By: Tommy Dennis
Varanasi is a city of life and death. I’ve come to marvel at the view of a 1000 gods offering up the spirit of their belief to the mass of people who trek every morning to purify themselves. But Varanasi is a city flowering with many different walks of life. First there are the pilgrim’s who come to the river to meet what they imagine is eternity, to see Buddha levitate on the banks of the river Ganges. The Hindi’s come to see where it all began, where blue hued gods and their 9 avatars bathed and stole sweet meats before they were gods come again. Then there are those that live here, the people who a city was built around. They who release dead bodies on piles of fire to the river, to let the living know that life are just a stage in death. For them this city is holy, the river a bridge to Heaven. They can gamble small card games next to languidly flowing corpses. Old and young Indian women wash their heaving coconut coloured breasts in this old river. Young children run up and down the banks daring each other to dip a toe into the river. Cow herders who bathe their cows so gently, washing the great bellies and great vaginas of the beasts in this mother-like river.
Then there are we, we many, we the tourists who come to gawk at the daily purring of their lives. Varanasi, like all of India, is full of contrasts. The modern world of cyberspace and pointy Italian shoes exists side by side with horse drawn wagons and babies defecating in the street. But its age and holiness don’t separate it from the sprawl of violence. Not physical violence that I’m familiar with but the violence of religion and people. The daily call to prayer is screamed over the serenity of the sun flowing river. The dreadlocked mystics haggle and badger the pilgrims who trek from all over the subcontinent. The priests and nuns of the cross stalk the streets hawking the word of a desert god to the denizens of the oldest city on the planet. These daily conflicts form the nucleolus of Varanasi life. Small explosions erupt every minute, the old man who tried to sell me weed because he thought I was Jamaican, the priests at the river who forced me to offer flowers to their three-headed god. The citizens of this crumbling beauty seemed intent on leaving a marker on my young life. Alleyways that snake through ancient markets and street side urinal blocks spill out onto the ghats that sit next to the river. Again, a small explosion, a man with a husk of a scar that covers his entire arm tries to sell me a whole cornucopia of pharmaceutical drugs. “LSD Sir?” “No thanks man” “okays no problem, maybe Grass? Opium? Mushrooms? Or maybe Cocaine, heroine?” “Uhh maybe next time man” “Okay I don’t rush you, I’m always here.” And with a quick violent scratch of his crusty arm, he then turned his attention to the group of young Americans experiencing the “heart” of the third world. Even though I scoff whenever I see a pale face walk past me wearing a sari, I can’t help but place India in a different universe to mine. I’ve fallen into the trap like all other Western visitors, I’ve romanticised it’s existence. I’ve transcribed its denizens to the realm outside mine. I’ve given them over to the realm of the spirit, just like many before me. This physical world I keep, to them I give the dream. To its poverty I give poetry, hah! I’m starting to feel like a member of the Beatles or middle-aged suburban housewife who follows any Eastern Guru with cult-like zeal.
Perhaps it’s because in South Africa our poor are pushed out to live in a giant dustbowl far beyond the estates of Tuscan architecture. Varanasi and its river have forced me to look at the horror of my existence. Like all others, I need the release of the child beggars who disquietingly scream “Sir! Hello!” I need to see people who can be so “pious in the face of all this poverty” as a Swiss backpacker said to me at the hotel lobby. I need the sharp glance upwards when I pass a man crawling on his stomach in the early hours of the morning when I’m taking part in a tour. How else can I feel comfortable enough in my middle class life?
View photographs from Tommy’s experience here: http://wp.me/p2axiJ-AG.