Hello, Varanasi.

21 January 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m trapped chest-deep in a snow drift at the bottom of a roadside ravine. The world, should it continue, shall have to send word via toboggan. My digestive system seems to be on holiday, yet still I eat the Varanasi tourist favorites, clogging the pipes. What little escapes is gas and slime.

Last night whilst returning to our hotel from the main ghat, my muscles and stomach ached to the point of immobilization. Couldn’t walk a hundred feet without a rest. Sick and stoned (I mistakenly thought a “mild” marijuana lassi from a street vendor would help my stomach – three sips of the half-pint drink put me out. Still, for thirty rupees…), I sat on a giant stone step and recalled my twenty-minute-old memory of Manikarnika, the Burning Ghat, cremation place of 200-300 bodies per day. 

We reached the shore well after dark, having lost the path of the pallbearers. They’d walked by the Blue Lassi Shop, where we waited for fruit curd, carrying bamboo stretchers with small corpses wrapped first in white, loose mummies, then oranges, yellows and reds adorned them, gold bangles and decor for the portal to heaven. Flame expectant.

Medieval towers. Darkness and firelight. Monkeys scaled the buildings. Music, from a celebration at  A crowd watched the bonfires, mostly from the stairs above. Some stood between the fire and the blackness of the sacred Ganges, its current slow and strong.

Bodies burned on ghat and rooftop, a quiet city sieged. The scent of burning flesh and sandalwood. Cow dung and masala. Three incandescent lights shone from the building at the top of the ghat. How the smoke must have tasted.

I peered into a face revealed by a lively flame: the white wrap quickly melted away from the head. Sick as I was, these bodies were of humans, small and decrepit elders most, or children. The hotelier Ricky’s words repeated, We Indians are happy to die. When you burn in Varanasi, you go straight to heaven. It’s beautiful.

I would not debate the beauty of the scene. It felt more however that I had stepped into some former century, one of the 3,500-year-old city’s elder days, that I was a traveler from a land where nothing was sacred, one whose people concentrated far more on cleanliness than life or death, and no one, really, was concerned with heaven.

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