Saturday, October 21, 2006

Varanasi: where birth and death collide.

Varanasi is considered to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and it feels it too. Perched precariously on the banks of the Ganges, it is a pilgrimage site and considered the holiest city in India. It is a place where people come to die, where people choose to live and the place of my birth into the real India.

The banks of the river are a hive of activity, they house 80 Ghats which a stairwells into the Ganges that enable people to bathe in the water to be cleansed both physically and spiritually.

I saw people in orange and white robes with dreaded heads in abundance, Jesus look-alikes, colorful saris, beggars, cripples, the elderly, newborns, street kids and tourists.

Tourists in the city take all forms, I categories most of them loosely as the rainbow people who come to India for enlightenment and it is easy to see why.

India, with it’s unconquerable traffic, continual rhythm of loud horns and the constant hassle you get from locals make almost forces you to try and seek inner calm in a country filled with so much chaos purely as a means of survival.

What I have noticed since coming to India is it is very difficult to relax here and I am constantly on guard, raising my voice and telling people to go away and at times I hate myself for developing into this being. I hope I find tolerance, not enlightenment just the ability to laugh at myself and the Indians.

On arrival at Varanasi train station after a 14 hour ride from Delhi with a carriage of Buddhist monks, I headed straight for Assi Ghat. Within seconds of standing there beside the river it seems as though you can feel the spirit of the place, it is haunting and enchanting to think of the hundreds of thousands of people whose ashes litter the Ganges.

Immediately I was befriended by two street kids, Raju and Vishnu who decided to follow me along the river and impress me with their English. The boys were aged 10/12 and worked at a silk factory in the afternoons for 6 hours per day and paid less than one Australian dollar.

They asked for no money just friendship and warned me of the bad men who sell marijuana along the banks.

That night the kids asked me to go to a festival with them and together we sat as they explained the Shiva celebration we were witnessing which involved lots of songs, chants, flowers and incense.

The next day I awoke before dawn for a magical trip down the Ganges at day break, the light was incredible and took my breath away.

The sun rose and it was the most delicious shade of honeyed pink I have ever seen bathing the banks of the river with ethereal yellow light. The photos speak for themselves.

After watching scores of people praying in the morning light I went back to my hotel The Temple of Ganges and enjoyed India for the first time.

In the afternoon, I paid Raju and Vishnu to take me on a walking tour of the city, through rambling and never ending alleys we roamed seeing countless cows, dogs and people stopping at temples, silk factories and peoples houses for a chat. Kids followed me through the street and I brought a bag of chocolate to hand out. Delighted, they asked me to photograph them and then giggled in amazement as I showed them their beautiful faces. I learnt to say beautiful little child in Hindi ‘Punta Buboo’ and it is my favourite expression, the reaction it gets is priceless.

The old quarter here is perhaps dirtier than Delhi but smells exactly the same like urine and excrement with the odd note of incense. You have to love India if only for the scent.

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