Varanasi wakes at 4am. A few beggars wander the streets before the rush. Local Hindus say a prayer to one of the 36,000,000 gods they worship. Excited pilgrims rush down to Mother Ganga to wash, brush their teeth and drink the sacred waters. And as the sun slowly rises, Gemma and I mutter a few grumpy swear words because we’re still here.
“Varanasi’s a very holy place”, we were told as we tried our best to dodge the faeces of cow, dog and human. “People of all over India come here on pilgrimages, to get their blessings from the holy…” And then we assumed he’d said river, but couldn’t be sure because a car had just blown its horn loudly interrupting. “There is no better place in the world” he assured us as a man gave Gemma a dissaproving look for being a western female, and then brushed himself up against her for a pervy kick.
As you can probably tell, so far we’d been finding it quite hard to share our guides enthusiasm for Varanasi.
The previous night he’d taken us to a Hindu ceremony at the main ghat by the river. The show (can I call it a show?) involved melodic praying whilst 4 men slowly waved candles about. After the ceremony a friendly faced lady calmly passed us a burning flower each to drop into the river. “It’s for good karma” she told us. We smiled and individually placed our flowers in the river. But then…
“100 rupees each” she shouted as any trace of a friendly nature disappeared from her now stern and angry face. This didn’t feel like good karma at all.
Josh, an English man we’d befriended, had heard of a traveller friendly place called the ‘Blue Lassi’. We decided to seek it out, not only because it’s aparantly the best lassi shop in India, but also because we needed to escape the relentless touting and uneasy stares of Varanasi. Maybe it was the constant stream of dead bodies pushing us to the side of the road on their way to the burning ghats disorientating us, or maybe it was just that I’m rubbish with maps, but we couldn’t find it anywhere. I’d read on the bus that India has a population of 1.21 billion and I’m certain that at least half must have been in that city. On that street. Pissing us off.
The next day we were on our way to a small wooden boat to watch the sun rise over the holy city, and despite first impressions we were eager to see the city our guide was raving about at its most beautiful. But before the boat left the ghat we were passed a burning flower…
“It’s for good karma.”
“Yeah, we’ve tried one”. I replied, “it didn’t work”.
Our guide said we should buy one though, so like every westerner lost in the confusing depths of India we handed over the money. As I took the flower I let out a yelp. The fire had spread to the paper and now I’d burnt my finger. I really hate purchased karma.
The boat ride itself was fascinating. Hindus believe the river can cleanse a living persons soul and release a dead person from the life/death reincarnation cycle up to heaven. There were dead bodies being burnt at one ghat and people drinking at the next. The murky colour of ‘Mother Gange’ is said to be down to the evil she has washed away from those who have bathed in her, but to the atheist eye it’s more likely to be down to Varanasi’s sewerage system and the dead cows floating about in her.
However, belief and hygiene aside, what we did see along the banks were pilgrims genuinely excited to be at THE river, men laughing together and married couples lovingly helping each other into the sacred water. A dip may not be for me, but it was heartwarming to see what it did for them.
On the way back we tipped the guide well and spent some time eating and drinking in the ‘the brown bread bakery’, a charity which provides schooling to children, and jobs to Indian women. The food was ok and the prices quite high, but as we walked back onto the street we saw, through a gap in the crowd and past a bull charging (luckily) the other way, the Blue Lassi shop.
And to me, that’s good karma.