Old Varanasi

3 February 2013

Waiting for the delayed train would not have been so bad if I wasn’t able to taste the rum in my mouth when I burped uncontrollably.

The train was a relief anyway, but I didn’t have long before I smelled that the train had arrived in Varanasi Cantanoment station. Another relief was making two train reservation in under an hour. So quick and efficient and willing to actually take my money in exchange for a service.

The rickshaw man waited the whole time for me. We headed into town slowly through the stagnant heat. On the ground was a dead body within arm’s reach from me. One eye was slightly open and he would have only been thirty years old. The dust was gathering around and on him as we chugged on.

The driver tried to take me to a look-alike hotel to get commission, but I laughed and knew what was going on, and asked politely where the real one was. On the way were familiar things in an unfamiliar place: traffic, pollution, dryness, way too many power lines dangling everywhere and lots of people walking to where they need to be, often stopping at tea or snack stalls along the way. Even through the narrow lanes to the hostel, there were typical scenes of Indian men watching cricket on a tiny TV and women carrying ingredients on their head–with difficulty of course, because of all the men pushing wooden hand carts around.

In that sense, it was a typical North Indian big city. That feeling lasted about five minutes, or however long it took to walk from the hostel through the jammed one person wide lanes of Godaulia and down the street to the river Ganga.

It came as a bit of a surprise as the city fronts right up to the water. The ghats are all different colours with some for bathing, some for washing clothes, some for mooring boats. Children play cricket on the base of the steps. They don’t seem so bothered when they whack the ball up the stairs, disrupting old people of what must be one of the final hikes up any steep incline of their lives.

Everybody heads to somewhere in the middle of behind the big pink tower and all the towering facades, looming over you, to the burning ghats. Families rush here with their dead, and they put the body in line with the rest of them, next to the stacks and stacks of wood. Eventually the body is placed between the wood down by the river and burnt as much as possible. I would say ‘until they are burnt to a cinder’, but people stand right by the fires with heavy bone crushing poles for a reason. It smells like wood, nobody is allowed to take pictures and everybody stares blankly at the source of the black plumes of smoke rising up into the air.

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