India, well you’ll either love it or you will hate it! I was told this before I was even thinking about traveling there. Before I had done any research, images sprung into my head that would taunt me. Images that I had seen in books or on the news of depravation and squalor, street sellers and hawkers ravenous with hunger, delirious with pain and despair. But what I found was beauty.
It seemed to me like a challenge that I might not be ready for. …but a challenge nonetheless. I had already traveled through China, Tibet and Nepal so it seemed to make sense to me that this was the last and possibly the most challenging part of the journey and the way home.
Upon crossing the border from Nepal, Varanasi ( unequivocally the Holiest city in India) was my first port of call. On arrival, I felt totally out of my depth, immersed in traffic, people, animals and chaos. It was like I had climbed all the way to the top of a diving board and plunged head first into a world completely unknown and unfamiliar to me.
The streets of the old town are chaotic and heaving with life. Crammed with street vendors and kiosks tucked into every nook and doorway, old withered faces emerging from behind wooden shutters tempt you with their wares. Animals cruise the streets unperturbed by human life and cause more congestion than traffic itself.
Most animals are sacred in India , especially the cow deemed the holiest . Cows, dogs, monkeys, goats and water buffalo wander undisturbed, rummaging through waste and plastic bags, scavenging for food. It is not unusual to have a cow come up to you begging for food, to have to share a dining area with a cow, or have your train journey postponed because a cow has decided to lie across the train tracks. I even was witness to a cow thieving a dress from a clothes shop. Many animals unfortunately meet their end. Plastic bags are a killer and cows especially will swallow the bag whole to get at the food within, the plastic suffocating its stomach. Many a time I saw a doctor on the street tending to a cow, attached to a sugar solution drip trying to nurse it back to health.
The bigger streets in India are even more annoying, with irritating incessant horn blowing and bell ringing. Frantic and erratic, the rickshaws, cars and bikes collide as each one tries to out smart the next. However there is always an odd sense of organised chaos in India though it is enough to make any man mad or even the most peaceful of minds crazy.
The old town is steeped in tradition and the Hindu religion. Dishevelled tattered and torn, the town rises up alongside the banks of the river, where life lives and breathes the holy waters of the Ganges. The town spreads out like the roots of a tree, branching out from the watery banks along narrow dusty dirty streets, that weave like veins from the river. As if it is feeding from its very heart, every aspect of life here revolves around the river. It is believed that the river Ganges can purify the soul. People bathe and drink from the holy river, they wash their clothes and use the water to cook and wash their food. It is a way of life trapped in time, unchanged in decades. Where time, tradition and culture stand still.
Every night huge ceremonies take place to celebrate and give thanks to their river god. These festivities continue on into the night and from a small boat, sitting out on the muddy waters, I could observe the celebrations and ancient cremation areas of the Ghats. The Ghats burn continuously twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. Newly deceased bodies are carried by the male members of the family on bamboo stretchers through the streets to the Ghats on the banks of the river. The procession is alive with chanting and bell ringing and the bodies are covered in gold paint, flowers and ceremonial cloth. Once they reach the Ghat the body is weighed, wood is bought and the fire prepared. The wealthier the deceased member, the more wood their family can afford, so the less fortunate get very little wood. The Ghats burn five bodies at a time and after three hours the ashes and body remains are swept into the river and the soul reincarnated. Children, holy men and pregnant women are not cremated, as their souls are already pure.
But the murky waters are not quite as they seem. Polluted by industrial waste upstream and littered with the remains of millions, people continue to use the river as they always have done for centuries, tradition unchanged uncompromised.