Among the Dead

Varanasi, India

     It’s one of those places. The places that you see in pictures, on TV, on the internet, in books. One of those places that can’t really be fully understood until experienced. One of those places that you can spend all day, week, month or year researching and still never know what it is truly like. It can be imagined, but never really fully understood. You form expectations and conclusions based on your own mind and experiences, a picture that you can wrap your thinking around, but can never truly understand without going there, walking the streets, seeing and talking to the people, smelling the air, listening to the noise. It’s one of those places where all senses are needed, as well as assailed, at every twist, turn and corner. 

     Varanasi, more often than not, is very different from how I find it portrayed as by people who have not visited. When talking about Varanasi, most people mention the romantic boat rides at sunrise. A rower slowly and softly propelling them through the morning mists to the Ghats along the Ganges sitting under the rising sun, the Hindu faithful bathing in the morning light in the holy river. Some mention the shopping, particularly the silk, that they have heard and seen pictures of. The Ghats themselves, lining the river in a centuries old pilgrimage site that rivals any building in India, holding more colors than the biggest box of crayolas, more smells than a candle shop in the mall, more noise than Chucky Cheese at dinner time on a summer Saturday, can never be portrayed, even remotely, through a picture or story. It’s the senses that don’t get used when looking at a picture that make the difference in really experiencing Varanasi. The bodies burning on the pyres alongside the river, the workers sifting through the ashes looking for anything of value, the mass of people held in this city, the homeless, the children, the cows, the trash, the touts and the heat, to name a few things…

     I start the day each morning leaving my driver, Bob, in the parking lot of the movie theater right up the street from the Dashashwamedh Ghat. It’s an interesting thing, this cab driver business in Varanasi, as well as India in general. Seven hundred rupees for the round-trip, from and back to the hotel, a rip-off for sure and I probably paid at least four to five times the normal. I would step out of the cab every morning, asking the driver if he was waiting, trying to give him money so he wouldn’t, always having the driver push back my hand with the money saying he would wait, never worrying that I would stiff him for the morning ride, always there still waiting when I got back, no matter how long it took. Four, five, six, one day nine hours. Bob was always there waiting for me when I got back, never asking for more than the seven hundred rupees for the day, approximately seven US dollars, less than a dollar an hour on those long days. It’s all relative I guess, being ripped off by four to five hundred percent, yet still paying a thousand to two thousand percent lower than I would at home.

     As soon as I’m out of the cab and step on the street, Varanasi starts to show itself. A mass of bodies, bicycles, tuk-tuks, cows, dogs, sadhus, beggars, homeless, trash, cow crap, food stalls, blinking lights, exotic smells, shops, touts, more cows, a few trucks, lots of silk shops, the chai guys, colors, lots of colors, the not so exotic smells, noise, fumes, people yelling, the children wandering, some trying to sell you stuff, others just looking for food or money, the holy praying, the almost dead busy dying, the already dead rotting, the cows still crapping… 

     I take a side alley as I get closer to the ghats along the river on this particular day, squirming into an alleyway that wasn’t made for this century, let alone two people walking side by side, and looking every bit of the multi-thousand year age it is. Side step the cow, around the cow crap, under the awning, through the layers of ash covering the walls and I’m instantly transported to a world not often seen in those picture books and stories. The alley eventually widens a bit, becoming a good four or five feet across, canyon-like as it weaves through an endless unbreakable wall of shops, homes, temples, and people. The occasional motorbike comes through, weaving in and out of the people and cows like a weeble-wobble biker who just won’t fall down. The street slick with slime, unidentifiable liquid and, of course, cow crap, all interspersed with a lot of trash, the occasional rat or dog along with the dirt, dust and ash of thousands of years of use. It’s amazing a motorbike can even come through here yet, its India, and Indians I learned, can find a way to do almost anything. 

     I take a left into another alley, about three feet wide, right step the cow, around the sleeping dog, past the chai seller and look up. A thin sliver of sky above, framed by the man-made canyon walls, a fire on the street in front, a diminutive woman tending to the ashes, a temple just beyond. If not for the litter of plastic trash scattered throughout and the occasional wire above, there would be no reason that you wouldn’t think this was the last millennium. The alleyway leads to another, a three-way intersection, a dead-end, a pile of bodies living on the street, another pile of cow crap, a temple, thousand-year old statues that would look just as comfortable in the Met as they do on a Varanasi side-street. A maze of ancient catacombs walked by the likes of Gandhi of and Buddha, it’s something to see, something to experience, smell, hear, feel. A walk through time that eventually brings you out, above, and overlooking, the Mother Goddess of life, the Ganges. It’s an amazing sight, no doubt, and combined with the bodies, buildings and everything else, it turns into not just a river by a city, but an almost living, breathing and moving entity, revered and worshipped by the masses that live by it. Mother, life-giver, all-powerful overseer, The Ganges.

     At this point I’m not sure what Ghat I’m actually at. I know it’s up-river from Dashashwamedh, but not sure if it’s the Durga, Gola, Jain, Mira, Nepali, Shivala or one of the other myriad of ghats along this stretch of the river. No matter. I head down and make a left. A Sadhu surrounded by a little following. I ask for a photo, he obliges. I ask how long he has been here, “fifteen years”, one of his followers says. “How long is his hair?” I ask”. “Twenty foot”, with a nod from the Sadhu. “Can I see it unwrapped?” No, you can’t ask him that… Worth a try, I figured. I take a few shots, leave a small token “gift” and head on down the cow crap caked road to hindu happiness. As the ghats pass I rack up the experiences. The dancing cobras and flute player, a few more sadhus, scattered about here and there, the flower girls, “Ten Rupee, set a candle on a pat of flowers in the river, good luck, ten rupee, good luck, henna? Candy? Ten rupee”. A few more ghats and you get the massagers. The hand massagers, the foot massagers, the back and head massagers. Fifty rupees, forty rupees, thirty rupees. It’s tough to fend them off. No matter what I do, I don’t think I could ever make them understand that I would rather have a hot poker in the eye than a massage, but don’t lead them on to the thought because I’m sure they could happily provide a poker for thirty, forty, fifty rupees. Heat extra of course. It’s getting hot out now, real hot. The cows head to the river, young boys jumping from back to back, scrubbing the holy guys into massaging bliss. Most of the row-boaters are docked along the ghats now, rowers giving a weak tout to sell their skills, not really too interested in rowing in the rising heat of the day.

     I make it past at least another twenty ghats, until I head back up into the alleys above, looking for a bit of coolness in the shade. After a few minutes of my normal aimless wandering, I have to see what’s going on below. This section is different from the rest of the old catacombs I’ve walked through. There’s a lot of noise below, the smell of freshly chopped wood, wafts of smoke floating through the air. A few bells ring as I get closer, chanting, here comes a lot of people. I back against the wall and let the procession pass, a fully wrapped and marigold covered body held high above. A funeral. I must be nearing Manikarnika Ghat, THE ghat to be burned at for the most extra credit and maximum “moksha”, where it is said that the pyres have been burning for at least a constant five hundred years, day and night. I head back down, weaving through piles of wood, wood-choppers and scales to weigh out what a person’s life was worth. Right behind the ghat the wood-choppers’ job is fully realized, having to climb over a hundred foot high woodchip pile they have been working on for, well, at least five hundred years. As I come over the top I see it below, three burning pyres, boats of wood waiting in the river, an arm here, a scorched off leg with foot attached there. It’s a grisly site, as well as sight, nothing short of archaic to my eyes, yet somehow something more than that. This is Varanasi. People spend their whole lives saving for this honor. This is the real deal, this is IT in Hinduism. I see the body that passed in the streets above being dipped in the Ganges. I see the river sifters sifting the ashes of the dead, throwing bones and body parts deeper in the rivers flow. Cows have free access here, wandering around everywhere, the sadhus are watching from a lookout in a building just above. There is nothing that isn’t covered in ash here, nothing clean or new. This is Varanasi, the cycle of life and death, there is nothing pretty about it here, all business, all about the business of dying.

     Two children run by, collecting trash, bottles, anything recyclable, not even remotely interested in me. I catch the second one and hand her a few rupees in change. Reverse psychology I guess, two hard-working children just trying to live and get by without bothering anyone else. I would rather lighten my pockets on them than the countless others that actively pester you throughout the day. The girls eyes light up, she yells “money” to her friend, I say I have no more. I should have given them more. I head back down the ghats, smiling at the massagers, waving to the sadhus I’ve already talked too, giving the cobra dancer a thumbs up. 

     I meet a group of three men sitting along a side alley. I ask them why? Someone is there to translate, they are waiting to die, just waiting. They need to be here for that, they want to be here for that, they have been waiting for that. It won’t be long now from the looks of it, but it’s ok, they are just happy to be here. I wish them luck, they smile for the words. I have to admit, they do look happy, maybe happier than anyone else I have ever seen who was just sitting and waiting to die. I have to give them credit, they seem to be scared of nothing, and fully realize that life is finite and everyone leaves. They know they are leaving soon, but even if they can’t pick the particular time, you could almost say they are luckier than most in that they are able to pick the place. 

     As I finish another day along the banks of the Mother Goddess, I find Bob, exactly where I left him in the theater parking lot, and think of how many stories this city may actually have. How many secrets this city holds, how many lives this city has seen off from this life. Varanasi, it’s fascinating, and nothing like I thought it would be from pictures or books. It’s bigger than that, more colorful than that, smellier and noisier than that. Varanasi is a story unto itself, holding within its grasp a million more stories that can be seen, heard, smelled, and felt everyday on the old streets where Buddha once walked.

…and I have way too many photos to post here, and the story is getting a bit long in the tooth also, so below is a bunch. I will use a few on some individual posts in the next few days, from the three men just waiting, to more of the back streets, to the gold panners, sadhus and the Ganges itself, to more from Manikarnika Ghat. I may equate Varanasi to walking among the dead, but it’s also about the living, and the color, life and humanity they provide to the city…


15 comments on “Among the Dead

  1. hi. enjoyed the post, particularly the part about the the taxi driver.. your images do look horizontally compressed and that is a little distracting from an otherwise very well written post..

  2. Never read anything about Varanasi the way you told the story. I’m particularly interested in the three men who were waiting to die. I wonder how long they’ve been sitting there and doing that.

  3. A wonderful story you weave – just as you weave your way through the winding streets and alleys. Beautiful post and stunning photographs – as always…

  4. This is a beautiful entry. I am heading to Varanasi in November. They say you love it or hate it, but based on this post I’m thinking I’m going to love it! Looks like a photographer’s dream to me 🙂

  5. Hi John. I really enjoyed your pictures and story about this city in India. It is so different from anything one could find anywhere in the world. Fascinating stuff. David Nall from DPreview

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s