Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections – Hannah Hamilton

3rd December 2009

In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments;
I was watching an aarti flame flicker and fade into the dark waters of the Ganga when I noticed them. Two men dressed in lunghis and vests standing in a boat just off the shore. It was a small wooden boat, the same kind they ferry pilgrims and tourists in, except less decoratively painted. One man rowed while the other lifted a swathe of net and flicked it into the water, forming a perfectly circular splash in an otherwise dead calm surface. I watched as he waited for it so sink, then as he slowly pulled it in, arm by arm, before hoisting the sopping weight into the boat and rummaging around in it. Dissatisfied with his catch, he gathered it up, flung it around his shoulders and flicked it out once more, repeating the process over and over in slow rhythmic motion as the boat gently rocked in the cool night breeze.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here, in Varanasi, the most sacred place in the Hindu world, a place to which pilgrims have come for millennia to drown bad karma in the holy waters, seek enlightenment and scatter the ashes of loved ones; here, among the debris of sewage, plastic, people and prayer, someone was fishing.

The Ghats that flank the broad, pale green Ganges at Varanasi are a microcosm of Indian society in the extreme. Walk half a mile along the bank, and you will pass freshly washed saris drying brightly in the midday sun, pilgrims making puja and bathing, people brushing their teeth and scraping their tongues in the water from effluent pipes, children flying paper kites and playing cricket between sales pitches for aarti candles, holy men shitting by the wall, a wild menagerie of cows, monkeys, buffalo and dogs rummaging through the soggy detritus for scraps, TV crews filming dramatic love scenes for Indian soap operas, the corpses of the dead smouldering on pyres of mango wood, and mingling through all of it, chai and chaat stalls and trinkets for sale, women hawking henna, shaven-headed widows with begging bowls out-thrust and cross-legged fathers hanging cobras round the necks of their baby sons for tourists to photograph. People earning a living.

This is 15 minutes of daily life in one of the oldest cities in the world, and one of the few places on earth you can encounter a classical tradition not only intact but thriving against the din of a rapidly developing nation. It’s a headfuck. A place where the extraordinary comes face to face with the ordinary and carries on regardless. And while I can write about it here and now, in real time it leaves me speechless.

I was sitting on the burning ghat the first morning I arrived when I met Raj.

“Yes madam, every morning, every evening, they are fishing,” he told me. “Fish eat human meat in the Ganga. When I eat fish, again fish die, circle of life continues, and they have reincarnation as human.” He flashed a broad smile with teeth stained red from paan. It seemed so simple. An endless cycle of shape shifting, from one life to the next, where death and life go hand in hand. And why not? This is the city of Shiva, the god of destruction but also of rebirth, without whom nothing can end and nothing can begin.

I watched the pyres smoking and resisted the urge not to inhale as the fumes wafted over me. From behind, I heard voices chanting “Ram Ram Sat a-Hei” (“God, God, in truth, take this soul to Nirvana”). It grew louder and louder and then they were in front of me, a family of men, carrying the body of a father or grandfather draped in white and saffron cloth and garlands of orange marigolds on a bamboo palanquin, with only his face showing. They walked to the bank and into the water, shoes and all, and doused the body and poured water into its mouth five times to cleanse the five elements of earth, fire, water, air and spirit. Then, Raj explained, they will come to him to buy the wood for the pyre.

His family – from the Doyum Caste – have been working on the Burning Ghats for seven generations: “24 hours a day we are burning,” he said. The wood, brought here from a forest in Madhya Pradesh, lies stacked up along the edge of the Ghat. The pyre is arranged in a particular place on the bank according to caste. Then the family take some straw to the nearby Shiva temple, where generation upon generation of Brahmins have guarded one continuous flame for 3500 years. They light the straw, take it back to the pyre, walk in prayer around the body five times and then light it. Cremation takes three hours. The man’s chest and the woman’s hips do not burn. So after, the ashes are gathered and the remaining parts are flung into the Ganga.

Unsurprisingly, business is good. A funeral costs in the region of 5000 rupees – that’s about £70 – but for some families, completely unaffordable. However, for good karma, Hindus must die in this way, so as an act of charity and for good karma himself, Raj sifts through the ashes of the pyres for jewellery to sell at market. The money raised pays for the funerals of those too poor to pay themselves.

I took all this in as naturally as I could. It is, after all, what I came to India for: to be challenged and confused, provoked and inspired, to be morally cornered, humbled by the sublime, immersed in the strange and the exotic and forced to absorb it. There have been stories from fellow travellers about dogs pulling dead babies from the river, and saddhus eating human flesh… But most of all, I came to loosen my grip on myself. To place myself in the grand flow of Mother India and let go. To wrap fresh, new experiences around old wounds and find new perspectives to heal them with. To begin to digest, assimilate and grow from the events of the past 12 months: events that have had such a profound effect on me, that I don’t recognise myself before them. I arrived in this place feeling like I’d been hit by an emotional wrecking ball. Now, as I reach the halfway point of my adventure through India, I can feel myself starting to rebuild: the creation after the destruction; Shiva’s flipside. And what better place to encounter that than Varanasi.