange and carrying offerings for Shiva. They run through the crowds shouting the equivalent for “you can do it!”
The girls are, predictably, mute, as they are led by the man from our guesthouse (thank heavens we were picked up!) through what the guide we’ve booked for our trip charmingly called the ‘Narrow and Puzzled Alleys” of the city. Think Moroccan souk times ten, accessorised with farmyard animals (watch those cowpats) and the occasional body being carried past on a stretcher.
Varanasi, you see, is the City of Good Death. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges (and in particular this holy stretch of it) is good for the soul. Having your body, or ashes, cast in to it helps to achieve the ultimate Hindu aim of oneness with everything else (instead of reincarnation). As a result people come to Varanasi to burn their dead relatives, to live out their final days, and to be blessed by Lord Shiva – one of the three main Hindu deities.
On the ghats (riverside steps) beside the Ganges, the cremation pyres burn day and night, but that doesn’t mean you’ll see nothing but ash. As well as the five categories of people – including young children and the very holy – who don’t have to be cremated before they are thrown in the river, there are always those whose families can’t afford enough wood to cremate them properly – so charred body parts crop up in the river all the time.
As I said, not exactly Peppa Pig world, and baffling at first. We’re so grateful to Amrit, from Groovy Tours (who we managed not to keep calling ‘Mr Groovy’ most of the time) for his crash course in Hinduism, and Varanasi itself. That’s not to say it wasn’t hard going, and I don’t think the girls are going to add Varanasi to their list of top ten places to visit any time soon.
Despite Clover’s hatred of flies – as she so frankly put it in her journal ‘ there are hundreds on every step’, they trod stoically through the city, being frequently blessed as they went by passing men and women. We squeezed into rickshaws (and then worried about the rickshaw drivers), and walked what felt like miles as Amrit introduced us to what it means to be a devout Hindu in a Hindu holy city.
In many ways, I have no words to describe this place. A few snapshots will have to do. Sunset on the Ganges, watching the imam at the local mosque calling the faithful to prayer, minutes after he’d been talking to Clover about the Qu’ran. A Hindu temple lost in the middle of the city where the monkeys and water buffalo reign. The children decked in flower garlands, attracting the attention of passing hungry cows.
And at the heart of it all, the river. Mother Ganges, as the devout call her. Alive at sunrise with women floating candles on her and saffron-clad Sanskrit scholars pouring water from brass bowls. Beautiful at sunset despite a treacherous current, as families send their loved ones on their final journey and parade them through the streets wrapped in tinsel and yellow cloth.
As always, with the children, bathos reigned. We visited an Ashram, filled with those who had become ‘sanyarsi’ (I will have spelt that wrong). Paul and I listened to Amrit’s tale of what it means to reach the ‘fourth stage’ of your life and to reject the world (including children and grandchildren) in favour of possessions amounting to two sticks and a small bowl. “They often ask for the food to be made blander so it is less enjoyable”, Amrit explained. “Sounds like school dinners to me,” muttered Paul. The girls, meanwhile, decided to sing Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ at the top of their voices – no doubt just what you want to hear when you’ve chosen to withdraw from the world.
Clover dubbed the Ganges Sunrise ceremony ‘So BORING’, but was delighted by the monkey showing his bottom on our balcony, and quite pleased with Hanuman’s Monkey Temple. Frequent power cuts meant that I ended up doing the laundry by hand (again) – never hung out our smalls on a prayer flag before.
We were grateful for a guesthouse beside the Ganges that felt like a haven (though I fear we ruined the backpackers’ sense of intrepid adventure by turning up with the children) and did an excellent mango lassi, and for the kindness of so many people who were patient to the girls. While Varanasi was hard work, and the children were pleased to go on, I find myself strangely compelled by it. Kept thinking of those words in TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi. “I should be glad of another death”.