India: Scene Five – Varanasi

2 11 2011

Mostly about Varanasi

How do I begin to describe what is arguably the dirtiest and darkest city on the planet? We arrived in the evening and a driver picked us up. He was a little of everything, a little Buddhist, a little Hindu a little Christian and he was very concerned about us. We were instructed to bring as little with us as possible when we headed out to walk the city, to not let the “holy men” put saffron on our foreheads, to not let the children hold our hands or massage our arms as it is an occultic practice. He asked us to stay close to him and to be very careful of the crowds who would press in on us, to watch for pick-pocketing and other forms of dishonesty or lewdness. We were on our way to the Aarti Puja down at the river Ganges, the river that is the god Shiva, the river people worship and serve.

Thousands of people attend this puja (religious ceremony) every day; Indians and foreigners, devotees and those who are curious, holy men, beggars, it is a mash of people all up the river bank and in boats on the river after the sun goes down.

There are small stages set up all along this section of the river. It is like something out of a movie: towers of fire and priests dressed in yellow, making desperate attempts to appease the demons who demand this of them. Everyone sits in rapt attention as these young priests raise and lower the fire, call out to Shiva, make offerings to try to please the god, to call it to possess the city. And people clap rhythmically and those who are high on hash sway to the music. Ignorant white people get their foreheads painted and lift their hands as if they are in church, unaware that they are inviting demons to sit beside them.

It is very eery. The night air was humid and oppressive and I suddenly noticed my heart was just racing! I asked myself, “What are you feeling?” I have felt this before. It always comes when something is wrong in the room, when I know that whatever is happening, it isn’t God’s way. So my heart raced and I felt this terrible blanket of darkness over that place, and at the same time the incredible contrast of God’s goodness. It was a strange mix, I was singing quietly about the redeeming love of God, buoyed and suffocated at the same time.

A woman approached. She was burned from the chin down. Her skin was pulled tight, stretching her lower lip down unnaturally, showing a row of small sharp teeth. She looked frightening. Her eyes we’re large and dark and there was a darkness about her. She wanted to sell us something and Paul, who speaks Hindi told her we had nothing to offer her in terms of money, but that we offered to pray for her in the name of the one true God, Jesus. Most Hindus will let you pray for them, since any god will do, but in this place she looked at us sort of sideways and just walked away. She stood at a distance and stared at us with hollow eyes.

There were a lot of staring eyes, and sadhus (holy men) high on drugs pointing bony fingers and calling us to receive their “blessing”. I can tell you, I have never experienced anything like this. It is absolutely oppressive and we all came back to the hotel room feeling dirt on our skin, not just from the filth of this city (it is disgustingly dirty) and the ash from then occultic ceremony, but the dirt of sin and darkness that hangs over this city like smog.

We went to bed to the beating of drums and firecrackers, preparing for Diwali, a Hindu religious day that looks like Christmas.

That was day one in Varanasi. The next day, oh the next day went so far beyond what we saw the night before. We were out the door at 6:00 a.m. Our rickshaws took us down to the filthy river Ganges. We hopped onto a long wooden boat and we were rowed out and along the river to see the city from that view.

The city is all built on one side of the river, the bank that looks at the sun as it rises. The other bank is completely bare of buildings, because they don’t want the sun to rise on their backs. All along the “ghats” people bathed in the putrid water, some of the most toxic water on the planet. They bathed in it, men and women, stripping down to let the river wash away their sins. They drank it. They buried their dead in it. They worshiped it.

If you are a pregnant woman, a boat driver, someone under 13, someone with a snake bite (a blessing from shiva), a leper, or a holy man you wouldn’t be cremated if you died. You would have your body wrapped and weighted down with stones and thrown into the river. Unfortunately the stones weren’t always attached really well, so bodies float up. We saw several bodies and a random head bobbing along, being picked at by birds or chewed on by dogs. I will leave it at that; it was pretty disgusting and kids and adults were bathing not 20 feet away from some of this.

We went to the largest cremation site where 36,000 bodies are burned a year. It is a place of death, no mistaking it. Gigantic towers of wood, blackened buildings. We saw a a man (presumably) being burned, his head charred, his legs sticking out from the wood. They took a stick and bent his legs back so that they would burn and we saw them, still with the flesh on, gradually become “sweaty” and then the flesh get eaten away by flames while people casually looked on.

Overlooking the cremation site is the temple of Kali, the god who loves death. Its holy men are very black and haunted. As a part of their worship they have been known to consume human flesh from the charred remains below. Calcutta, incidentally, is a city devoted to this god and has a very large temple there where animal sacrifice happens regularly, blood flowing outside the temple. And human sacrifice still happens to appease the god Kali. Street children regularly disappear and though it isn’t legal to murder a child, somehow it isn’t necessarily investigated either. It is one of those things that gets covered up as modern sensibilities live along side ancient superstitions.

We walked the streets and looked at rotting buildings, a myriad of shrines and temples, ashrams, and holy sites. One place was particularly sad to me, Lolark Kund, means “reflection of the sun.” it is an ancient deep, deep man-made cavern lined with stone, with steep steps leading down to a pool. It is hard to describe, but the god Shiva is represented by symbols of male and male sexuality. All over the city you see shrines with a post (male) and a roundish disc (female) called the Shiva-lingam and this deep well is also patterned after that (if you google this you will find images). The steep steps lead down to the round pool, hundreds of feet down and here barren women come, and in particular, one day a year where they practically trample one another to get to the water.

They carry a vegetable under their sari and leave it here as an offering, vowing to give up eating it for a year as a sign of their desperation. They leave all their clothing and jewelry there as a sign of their shame, and put on something new after they have dipped in the waters hoping that their prayers will be answered.

We stood and looked at this deep well with all the saris draped over every ledge to dry, all these bright colours masking such sadness, each sari representing someone calling out to a false god to save them from their shame.

If you google Varanasi you will find blogs where people describe Varanasi rapturously, as a place of spiritual enlightenment, light and goodness. It is absurd. Varanasi is FILTHY in every way from the mixture of urine, cow dung, and rotting garbage on the streets, to the absolutely polluted waters of the Ganges, the sooty buildings that stand guard around the cremation sites, and the children defecating beside the roads 5 feet away from where they eat. It is dirty and smelly and heavy with spiritual darkness. The only way you would say this place is beautiful is if you were blind.

Varanasi feels like the monster in the world’s closet and if we would have left there with only the story I just told, I think I would have felt it was beyond hope. God, however, has other plans for Varanasi. More about that in my next post.

— Teresa Klassen



One response

3 12 2012

Thank you so much for this post. I have never been there, but I have watched videos. I could not believe what I was seeing.

And you’re right, people call this place beautiful and “spiritual”. To me it seems like hell on earth.

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