Before I went to India, I knew that I could expect to see an intense religious devotion there; the kind of faith that leads people to make pilgrimages just to plunge themselves in waters that are considered to be sacred. I also knew that I could expect layers of filth. But I hadn’t expected that I would witness the convergence of those two elements in such an unforgettable and disturbing way. Varanasi was the intersection.
Varanasi ended up on my itinerary via Google Maps. Really. As I zoomed out of Kolkata to see what was between it and Agra, Varanasi stood out. The name was familiar so I searched for it online. From what I found, it looked and sounded colorful, and flights from Kolkata to Varanasi were cheap.
I would eventually find out that none of the travel information I’d looked at prior to my arrival adequately described it. After I returned home and looked up Varanasi again, it didn’t take long to find an abundance of non-travel oriented content about some of the disturbing situations I saw there.
I had a pleasant arrival and the Varanasi airport was strangely quiet and clean. I later learned that we’d arrived in a new terminal that had opened just a few days before. The airport pickup I’d arranged was waiting for me when I exited. As we left, the pastoral outskirts we drove through looked pleasant and promising.
The atmosphere changed rapidly as we approached the center of the city and navigated roads that were thick with people, livestock, and rickshaws. We stopped at a strange spot. The guide who had accompanied the driver told me that the car couldn’t go any further. He hopped out and practically ran through the narrow winding alleys of the Old City. I clumsily trailed behind, trying to keep up and avoid both running into cows and stepping in their excrement.
We arrived at the Ganpati Guesthouse, I went to my dumpy room, sighed, and settled in. There were charming parts of this rustic guesthouse, but the room was not good. It was the second worst after the Hotel Diplomat. There was also an open sewer next to the guesthouse that streamed down the hill into the Ganges. I looked down at the murky, trash lined river with a bit of dread about what I’d see happening in it.
In India, if you book train tickets online, it’s not uncommon to be put on a waiting list. People cancel often, so if you’re fairly high on the list, you’re likely to get a spot. I’d booked two waitlisted onward tickets to Agra and now had an official ticket for both. I decided to go with the earlier train that left the following afternoon because I could already tell that I didn’t want to spend more than one night in Varanasi.
As I was fixing my booking, someone approached me. It was the British woman I’d met in Kolkata. She’d just arrived on the train from Darjeeling and was having trouble finding an available room. She had no luck at Ganpati. We chatted before she moved on to try the next hotel. She looked flustered; it was an expression worn by most of the independent traveler friends I ran into more than once on my trip.
I walked down to the river to see the Varanasi sunset scene. I couldn’t take more than a few steps at time without children under the age of 10 trying to sell me boat trips or flower candles or trying to lead me to the silk shop of their “uncle”. There were goats and cows everywhere and of course, sizeable piles of their droppings everywhere. I was ready to call it night, but still felt compelled to walk further along the ghats (the steps leading down to the Ganges).
I reached the Dashashwamedh Ghat. I’m glad I saw it. Hundreds of people had gathered, priests were preparing to perform rituals, and chanting was being played over the loudspeakers. You could tell that it all encompassed the purest of intentions.
Back at my hotel, I had dinner on the roof and watched candles in flowers floating on the river. It’s a pretty thing to see them drift along, but in the end, they just accumulate with the rest of garbage along the shores. It was about 8pm when I went back to my room. There was not enough reading light in my room, so I sang some songs to entertain myself while showering and getting ready for an early morning. Until some angry fellow guest shouted out, “SHUT UP!” And with that, I decided it was time to go to bed.
I went down to the river before sunrise — before most other tourists, apparently. I was a lone antelope for a pack of little lion sales kids, and they attacked me with sales pitches until I settled on a price with one. He led me to a boat and I got in, naively assuming he’d call over someone who’d actually row the boat. Instead, the little kid himself — who was no more than 8 years old — got in and started rowing. Culture shock #1 of the day.
I thought back to Kolkata when I’d seen a kid on his knees wiping an entire restaurant floor with a rag. The following day I’d seen a joke on MTV India: Q: How do we know that Harry Potter is Indian? A: He’s underage and he has a broom! I wasn’t sure what to make of poking fun at something that I was taught to believe is extremely wrong. And now on this boat, this kid was rowing further away from the shore chatting away in the casual matter-of-fact manner of a seasoned salesman.
It was still almost completely dark when we started. As we made our way down, I could see that we were approaching flames. The boy pointed and said, “Burning Ghats.” Culture shock #2. You know it’s coming, but you don’t realize how exposed it is until you actually see it. Right there on the side of the Ganges, bodies are cremated and their ashes are poured into the river. Corpses that aren’t cremated — like those of pregnant women and children — are wrapped and set out to decompose in the river.
As the sun rose, I began to see the bathing. Culture shock #3. I’d seen the animal feces, the burning bodies, the sewage, and general trash of the Ganges, but none of that could prepare me for actually seeing people submerge themselves in that water. And, as my mouth hung open, those who were bathing in the river stared at me with their mouths agape at the sight of a black woman.
The sun was gorgeous as it rose, filtered by the smoggy air. Silhouettes of birds in flight added to the spectacular image. But I found it hard to reconcile the lovely setting with everything else. There’s a beauty to the act of bathing as a sort of spiritual cleansing, but I couldn’t look past the potential hazards of it for the people who were in that toxic water and how all the activity was destroying the river.
Growing up in California, and also during my brief childhood stint in Maryland, regardless of religious beliefs, there was always a general understanding that nature is divine; something that provides food for your body and soul. And because of this, I came away with the idea that it should be protected to ensure that it continues to provide life and beauty. There in Varanasi, I got the sense that the idea was that God was inside this natural thing in the world, so you bathe in it so it will protect you and bless you.
I didn’t yet realize that before the invasions of the Mughals and the British, the holiness of the Ganges actually began with a reverence for the river that was not unlike the nature love I grew up with. People began to worship it because it was a giver of life for humans and other animals. The purpose of the cremations taking place along the river was to have people return to the place that gave them life. The Ganges has provided for the growth of and life of one tenth of the world’s population.
As the sun continued to rise, the river became more crowded with tourists in boats and pilgrims and priests in the water. The boy rowing my boat continued to try to sell me anything. He tried to act nonchalant about the rowing, but I could tell he was getting tired. I asked to go back to where we started. I paid him what we’d settled on, plus the same amount more (which was change to me) as a tip. His eyes grew wide as he received the money and ran off.
I decided to walk along the ghats for a bit and saw more and more people were gathering at the edge of the river. Some had even brought their children out for a family dip in the Ganges; the river that sewage and industrial waste flows into; the river of life that’s slowly wasting away with waste. Polluted rivers are a reality of an industrial world, but to see people bathing in and drinking from one, not necessarily out of necessity, but because of religion continued to shock me.
Sometimes the world contracts with travel, sometimes it expands. In Varanasi, it became larger to me. As I left, what I saw there remained unfathomable.