Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Varanasi: Chug your chai, Henna your Hands, Rake your Rice

Varanasi this weekend began with a Twelve hour train ride. Twelve, Thirteen, maybe Fourteen; it’s a little hazy but so the traveling goes this way.

When I was younger I always thought that long rides – by car, by plane, by train – were excellent for writing or drawing or reading or doing something really productive. I loved the idea of delving into creativity or entertainment while being confined to a moving vehicle for a vast expanse of time. But now I am older and the sparkle and glow has tarnished slightly into reality. The older I get, the more I congeal into the mass of traveling bodies around me that rock in and out of dazed slumbers; my book hardly cracks open before my eyes begin to fall. Sleeping relaxed bodies that all move in a unison dance, bumping in an irregular rhythm produced by the turbulent ride.

Trains are actually incredibly comfortable. In fact, they are infinitely more comfortable than the public buses where you are mashed onto a seat slab, trying to keep your body parts within your boundary line without sacrificing discomfort. But on trains in the ‘sleeper’ class, you get your own BERTH to lay on. It isn’t a temperpedic by any means, but it isn’t a slab of wood either, and with a cushy backpack as your pillow and a shawl for your blanket, sleep comes quite easily.

A night lost somewhere on train tracks in between Delhi and Varanasi brought us into the station of the holy city, built by Lord Shiva himself – or so the story goes. The city reminded me a bit of a mystical Venice, if you will, perhaps a cross between Hocus Pocus and Venice and curry. Getting off the main road leads you into narrow alleyways lined with brick and stone. Tall buildings stand shoulder to shoulder and prevent you from seeing much but dimmed path in front of you. Also, the shore: Varanasi’s shore is shaped like a crescent moon right on the Ganges. Boats line the edge of the waters at the various ghats (a place where stairs lead down to the water) to row you up and down the river.

Part of Varanasi’s ‘holiness’ leads many people to die and have their bodies cremated there. Two of the ghats along the shore are where these cremations happen, and are completely out in the open air, something to view from a short distance. We saw cremations at both of the ghats – one of them while cradled in the hands of a boat, just off the shore. The other we saw from the top of a nearby building. Smoke constantly flourishes to the sky as five or six bodies are sandwiched in between large rolls of wood, aflame. A handful of loved ones come to give the deceased family member one last drink from the Ganges (pouring water into their mouths), adorn the body sheathed in white with orange flowers, and then witness the final release of the soul into the smoky sky. It’s all a very beautiful moving ritual to watch… To see this body left behind, as it was just a vehicle for this onward moving soul. Ashes, the last representation of the material manifestation of the soul, are then scattered into the Ganges below.

The wild Ganges! A holy mass of rapid brown water, chugging along with mystical powers!

Other things last weekend contained: Lots of chai, lots of excellent curries (a new favorite discovered: malai kofta), the best aromatic garlic naan I’ve ever had, the best thick creamy banana lassi I’ve ever had… lots of conversations. Lots of cultural crossings. Flash monsoon rain and henna on my hands.

And now I sit in the Delhi wet. Monsoon season this year has stayed much beyond its welcome. Normally monsoons have already packed up and left by this point, but somehow we have been lucky enough to experience the rains again and again. Day after day the roads flood. Day after day thunder claps in the distance and you hope that the taunting storm takes its path anywhere but towards you. Day after day the park in front of my house remains a pond of still standing water. Day after day men with turbans keep their shower caps ready just in case the clouds open.

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