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Varanasi
   -- Life and Death on the Ganges
by Erik Olsen

When the morning breaks in Varanasi, the light slowly creeps over the low slung homes and the dusty roads and illuminates everything in a persimmon glow. It is the start of another Indian day. The cows and water buffalo that have been sleeping in the streets rise on their massive shanks and join the parade of people who, by the thousands, emerge from their homes and head to the river Ganges.

I am there now, at the top of one of the "burning ghats" on the river where the rituals of life and death are part of the ebb and flow of daily existence. It is just 6 am, but already scores of worshipers are here and the funeral processions have begun.

Made up of rows of colorfully clad family members carrying the body of a relative atop a bamboo stretcher on their shoulders, these processions wend through the city's narrow roads to the ghats on the river. The ghats are like magnificent bleachers, stretching as far as I can see and making up a vast sandstone crescent that is lapped by the green waters of the holiest river in Hinduism.

Despite the heat that will soon engulf the city and make weary spectators of tourists like us, the processions will go on all day, as pilgrims seek to wash away their sins or just cleanse their bodies, joining the mourning families who convey their deceased loved ones to the water for a final good-bye.

The river is the center of life and death here. It is the place everyone - and everything - goes. As for the deceased, most will be burned on the ghats, their ashes swept into the river; but some will be lashed to large stones and floated out by boat, where they will be sunk where the river is deep and the currents are strong.

There is a method to the madness, but it takes me a while to find someone who can explain what I'm seeing, someone who speaks English and understands the ritual. I encounter a young Indian named Raja, who tells me he works down at the ghats and who gratefully provides some answers.

"There are some whose bodies cannot be cremated," he says, extending a palm towards the river. "When the deceased is an infant or a Sadhu (holy man), their spirits are already pure and do not need to be burned. The burning is done to purify the soul."

An Unlikely Vacation?

Yes. I know. Witnessing scenes of cremation on the river Ganges may strike some travelers as an unlikely (not to mention unsavory) way to spend a vacation, but if a critical part of travel is experiencing how other people live (and die), then Varanasi is a feast for the senses and nourishment to the inquisitive mind. Sure, if you are looking for fantasy or relaxation, there is always Disneyland or the Bahamas; but if real life is what you're after, well, this is about as real as it gets.

My traveling companion, a buddy from high school named Dork Alahydoian, and I have come here to cap off an exhilarating (and often frustrating) three-week trip in India where we are working on a documentary film. We will soon fly to Delhi and from there begin the excruciating 24-hour flight back the states. It is the last leg of a fantastic journey that has allowed us to experience both the surreal dynamism and the shocking poverty of India's largest cities as well as the bucolic charm of its dusty villages. Say what you will about India, it is not boring.

It's strange. When we first got here, I immediately began to wonder why India seems to get such short shrift in American culture. Yes, Bollywood's popularity is on the rise (though in our ADD media environment, one can't help think it's a trend) and many people are aware of the country's nascent tech boom in places like Bangalore that is said to be draining jobs from the US workforce. But even when you throw in yoga and tikka masala and snake charmers, there is so much more to the country than these things. It puzzles me why, in general, we don't know more about one of the most fascinating and populous countries in the world. More than one Indian expatriate we spoke to before leaving told us that three weeks would not be nearly enough if we wanted to get to know India well. They were right. But three weeks is all we had, and so we had to make the best of it.

Morning has passed and it is getting hot. Very hot. We are touring the ghats on foot, slowly making our way down river. We are walking with an eager, garrulous young Brahmin, or priest, named Ramesh, who is showing us around the Bhonsale Ghat. We climb with him up the tall stairs to a dark recess within a temple overlooking the river where a dozen or so elderly Indians are squatting in the feeble light. Most of the faces are as old as time, leathery and more wrinkled than a silk shirt pulled from a suitcase, but the eyes are alert and playful. They watch us arrive and see our curious expressions as we try to comprehend the scene. An old woman cackles in the shadows. An old man grins, his smile punctuated by a single tooth that juts from his gums like a tombstone.

"Every year they come here by the hundreds," Ramesh tells us, "to be near the Ganges when their lives are done."

The Hindu religion says that the Ganges is amrita, or the elixir of life. According to Hindu belief, it is a privilege to die here, because for those whose ashes are swept into the river, their soul gets an e-ticket to Heaven. Which is why this room is full of elderly people. They have come here to spend their final days on earth. We are introduced to a woman. She is 78 years old and comes from a small village in the south of India. She has been here for four months and will stay for however long it takes so that she can be cremated on the river's edge. Her story is not unique, nor is the allure of the Ganges a purely Indian phenomenon.

The ashes of former Beatle George Harrison were rumored to be brought here following his death in November 2001. The late guitarist maintained a strong connection with India following the group's well-publicized experiment with Eastern mysticism in the Himalayan town of Rishikesh in 1967. While the other members of the group mostly dropped their infatuation with Indian spiritualism, Harrison's strong bond with the country lasted through the years, as did his relationship with Indian musician Ravi Shankar, who taught him how to play the sitar.

Being a Beatles fanatic, I am intrigued by the story of Harrison's ashes, and decide to ask around. Several people tell me that the ashes were in fact spread on the river here in Varanasi in a secret ceremony in early December 2001. But later I discover this may be untrue and that the mystery of Harrison's ashes remains just that, with the most likely scenario being that they were taken to Switzerland, where they were strewn across the gardens at his villa in Locarno.

We leave Ramesh and continue our walking tour of the ghats. The heat is unrelenting, but we press on. The sun bobs over the river and the water shimmers as if sequined with gold bouillon. The women are clothed in a symphonic ensemble of colorful saris that seem to explode under the sun's blazing light. They mingle with the men and children who bathe and pray in the same swirling currents carrying the ashes of cremated bodies.

Soon we come upon the formidable Manikarnika Ghat, the city's main crematory and the one most revered by pilgrims. The pyres burn day and night, and are kept stoked by the numerous towers of wood around the ghat. One platform blazes with flames while from another smoldering remains are swept into the river and then sifted through by a dalit, or untouchable, looking for coins and jewelry. Just nearby, a pyre is waiting to be lit and a saffron-shrouded corpse lies atop a stack of fresh logs.

Further on, exhausted from the heat, we consider taking a dip in the river, but decide against it out of concerns for, well, for hygienic reasons. As might be expected, the river is far from clean. The biggest problem is not the presence of human remains, but of industrial pollutants and heavy metals coming from nearby factories, a problem that is slowly being resolved by numerous NGOs and government-sponsored efforts to improve the conditions of the river. That said, we decide to wait it out. Besides, tomorrow in the early morning we're taking a boat ride on the river, which should be enough.

"The Greatest Spectacle"

There are thousands of people about, but the scene on the river is actually somewhat sedate, particularly when compared to the cacophony of Varanasi's streets, where we find ourselves in search of a cold drink and some food after a confusing ten minute walk through a series of labyrinthine alleyways. The streets are a blizzard of people, motorized rickshaws and bicycles. The street vendors crouch in the shadows beneath canvas canopies amid the smell of fresh cut flowers and incense. We find a stall selling fruit and buy a couple of mangoes for less than a quarter. I gnaw on the impossibly sweet, succulent flesh and think to myself that this is quite possibly the best thing I've ever tasted.

Rudyard Kipling called Varanasi "the greatest spectacle in India." Mark Twain wrote that Varanasi is "older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together". I don't know India well enough to know whether Kipling is right, but Twain seems to be on the mark. Varanasi is said to be the oldest continually inhabited city on Earth, with historians dating settlement here back to the second millennium BC. While there are many multi-story buildings, the city has an ancient feel to it, a perception enhanced by the sight of 500 lb cows nonchalantly wandering the streets like sharp-horned pedestrians. That said, the ghats themselves, despite their almost medieval appearance, are actually only a few hundred years old. Much of the city was demolished by invading Muslims starting in the 12th century, but was rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries.

On the River
The next morning we are up at 5:30 am to catch our boat. We negotiated with the boatman Ravi the day before, agreeing on a price of about 50 rupees per person per hour, or about three dollars for the two hour ride. We meet Ravi at the water's edge of the Shivala ghat. He is sitting at the bow of a sturdy wooden dinghy which we cautiously step into before pushing away and gliding slowly along the river's edge. The new day's light plays off the temple facades and makes them glow. It is stunning. A photographer's dreamland.

For the next two hours we have a duck's eye view of the river's rituals, catching bathers and supplicants in their typical morning routine. It is a wonderful, albeit somewhat voyeuristic, perspective on Indian daily life. I confess to feeling a spasm of guilt as I imagine how I would feel if a horde of chatty tourists barged into my bathroom with flashing Nikons as I'm taking a shower.

I realize when we leave the city and India as a whole what an exhilarating duality exists here, competing forces that are intertwined like no place else I've ever been, forces that are an integral part of what makes Varanasi - and India - so unique, so spellbinding. These are the dualities of the exotic and mundane, tragedy and celebration, life and death, and this place merges them into such a seamless whole, that anyone who travels here will have the place become a part of his life, and will never forget what it was like.

Sidebar:
Getting there:
It's easiest to reach Varanasi by plane. From LAX take connecting flights to Bombay or New Delhi on Air India, Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways across the Pacific. Advance purchase, round-trip fares start at $1,800. Or fly through Europe on Delta, Air France, Air India or Lufthansa; round-trip fares start at $1,200. From New Delhi take Jet Airways to Varanasi. $270 round-trip.

Trains operate between Varanasi and Delhi and Calcutta.

Once in Varanasi, the best way of getting around the town is by motorized or bicycle rickshaws.

Hotels:
Ganges View - at Asi Ghat with a nice veranda overlooking the river. There is a pleasant here with a pleasing ambiance that makes a nice escape from the din of the town. 0542/231 3218
Ganpati Rooms - rooms overlook the Ganges and the hotel provides a courtyard and restaurant. D3/24 Mir Ghat 0542/239 0059
Hotel de Paris - in the Cantonment area, several miles from the river, but a popular place to stay as there are several high end hotels here. 0542/234 6601
For more information:
Government of India Tourist Office, 3550 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 204, Los Angeles 90010, (213) 380-8855.

Indian Ministry of Tourism Web site:
http://www.tourismofindia.com/index.htm When to go: October to March is the best time to visit, when the monsoon is finished and the weather tends to be cooler and drier. During the 10-day Dussehra festival, which varies in time but always occurs in September and October, most of the hotels are full.

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