A Short Walk on the Varanasi Ghats

city of light

On the left bank of the Ganges River, the temples, palaces and stone steps (ghats) of Varanasi stretch for some 6 km. We Scindia ghat and leaning templelive at Scindia ghat, which is to the east of center. In front of our window is the leaning tower of a temple too heavy for its foundation, now picturesquely subsiding into the river. From our hotel we walk down a dark flight of steps, and as soon as we set foot on the ghats above the temple someone yells “Hello! Boat?!” It is a greeting we will hear several dozen times a day, touts trying to take us for a ride on the river. A few steps along and we are at the wood piles of Manikarnika Ghat. This is the most auspicious – and expensive – place to be cremated. Big scales weigh up the logs for each fire. We take an archway to the left, and descend almost into the yard where the bodies are burned. There are always five or six pyres on the go. I have seen this scene many hundreds of times, as have most people guruhere, and there is very little overwrought emotion on display. All the same it is a peculiar place. Dogs find relief from the cold and their itches by curling up in the warm embers, and sometimes a naked holy man will bathe in the ashes of a dead fire, covering himself from head to toe as a graphic expression of the impremanence of life. We skirt the top of the burning grounds, and return to the river’s edge under the palace where our friend Pappu lives with his family. The palace has been abandonned and unkept for generations, and Pappu, a kind but down-at-the-heel Brahmin I met years ago has as squat inside. Charming as they are, the ghats are filthy and smelly, serving as a toilet for dogs, people, cows, water buffalo, and all the other creatures who have nowhere else to go. A little way along the ghat is wide enough to play cricket on, but I always wonder: who gets to fetch and clean the ball, or do they just keep bowling crap?

All sorts of activity is taking place in the river itself. Prayers are being said and ritual baths are taken, bathing in the riverbut primarily it is a big laundromat. The water is a turgid brown, and knowing what goes into it I recoil from even getting my sandals wet, but scores, hundreds, thousands of people are scrubbing frothy masses of clothing in the river, and while their knickers are drying they brush their teeth and lather up and kick around for a bit of a swim. Either the hospitals are filled with ulcerous cholera patients, or there is a God.

Just before we get to Dasaswamedh, the main ghat, we cross a modern viewing platform that usually has a herd of buffalo lolling about. Once on the main ghat, the first person to approach you will try to shake your hand. If your reflex is to accept it as a friendly gesture, your hand will be held and kneaded while the pitch is made for a head massage “10 rupees only!” If you accept that, you will be led to a wooden platform, and the massage will proceed to the shoulders, arms, legs…as far and as long as you let it until you think, hmmm, this is a good deal for 10 rupees. And indeed, when the price comes up it is more like 400 rp…

Usually we leave the ghats at this point, and walk up past the barbers, bead sellers and beggars, but today, having finishedwashing the body before cremation our business, we decide to keep going. Right beside the main ghat, the Dharbhanga and the Maharana have some beautiful palaces, but from there things decend out of the tourist-pretty very quickly. The Harischandra ghat and it’s environs look more like the water buffalo bathing ghat. This is another cremation ground, however, the poor relative of the Manikarnika. There is no fancy temple here, just a mud flat where the bodies are washed and burned surrounded by wallowing livestock. Beside it, the Dandi Ghat has attracted some pretty strange tenants. There are holy men, sadhus, all over the city, and dreadlocks, ashes, face-paint, robes or lack of them, pet snakes, drums, skewered lips, hash-filled chillus don’t usually attract my attention, especially as there is often a pitch for money involved. So walking by the makeshift tent I barely glance in, but Katheryn says: they’ve got a human skull!. I know it’s bad manners, and I don’t usually take pictures of people with human skulls ritual skullwithout asking, but this time I sneak one, and get out of there quick. This is India, and there are no solitary occurances, and a few yards on the sadhus have FOUR skulls on a mat in front of them. This time I ask for a photo, and the answer is no.

At last we come to Assi Ghat, and the handsome golden sandstone steps we have been following dissolve into mud flats with boat builders and shanties squatting on them. Assi has a little of the feeling of Varanasi 20 years ago, at least from a backpackers’ view. Here, it is the foreigners who have dreadlocks and wear white robes, and when they have the munchies eat pizza at the shady local hangout. We join them for a bit, for a lemon soda, and then go down to the river to negotiate with the first “Hello! Boat?!” that we hear. We give the requisite snort at the first price: No, no, Dasaswamedh, not Delhi! Katheryn then gets a rise out of some kids soaping up in the water. What is your name? they call, and she responds: He’s James Bond! And I add: She’s Karina Kapoor! as some Bollywood music sets Katheryn off miming the dance moves of the popular diva.

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