A sample from the novel, ‘One Year and My Backpack.’
Chapter 8. Varanasi
Mark Twain said Varanasi is ‘older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together’. That was a hundred years ago. People have come from far and wide to see it. I was one of them and I was terrified.
It’s eleven a.m. and I leave my guesthouse, stepping over a gutter filled with food and faeces into a thin bending cobbled lane. One, two, three cows march down hill, bouncing off each other, hitting walls and women when a man grabs my shirt and pulls me into his shop. There are vibrations in the floor and loud noises descend from the hill above. Hit by incense from his store, I am dizzy, confused and I step into the street, when I see my first march. The man pulls me back and presses his face into mine, ‘out of the way’, he whispers as the noise of the march grows and a deep vedic chant builds as they come. My back is pressed into the wall and I am scared in this place but amazed as they pass, a procession of men carry the dead down the hill on bamboo stretchers to the Ganga, the River Ganges. A Sadhu follows behind and through his dreadlocks, our eyes meet, his are red and drugged and still, mine are small and scared and nothing. Women chewing red beetle crowd the road with bright red rotting teeth and their kids are screaming and dancing and jumping. A pack of monkeys hop between buildings in a perfect moving line and there are goats, dogs, a Hindu – naked except for a loin cloth and idols. Nine police men with guns march in three rows and I’m claustrophobic, spinning and now more cattle, more monkeys, more chanting and more dead. I look down the hill and the column of men carrying the body disappear into a fog of thick white that rolls and turn like a scene from a John Carpenter movie.
I arrive at the burning ghat, Manikarnika Ghat where the dead arrive to be weighed so the men in charge know how much wood to use for the burning, then they are burnt and sunk. A woman collapses down some steps as people race to her aid; men and women having made devout provisions to arrive here for their deaths, it’s the wish of a Hindu – to die and be cremated on a riverbank, but put more accurately it’s not dying, it’s leaving bodies. Hindus believe in re-incarnation because matter has never been made or destroyed, just transferred; so when they are burnt, they part with their shell bodies and then are released from this cycle of transformation. Ash from the bodies blows into my face but not from the Sadhus, they are holy men and already dead, and legally dead to the country so they are not burnt, just pinned to the river bed with a heavy stone. Sometimes I hear, the stones come free and the dead rise.
Leaving Manikarnika, I walk up river and find a Sadhu sitting on a wall. He is one of ten men smoking charas, a common practice among the holy to destroy all sexual desires and help contemplate the mysteries of the cosmic. With face painted white, long thick dreadlocks and blood red eyes, he was the Sadhu from before. He speaks to his friend and I’m waved on over. He had a tin pot for spare rupees. Sadhus are mystics, monks who practice yoga with one life ambition, achieving moksha… liberation through meditation. They live in caves and temples, in cemeteries and with ghosts. Some are naked, some carry swords and some eat only fruit. The suns rays pushed through the clouds and dissolved the mist to reveal an old man sitting on the bank, smiling in held lotus position, still as a temple carving of a hindu God. A group of tourists climb into a boat and record him on camera and in journals to return home and report what they had seen, or what they thought they had. The Sadhu made a grunt, he wanted more money. I said something to him in Welsh and politely hobbled away.