Summary of India diary entries by Rob Shackleford
Diary Entry 10 – Varanasi
Read the other India Diary entries:
Start in Mumbai
Up & Down
Into the Desert
North to Rishikesh
Kathmandu and Home
So I spend most of Diwali half-stoned.
Okay, maybe it is not the way for which one is to spend one of India’s most auspicious religious holidays, but it was an accident… Of sorts.
Let’s restart this from the top. Varanasi is a place of sensory overload. As one of India’s most sacred cities, Varanasi it is the place many faithful Hindus are cremated. It is the holiest of the seven sacred cities (Sapta Puri) in Hinduism and Jainism, and played an important role in the development of Buddhism and Ravidassia. Hindus believe that dying here and getting cremated along the banks of the “holy” Ganges river allows one to break the cycle of rebirth and attain salvation, making it a major center for pilgrimage. The city is known worldwide for its many ghats, embankments made with steps of stone slabs along the river bank where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions, which includes washing and drinking the holy water. Of particular note are the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the Panchganga Ghat, the Manikarnika Ghat and the Harishchandra Ghat, the last two being where Hindus cremate their dead and where the Hindu genealogy registers at Varanasi are kept.
So, for anyone visiting this great land, Varanasi is a must-see. As explained in my last blog, for the interests of time we have had to divest ourselves of the Royal Enfield motorbikes by which we have travelled throughout India so far. Alas, that means we become almost normal tourists for the remainder of our days here. It has been a tough decision, but it was either that or miss out on the major places we want to see. One of which is Varanasi.
We travell here by train. Oddly, though it was a day journey, it was on a sleeper. No worries there, though for Westerners the sleeper is an odd mix of train and 3 tier submarine bedding. It’s just so crowded. Opposite us is an Indian family. The trip goes without incident except when the young boy decides to vomit. Now, these beds are close, too close, so when he starts pulling that special ‘I’m about to vomit’ face I just stare, hoping I don’t get any splash damage. There’s nothing I can do! Fortunately, the mother spots the emerging catastrophe just in time, just as an orange tube of semi-digested erupts from the poor boy’s mouth. She catches it skillfully in a blanket as she scolds him. All I could think is, ‘Please don’t smell. please don’t smell!” Thankfully, by some miracle of the pantheon of Hindu Gods, it doesn’t. As the blanket is wrapped and placed into a handy plastic bag, the boy settles into miserable silence as the pretty young girl, obvious his sister, continued to crunch on her potato chips without pause. Kyle looks over from his bunk above and with wide eyes. That could have ended so much worse.
Varanasi station is a hubbub. After booking into our very basic hotel, we wander the the shores of the mighty Ganges, painfully aware at how broad, brown and polluted the great river is compared to upstream at Rishikesh. So we wander and wonder, for Varanasi is a place of old buildings and dark, sacred places.
One of the first things we experience is as we enter the area called the poor man’s ghat or Assi Ghat. A ghat is a place that leads to the river and is used for religious ceremony. One ceremony is cremation. There, a friendly worker explains the full rundown for which, as a courtesy, he is given a few rupees in donation. We are only paces from some new funerary pyres where the smoke smells of singed hair. A body lies, wrapped in cloth as the timber begins to burn. While there is no problem with respectful observation by foreigners, one does not try to photograph. Not only is it not permitted, but the grieving family can take offense. We heard the tale of thoughtless Japanese tourist who insisted on taking pictures, only to receive a beating and have his camera thrown into the river.
I have seen this before, but not Kyle, who finds it morbidly fascinating. There are many such pyres in various states of immolation while families carry the body on a stretcher as they chant. The body is washed and covered in ghee before being wrapped in bright cloths then dipped in the Ganges. It is then placed on the pyre before finally being burned. It seems like a production line. I find the Hindu approach to death, which is to have the cremation and preparation in the open, without hiding, brutally refreshing. After all, don’t Westerners hide our dead, our deformed, our aged? We gather for a ceremony and then a wake. It’s all so distant. In India, the process is very much in the open.
We continue our exploration. There has been flooding recently, so thick mud cakes come of the ghats and it is being blasted off by hoses. Meanwhile, the faithful wash and drink the holy Ganges water. I might have attempted such a ceremony in Rishikesh, but here? It’s so polluted. One of the miracles of Varanasi might be how more don’t die from poisoning by the water. The Ganges is one of the most polluted waterways in the world.
It’s also Diwali, so there are a lot of firecrackers. Kids yell a warning and a firecracker goes off only a metre away to leave my left ear ringing for days. They use really big firecrackers here that are exploded all day and night until Varanasi sounds like a war zone. There is a lot of laughter as they gather to light another. As a boring Dad, I think of fingers blown off and look away.
Varanasi is the place where the macabre meets the sublime. More bodies burn. It’s an industry as mountains of timber await. Further along the river we find a dog chewing what can only be the remains of a human. There was no head or legs, but the torso is there, poorly wrapped and in the mud. It is confronting, rather than shocking. How? How could it be here? We turn to wander off and the dog that had been chewing on the carcass nudges Kyle’s leg. “Get away, you dirty fucking mongrel!’ he yells as he waves in revulsion. There is a wet spot left on his pants leg where the dog nudged him. Kyle looks panicked, then we both laugh uproariously. What else can you do?
For Diwali, Varanasi is adorned with all kinds of Christmas-style lights, but aside from activities around the Ganges, it soon becomes obvious there is not a lot for us to do. While families gather for the festive season, we wander the streets. How many times do one visit the ghats? When we search Google for things to do in Varanasi, one strikes Kyle’s interest. A visit to the ‘Blue Lassi becomes an imperative. The Blue Lassi is a lassi bar with the ambience of a meth den, though they are allegedly allowed to ‘legally’ supply a bange lassi – a marijuana lassi. A lassi is a milky yoghurt drink typical to India. I normally have the banana variety, but at the Blue Lassi their menu lists quite the taste selection. But no bange lassi. The shop is tiny and a couple of Japanese backpackers scoop their lassis from the small, disposable clay pots traditional to the drink. Nothing appears amiss or unusual.
Kyle calls the one serving guy over. “Hey, we want a bange lassi,” he asks.
“No sir!” replies the server. He then walks away and looks back to Kyle with a comical tiny nod.
Kyle nods in reply, so the server returns. “You pick the flavour from the menu. You can have normal, medium or strong,” he adds, as if he works at Starbucks.
“Okay, then a medium for him,” gestures Kyle to me, “and a strong for me.”
The server looks to me a moment then nods in resignation. Kyle orders an apple and saffron lassi and mine is to be banana and coconut.
As they prepare the lassi by mortar and pestle at the front of the tiny shop, other westerners wander in with a smile of anticipation. But some end up looking puzzled, taking the server’s initial rejection at face value. Eventually they eat their normal lassi and, with a disappointed look, wander back into the alleys. There is obviously a subtle process that Kyle managed to get right. Our lassis soon arrive in their clay pots and, but for some green at the bottom, mine tastes pretty well as banana and coconut. Kyle’s, on the other hand, tastes like a horse’s breath smells, sort of sweet and like hay. If nothing else, the lassis are delicious. It all seems rather benign.
It’s time to think about something to eat, but none of the street food places look trustworthy and the vibe isn’t right. Without meaning to offend anyone from India, I have never felt right when I come to Varanasi. Maybe it’s because it’s a place of death. Through the thronging crowds and the lights, our walk back to the hotel takes over an hour.
“How are you feeling?” asks Kyle in anticipation.
I thought a minute before I reply, “Oh, not really any different. Maybe a little relaxed.”
Kyle looks disappointed. “Maybe they aren’t that good?” he suggests.
I shrug “I don’t know what to expect. I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve never even smoked a joint before. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel.”
He grunts again and shrugs as we walk alongside the insane traffic we know so well.
We arrive at out hotel, which is supposed to be 3 star but is more like 2 star. I step into the elevator. “Funny I don’t feel …” when it hits! It was weird, an altered state that initially had me think about when I get a migraine – sort of dopey and unable to think clearly. I manage to get upstairs to our room – and that’s where I stay. It’s like when you open the rear window of your car and there’s that heavy cavitation. Except to me the cavitation bounces from one side of my head to the other. I turn and fall onto my bed that spins dangerously. It’s even hard to speak, while my forehead has a deep purple knot trying to exit from between eyes that burn like I have lasers coming out of them. I have the heels of my hand pushed into my eyes as I lie there.
“Dad! are you okay?” asks Kyle. He sounds concerned.
My tongue refuses to work properly, so I barely manage to make a strangled grunt in reply. Doing anything takes an inordinate effort. Even to open my eyes.
I only laughed. “Oh man! I think I am done.”
Kyle is silent a while. “Okay, well let’s get something to eat! What do you want? Let’s order from the room menu!”
“Dad! Are you hungry? Let’s get some food!”
I could only shake my head and with some effort replied, “I’m afraid I am unable to make any such decision at the moment.”
Kyle thought that hilarious. For some reason his efforts to order food fail. The phone rings to talk about us taking a river cruise we have apparently paid for. Kyle chats a while and then has a shower. After wandering the streets and ghats a shower is ideal, but a shower is way beyond my abilities. While he’s in the shower, the phone rings. After a herculean effort, I stand and stare at the phone, unsure what to do.
“Dad! get the phone!” yells Kyle.
The bathroom door opens and his head sticks out. “Dad! get the phone!”
Kyle laughs and yells again, “Dad! What are you doing? It will be about our boat cruise. Get the bloody phone!”
I stare at it and replied, “No way! I can barely speak. What am I going to do? Speak Swahili at them?”
Kyle retreats back to his shower as he replies, “Man! You are so munted!”
It is a most unusual feeling. I dare not even pee for a while, as accessing the bathroom will take too much effort. Having never been a drug user or a purveyor of the exotic, I thought I might feel a little high, have a giggle, maybe want pizza, but this is different. It’s like fishing for tiddlers and having a whale eat you, or wanting an icecream and having an ice burg drop on your head. Yes, by any account I am finished, wasted, out of it, no longer a going concern, fucked!
To make matters worse, Kyle turns on the television. “Where the hell am I?” I ask and Kyle just laughs. “I won’t die from this, will I?” He laughs again.
“Oh don’t worry Dad, I’m stoned too,” he replies.
The television blares. Even sober, the programs are badly made, badly acted with the worse FX. I watch for a moment. “Why cant I understand them?” I ask, fascinated as a really terrible FX blue, super hero blast is sent from the fist of the hero.
No, this is too weird. Even Kyle is disturbed by the TV. In fact for me, this whole experience is confronting and the loss of control a little frightening.
In the end I give up any thought of a shower and just go to bed.
I awake 7am. Kyle says I slept from 6pm. What a stoner. The fog still clings to the edge of my mind. Kyle seems little better as he stares to me with red eyes. “Well, if nothing else, those lassis certainly work!” was all he said.
We go out for breakfast, which is largely silent and introspective.
Kyle opts to go back to the Blue Lassi to have another try There is no way I will do that again. As we later wander the streets, Kyle’s head seems to get heavier, so we head back to the hotel and chill a while. Later that evening, we attend the Varanasi Aarti – the religious celebration with fire and prerecorded prayers. As we sit in the crowd we can’t but help be amused by the conceit of wealthy tourists who sit in boats on the Ganges barely metres in front of the Aarti performers.
It’s morning and we wait for the driver. I phone, but he does not show. The last resort phone number to a Varanasi dude has me criticised for not contacting sooner. A small, beaten car arrives with a young, curly moustache dude with a kaffir, and his baseball cap wearing driver.
They could barely speak English, but as they loaded our gear told us to wear our seat-belts.
They tear through the busy markets, crowded traffic, and around the battered streets as if it was an Indian Fast and Furious. I’m not normally fussed by such driving, but these guys pushed the limit. To make matters worse, the seat belts could not be fastened. I now understand why India has the world’s highest road toll. After about half an hour of terrifying driving, bouncing and hurried directions from the kaffir kid as his driver dodges everything from old ladies and potholes to cows, we arrive at the train station. We barely have time to register relief, for we have but minutes to spare. I can barely run as my ankle is still playing up and swollen. We had to sprint, up stairs, across the walkway and down to the platform, fighting crowds, dodging beggars, and hoping to make it.
At the very last second we managed to clamber onto the train – into a sleeper carriage. Another sleeper?
From Varanasi to Bodhgaya, apparently where Buddha gained enlightenment. Alas, our hotel is barely suitable, so we head out, hoping to salvage something. Bodhgaya is a sacred place in Buddhism and is littered with stalls packed with Nepal type souvenirs and lots of monks with maroon, saffron and silver robes. Buddhist monk robes were initially to have been crafted from discarded clothing, but now saffron or orange is the traditional colour of choice for Tharavada Buddhist followers from South East Asia, while maroon is for Tibetan monks. There are a lot of all colours. We can’t find out what the silver coloured robes signify.
Kyle is not soaking up the Buddhist mystique as he is feeling off – possibly because we bought a pile of Indian sweets last night and he ate too many. Maybe it was the second lassi, but he’s just not feeling it.
It doesn’t take long before Bodhgaya loses its appeal. It is dirty, has a strange vibe, and is very poor. Besides visiting the Bodhi Tree monument, where monks and followers chant, and the giant Buddha statue, the most exciting thing we do is watch kids light the thunderous firecrackers that typify the season. Kathryn wheels are kicked across the ground by bare feet as children mill and cheer. Their fireworks seem to be supplied by monks who help the street people. As if to bid farewell, our last night in Bodgaya is ruined by thunderous Indian music that is played all night and keeps us awake.
Our flight from Bodhgaya to Delhi spells the end of any connection with the travel people who seemed to source the shittest accommodation. We stay at the Market Bazaar and decide to have haircuts with Indian barbers. These guys aren’t like the usual Indians we have met as they seem not to like us. The funniest part is how Kyle’s barber has one eye. But they do a good job.
This is an exciting jpurney, but we can’t help but anticipate that we are on the downhill run to going home. Tomorrow we head for Kathmandu.
Rob Shackleford is author of Traveller Inceptio, published by British publisher, Austin Macauley.
If you read Traveller Inceptio and like it – please place a review on Amazon and the Austin Macauley site Here
Kyle Shackleford is musician under Milo Hunter Band and a Chef.