My initial encounter with Varanasi gave no indication of its spiritual significance. As I got off my train, it seemed like most other North Indian cities. Wide, sidewalk-less streets, auto-rickshaw drivers jockeying to give me a ride and, incidentally, tell me about their cousin that owns a guesthouse. But as I got close to the Ganga River at the heart of the city, narrow footpaths split off from the main roads, little capillaries off the main artery. These lead into the medieval quarter, tall buildings flanking narrow alleyways. It feels similar to Genoa, but whereas Genoa’s medieval quarter was a curiosity, a tourist sideshow or a bougie farmer’s market rather than a core location, in Varanasi the streets are lived-in. Tourist knick-knacks and lassi shops sit next to general stores and temple offerings. Cows create pedestrian traffic jams as they chew their cud. I swear the winding paths move when you’re not looking. Turns I expect to lead me to the river take me around past another aisle of paan stalls.
But I eventually find my way to the Ghats, stepping through an archway, out of the shaded streets into the blinding light. As my eyes adjust, I see stone steps leading to the Ganga. Irregular plateaus create a promenade between the river and the city. I expected an austere space, a cross between a church and a graveyard. But that isn’t right. It’s like central park, or a less pretentious Seine riverbank. India doesn’t go for the sitting around in cafes. In nearly empty restaurants, waiters will give you an evil eye for chatting after eating. But here, people lay around chatting, or sitting in silence. People (and cattle and dog) watching is the pastime of choice. After the frenetic pace of the medieval corridor, the ghats are otherworldly. Time moves slow, drawn out by the lingering sun. A whole eon passes each day, carried on golden light.
A Yogi I interviewed explained how the ghats tell the story of the soul: death on either side and life in the middle. Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat are the cremation ghats to the north and south respectively, but in between there’s chai drinking and card playing and small boys playing cricket, soldiers bathing next to Delhi bankers, dreadlocked holy men getting in water fights with little girls in the Ganga’s purifying, polluted water.
In Hinduism, to die in Varanasi (also called Kashi) is to be freed from the cycle of death and rebirth, to achieve moksha (also translated as mukti) or liberation. Theologian Diana Eck cites a song from the Puranic mahatmyas:1
Here why should a man dwell in a solitary place
And what is the use of turning from the pleasures of senses
And what is the use of practicing yoga or sacrificing to the gods
For without these one gets mukti easily in Kashi
The city is the domain of the god Shiva, one of the core trinity of Hindu gods, and it is he who whispers the mantra of liberation in people’s ear as they die. The Ganga flows through the center. Holy and purifying everywhere, it is particular powerful in this city, as it flows from south to north, matching the idealized flow of energies from the hips to the head. Bathing in the Ganga is supposed to rid your soul of sins from past lives. It’s a deity in its own right.2 There’s another piece to be written about the doctrine around Varanasi, but the narrative is so dense I know I couldn’t do it justice.3
I see two officers putting on their uniforms after a swim in the Ganga, returning to their posts. Is it for the spiritual cleansing or a cool dip in the hot afternoon? Does it matter? Conversations on the ghats flow back and forth between one’s karma and the Austrailia vs. India test match. For once, when I bring up my project, everyone acts unsurprised. The boundaries between the divine and profane blur, though my feeling is that no one here would see a line.
The burning ghats push the ritual into a public view, far more public than the Christian funeral, cloistered as it is in the chapel and graveyard. Nearly a hundred corpses flow to Manikarnika Ghat every day and night, carried by the male members of the family who chant “Rama nama satya hai” (The name of Rama is the truth). The dead are wrapped in orange sheets with shining silver trim and garlanded with marigolds. Arriving on the burning ghat, I sees piles of wood fifteen feet high, weighed out with a metal balance. The dom builds up a pyre, tucking the dead into a bed of wood and straw. The eldest son, his head shaved other than a small patch of hair in the back, lights the pyre with a coal from the eternal flame. The wood catches quick, helped along by ghee and the straw, as the air above shimmers from the heat.
Families sit on the steps and watch the burning while a shop sells tobacco and crisps. The space is solemn but not heavy. Despite spending more time in graveyards in the last eight months than most well-balanced people, the burning ghats feel profoundly unfamiliar. Sure, the Necropolis in Glasgow was a nice spot for a picnic but you wouldn’t see a charred leg at the same time. Like the city as a whole, the cremation ghats lend themselves to snapshot descriptions, a whole that overwhelms their parts. They’re a strange mix of the mundane and profound.
I feel understanding on the tip of my tongue, but at every moment of clarity I become more aware of the deep waters I skim across. When I was at the Ashram, I spoke words without meaning. Here I feel meaning without the words. Around the corner, doms play cards and gossip. Their voices echo over the corpses.
1. Sort of a collection of travelogues, but with some divine weight.↩
2. It is tempting to treat the Hindu Gods as akin to the Greek Gods, as in the God of Messengers or God of War. While there are some deities that have these clearly delineated roles, different sects assign different qualities to different deities. So in some Shiva is confined to the role of transformation and flux, while in others he emerges supreme above all other Gods. Another example of this is Rama, the protagonist of the titular Ramayana, who in some places is an incarnation of Vishnu and in others a virtuous and blessed human. In fact, this tendency makes it hard to write about Hinduism as a generalized religious category at all. As far as I can tell, it’s not like Christianity where different sects argue over who speaks the one true word of God. Each version is true in its own way, or is an aspect of truth, or is the tradition of a particular group. It’s a shift in perspective that I’m certain I’m misunderstanding and mischaracterizing. The point is, any statement made here is based on one interview or one book. Ask the guy on the next ghat and they’d say something else. ↩
3. It has been written by a lot of folks more qualified than me. The first chapter of Johnathan Parry’s Death in Barnaras is a good pick or, if you’re really into it, Diana Eck’s Banaras: City of Light. ↩