Mud, Cattle and Holiness
MUD, CATTLE AND HOLINESS As twilight worked its way into night, we disembarked from our bus and walked toward the river edge wending our way through Varanasi, the holiest city in India and the vibrant place of purification and transport to the next life. My wife and I were in one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited places, which residents believe was created by the god Shiva. Each day a service by Hindu priests awakens the river Ganges and a similar one puts it to sleep at night. A powerful typhoon had smashed into the east coast the day before and the remnant rain washed out the environs. Mud and standing water filled the streets. A misty drizzle enveloped my fellow travelers as they zipped up rain jackets and pulled hats down lower on their faces. Humidity hung heavy and perspiration soaked my clothes. The lights that shone toward the street were surrounded by eerie glows mirrored in the many puddles. Hundreds of people were crowding the thoroughfare. Cars, trucks and dozens of motorcycles roared by us preceded by warning shouts and horns. India’s traffic slogan came to mind: Good horn, good brakes, good luck! Suddenly a cow bolted out from under its shelter and ran across our path startling us. We pressed onward toward the water. I heard voice of a young girl speaking to a woman from our group who was behind me. “Miss, what is your name, miss?” “My name is JoAnn. I’m sorry I can’t give you any money. I don’t have any.” She repeated the suggested mantra we were told to use when approached by beggars. The girl responded. “Oh, miss, I don’t want any money. I want to be your friend. Being a friend is much more important than money.” I turned to see who was making this plea wrapped in philosophy. Standing next to JoAnn was a waif dressed in tattered rags with a face drawn from every charity solicitation photograph you may have received in the mail. Dirt seemed to encircle her presence and her hair was matted and springing askew. JoAnn responded. “I’m glad you’re my friend but I still can’t give you any money.” “Don’t worry miss, you don’t have to worry. I’m still happy.” She turned and disappeared into the darkness and the crowd. JoAnn walked quickly and caught up with me. “Oh my God, that was painful. She tore at my heart.” Similar occurrences happened to us during the three-week trip. It didn’t make it any easier to ignore the suffering. Our guide led us through the side streets on our way to the ghat, steps that lead down to the shoreline. Each area along the river has its own access and the ghats are individually named. Some of the shortcuts were through dark alleys filled with stray dogs, wandering cattle and destitute residents. Vendors were setting up to serve the evening meal. Many of the townspeople were eating at a common location that serves nourishing soupy concoctions. Steam rose from the community vats as servers ladled out their portions. Suddenly a chatter rose in the group. One member had spied a monkey leaping along the rooftops. The little simian soon joined others as they provided a circus-like show silhouetted against the darkening sky and soaring over the alleyway and up and down the walls and rooftops of the houses. These little invaders have the same free reign of the town as the cows and dogs. Pushing ahead, we climbed up and through a narrow slot between two buildings, about one person wide with steps made dangerously slippery by the rain. On the other side we stepped down into an open area overlooking the access to the mighty Ganges. The ghat steps are about 40 yards wide and start about 25 feet above the water’s edge. It has the look of an amphitheater rather than a stairway. Scattered about were all types of humanity, children playing, mothers chastising and elderly penitents gently moving one step at a time downward. The coterie of bovines and canines wove in and out between the humanity leaving their waste behind as evidence. I balanced carefully on my way down, fearing a fall on the slick wet steps. In the distance arose the sound of music and cheering. The sound increased and soon overrode all the ambient chatter that was emanating from the steps. Soon a small truck appeared with about 10 young boys in the back who were shouting, singing and whooping, much in the manner of a float in an American college football parade. A stereo blasted Hindu chants and the riders timed their outbursts with the song. In the middle was a papier mache statue of the nine-armed evil one Kali, The Dark Mother, in bright yellow which contrasted with the dark colors worn by the transporters. The group lifted the paper statue out of the truck and carried it down to the waterside. It was placed in a waiting boat, an oversized canoe configured to transport the figure out into the river. Then, accompanied by chants, song and shouting, the boat was pushed out from the shore and into the middle of the Ganges. Once there the group tossed Kali overboard and with her all of the evils that surround us. Cheers arose from the boat echoing off the steps and repeated by throngs on shore. The government has banned this practice in a small attempt to clean up the river. This was the last day it was permitted. We worked our way over to a corner at the bottom of the ghat where a Hindu priest was beginning the service that ends the day. The rain had kept many of the participants away and this holy man was performing in a small area. During the full ceremony as many as five or six priests can be involved. The priest began a ten-minute chant accompanied by two acolytes using a rhythmically struck gong and small hand cymbals that chimed in synchronous support. At first the celebrant lit incense and waved the smoke through the air sing-songing the Hindu prayers appropriate to the event. Subsequently he ignited oil that was carried on a stacked series of brass trays. Whoosh. Flames exploded from the burning ointment on the trays as the priest held them high and turned toward my friends and me. A bright orange glow was reflected in our faces. The chant increased and people joined in. A peaceful calm enveloped the crowd and unusual silence replaced the earlier din. Soon the fire burned out, the Ganges slept, the celebrant packed up and the people dissipated into the night. We began our walk back to our bus. Mendicants, merchants, animals and vehicles followed us again in cacophony. Vendors abounded bursting through what little personal space that was available in the throng. “You want post card?” “No thank you.” “No just look. You don’t have to buy.” “No thank you.” “I give you cheap. How about these beads? Nice?” “No thank you.” We made it back without incident and settled into the comfort of our coach. It was as if we had been transported back in time over the five thousand years the city has been in existence. I drank in the coolness of the air conditioning and waited for my sweat-filled clothes to dry out. We departed Varanasi, a holy town that filled with abject, unending poverty. It is impossible to completely describe the filth and squalor that accompanies the incessant noise and the aroma of garbage and dung. Two days of rain had made it worse bringing slews of mud. Once down to the river I was overwhelmed by the devotion and religious commitment of the pilgrims, a spirituality that both raised the level of emotional intensity and enveloped one’s psyche. Peace overriding madness, visible in one evening. It is unforgettable.