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The International Writers Magazine: India

In the heart of the Hindu universe
Mark Hutchinson
Uma Shankar was the only person in the whole train station who was not sweating aggressively. The starched blue shirt, his immaculately parted hair, those smart dark glasses, that dryness about the brow and armpits; all of these things showed a determination to lend some order to the hot, frenetic world beyond the small tourist office in which he sat.


He unfolded a free tourist map, flattened it with his palm, and commanded us to look. We stared into it as though our fates were laid out in that badly drawn impression of the Hindu City of Light.
‘You will see here the silk emporium… across the street. Look behind you, please. The road to the right of that tree, take that road here,’ he said, marking the route on the map in black biro. ‘Around the corner, the Mother India Temple if you wish,’ he said. The words clipped out in smart defiant syllables as he circled the temple. ‘East is Godaulia. See the church tower. The autos take you this far. Walk this way…’ The biro passed over roundabouts and cut down lanes. ‘Accommodation here… And here. Here close to the Dashaswamedh Ghat… where there is a river worship ceremony in the evening but I’ll write after… Here accommodation close to the Burning Ghat. Approach from this side… passes Golden Temple…there are more temples close by, here…’

Uma Shanker’s biro commanded the Old City to open its attractions to us. The Ganges became a directory, listing names of hotels, the principle ghats, some points on temple etiquette and times for the river worship ceremonies.

‘I hope you have a good stay in Varanasi. Any problems, come straight back.’ We shook hands and left as the next pair of travellers took their seats at Shanker’s altar to rational, ordered tourism.

We stepped next door to the tourist ticket office, picking our way through encamped families on the station floor, sitting out interminable delays. The ticket officer typed our travel request into his computer. We waited, hoping for confirmation of two available berths to Rishikesh for the next day.
‘Bin Laden is here tomorrow,’ said the man instead, not looking up from his screen. ‘You know Osama Bin Laden?’
‘Yes, we’ve heard of him.’
‘He is coming here to Varanasi.’
‘Why?’ I asked. The officer pointed to a picture hanging on the wall behind him. A caption at the bottom of it read, “AYODHYA”. The holy site claimed by both Hindus and Muslims.
‘Is he coming for the Supreme Court Ruling?’ I asked.
‘Will there be any trouble?’
‘That depends. Hindus are not violent.’
‘Of course,’ we answered, hesitantly. The officer continued to process our tickets but we sat under a heavy silence – which Katherine tried to lighten.
‘We could try and have our picture taken with him.’

Outside the station, the heat had sprung like a trap on the morning and everyone seemed to be wrestling it. The usual mob of rickshaw drivers pleaded with us for the early fare – ‘Good luck for rest of the day!’ The man we bargained a good price from became hurt when we asked specifically not to be dropped anywhere (‘no shops, please, no hotels’) except the church tower in Godaulia. As if in his professional capacity he would do such a thing! He refused to drive us on principle. Then he drove us. There is essentially one long main road connecting the train station with Godaulia to the east. By virtue of this principality it was jammed with traffic: cars, cycle rickshaws, donkeys and carts, auto rickshaws, pedestrians. Every vehicle twitched to make gains on the vehicles around it in a hysterical, slow race. The traffic was made to stand to attention and bake for ten minutes when a long military convoy crossed the main road, travelling north to south. ‘Will there be any trouble?’ I wondered again.

At Gaudolia our rickshaw driver was still sulking. He refused to take our money on principle. Then he took our money.

Traffic cannot approach the Old City beyond the church tower. Here it atomises into a hundred thousand pedestrians, pilgrims and residents, touts and sages. Pedestrians keep to the left in two wide streams and the journey is still loud and closely interactive with everyone else. We joined the parade and walked east in the direction of the river. On our left, dark entryways into the Old City winked at us, glimpsed for a moment amidst the tall façade of tailor shops and vegetable markets. We would need to enter to walk north and find the Manikarnika Ghat – that central tirtha; that crossing place where devotees access the divine at the end of their lives. We addressed our tourist map. But Uma Shankar’s lines and circles, his arrows and instructions blackened out the city they were meant to illuminate. Biro hieroglyphs swam across the page, cut adrift from their original points of reference. Varanasi, Banaras, Benares, Kashi - the centre of the Hindu universe was exercising some cosmic interference. The city was already resisting a rational, disciplined approach. What is more, in this swirling topography it was purported that Gods and global terrorists were walking freely. ‘Shiva live in Banaras,’ chuckled a sadhu, drawn to us for alms, pointing north along a passageway, into the Old City. We took up the direction and walked north.

There are lanes and passages in the Old City that will not appear on the best map or in the most thorough guidebook. How is it possible to make such a plan, when a passageway that appears to you in the morning has gone by nightfall? Can a map keep up with the organic transformation of routes and passages that detour along the diverging course of ancient trees, interwoven with the still more ancient walls?
Old City

To begin with, you will not remember exactly how far you have come down that lane, which passes by on a continuous reel of identical stall fronts. Or where the turn is that you took just an hour before. But the young tailor, who desperately wanted you to ‘Try my shop,’ or the brass vendor or tea seller, they will pinpoint you instantly and call out, ‘Try my shop now?’ The Old City knows your exact whereabouts before you do and in time it will initiate you into its passageways. So we put away the map and followed the Old City. A kaleidoscope of signs and advertisements are painted on every available inch of plaster, with arrows pointing in all directions to places lost and present: “Baba School of Music”, “Peacock Hotel Left at Chaumsathi”, “Manikarnika Ghat”.

Varanasi shops They are as bright and as disorientating as siren’s songs. We followed the people, pulsing through the lanes. The naked sadhus, painted and adorned, the women in their saris for celebration and ritual, the military uniforms, and the white face that rises unexpectedly out of the crowd, nods, then disappears.

All of these brighten the tight lanes at ground level where the sun is not permitted a direct line of sight. As we follow the Old City we are mindful. Movement is constant and there is frowning upon any hesitation in the traffic. Pay special attention to the cows. Revered as they are, they cut a lumbering, lordly swathe through the narrow alleys and anyone who dallies in front of them. But the cow’s status is being overtaken. In this contemporary moment, India has its new symbol of wealth and strength, abundance and a full earthly life. Now even the cow must be wary of the motorbike as it tears up the passages like a rat in a tunnel, with all the studied hauteur the driver has learnt from the cows. Through these scenes we keep walking. Our only surety is that somewhere to our right, the Ganges is.

Young men latch onto us before we know we are at the Manikarnika Ghat. We are directed in various contradictory directions. Some say this way, others then flare up and tell us, ‘No! No tourists this way. Go there.’ It’s a fine balance. We do not want to be disrespectful but we do not want to follow a tout into a scam to extract our money. More confusing still, I cannot tell where or what the ghat is. Essentially an access to the water, stone steps or a terrace, I cannot see these typical features. The late monsoon has swollen the Ganges. Later I buy a postcard and from the picture I understand how the waterfront had been submerged by some twelve feet of water. Cosmic interference is altering appearances again.

Hindu Funeral In front of us is the skeletal frame of a concrete two-story building. It presents two paths, one on each side. Men carry firewood to the left, stomping their bare feet for traction on the wet mud under the weight of their bundles. We cannot go that way. Young men milling about become animated, ‘Families! Do not disrespect!’ On the other side it is quieter. We are told that we are watching a holy man, who is the bundle wrapped in gold linen, being rowed out for dispersal.

Above the whole site, hundreds of crows fill the air as though an invisible dome is trapping them. To the left once again, we follow the concrete structure with our eyes. One can almost see the process of mutation that has taken place over time. As the Manikarnika Ghat warps to depths marked by tiers of chambers and extensions, and gropes equally high into pointed turrets. To the Western imagination it is a Transylvanian castle. This open, ritual embrace of death in life, it is of a kind only broached in our horror fiction.

With other tourists we have only one option: to ascend the gutted concrete structure. Inside elderly women hold out hands for alms. Uma Shankar warned against handing any money to anyone at the ghat. It’s hard to tell from appearances what to do. We climb the next flight to the roof and I see the Ganges for the first time from a vantage. It is enormously wide, a sea pretending to be a river. It is difficult to rest on this view though, because there are two touts vying for the attention of the tourists, eager to show us the view down to our left.
There below is the focal point of the site for those who have come to burn their dead. It is what the touts think we want to see. On a metal rooftop, pyres large enough to burn a single body are arranged in two rows. Upon them bodies wrapped tightly in white linen are burning at different stages of combustion. Groups are gathered around each fire, in mourning. Except for the burning there is little ritual to be observed. One of the touts perches on the ledge beside us.

Without encouragement he delivers his patter on the funeral process. I wish he would stop, until I’ve thought about the scene and gained my own impressions. ‘The procession to the ghat… the getting of wood… fire lit from Shiva’s eternal flame, burning constantly somewhere below… no women… traditionally women throw themselves on the pyre… family walk five times around the pyre, once for each element… Look, there, the man dressed in white is doing… Bodies burn for two hours… skull is cracked to release the spirit to Nirvana… if anybody cries at the funeral the spirit is trapped in the body… after three hours, water from the Ganges is used to put out the flame and what remains, the pelvic bone, is given to the river…’

The tout in his eagerness wants to entertain us by dramatizing the scene. But his words actually take my thoughts away from the burning. I think about how this open cremation is just a small part in a whole process of ritual and mourning that will last for days. As the tout speaks it is clear that this glimpse of cremation in isolation will never depict the whole process or tradition, nor begin to convey the feelings of its participants. The tout feels to me like one of the crows scavenging off the scene. Every detail he extracts does not add to my understanding. Rather he picks away from the ritual as a whole, until all that we are left with inevitably are its bones lying in front of us.
On the way back down the tout overtakes us near the way out, blocking the doorway. ‘Money,’ he says.
‘What for?’
‘I told you everything.’
We’re not sure what to answer.
‘This is our place. You come into our place.’ He gestures at one of the elderly women, leaning beside the doorway. I try to think, but the tout is impatient, jabbing his hand at me and trying to make himself larger in my space. So I put ten rupees in the woman’s hand.
‘For her,’ I say. The tout snatches the money and rears up, ‘More!’ He shouts.
This situation is exactly as it appears to me. I tell him we’re leaving and we leave through him.

© Mark Hutchinson Feb 2011

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