I had just stepped off the 15 hour sleeper class train ride from Agra to Varanasi, when a young boy selling charms approached me.
Despite his young age, he had a confident, street-smart swagger. He walked towards me with a determined gait and approached with a smile, “Hello, want to see dead body?” he said, grinning, casual and breezy. Without the context, that kind of query could throw off the most seasoned traveler.
Varanasi, the city popularized in guidebooks for its “burning ghats” has always held a morbid fascination for tourists. According to Hindu belief, dying in Varanasi liberates your soul from the cycle of death and rebirth. Bathing in the water of the Holy River Ganges washes away your sins. Considering the current pollution levels of the river, a sip of that water is likely to have enough powers to relieve you of the long suffering that is life. But that is only a “bacterial” view of “purity.”
Life and death coexist more happily here than in the west. There is no one to keep the dead away from the living, or the shit away from the food.
Believers all over India keep bottled Ganga water at home, refrigerated, for cleansing in those final moments of departure. If you were to station yourself in a lane close to the famous “burning ghats”, you may witness the procession of souls on their way to moshka. It’s a long queue. There never seems to be enough solemnity associated with the final send-off. It’s a scene of hectic activity. One traveler told me that it is believed that if pyres were to stop burning at Manikarnika (the main burning ghat), the city would spontaneously combust.
The traffic of corpses in Banaras is an interminable flow that sometimes half burnt corpses are thrown into the river to make way for the next in line. Many poor people can’t afford to buy enough wood, so many half-burnt bodies are thrown into the river. The injustice of Indian society apparently follows its citizens even beyond death. Body parts float along the river, not far from where the children swim, mother’s wash their clothes and dishes, and buffaloes bathe. Ashrams on the ghats host many sick and dying people from out of town; people waiting to die so their souls may be sanctified in the fires of Manikarnika. Even the shrouds are recycled. That is the “industry” Varanasi is famous for and it’s certainly not a marketing gimmick.
Banarasis are a romantic lot. Appreciation of poetry, music, literature and food is not an elitist concept in Banaras. Never in a hurry, they are generally somnolent about life (and death). I have taken yoga classes meant to last an hour which continued for three hours as the guru was intent on teaching us westerners about laughing yoga (Hasyayoga). “Make a conscious decision to laugh, even if it is forced, when you are stressed,” the guru told me. “It will become habit and you will become happier. It’s as simple as that.”
Walking through the network of lanes can be a rewarding experience. Sandwiched between houses piled on top of one another, you come across temples of precious antiquity, still in use. You will also be accosted by cows and bulls that look too massive in a lane which is as wide as the span of your outstretched arms.
You may even walk past a “government bhang shop.” Bhang is a mixture of yogurt and marijuana leaves rumored to be extremely powerful. It was first used as an intoxicant in India around 1000 B.C. and soon became an integral part of Hindu culture. In the ancient text Artharvaveda Bhang is described as a beneficial herb that “releases anxiety.” Bhang preparations were sacred to the gods, particularly Shiva. One of Shiva’s epithets was “Lord of Bhang.” It was Shiva, in fact, who supposedly discovered the transcendental properties of the mixture.
I spent an entire week exploring the ghats and alleyways until I began to feel that my value judgements had been jolted. At times I felt something akin to panic, and decided to leave Varanasi earlier than planned. On my last day I found a well-stocked bookstore in the southern part of the city not far from the university. I bought a copy of Raja Rao’s Allegory from Banaras.
Later, en route to Kolkatta, I read Rao, who maintains that “virtue does not grow easily in Banaras. And vice has no better place. For all come here to burn.”