Hindu pilgrims have long come to Varanasi to die, believing that it will bring salvation. But, wandering aimlessly, Konstantin realizes that this city of death is actually a city of joy.
Fires burned through the winter fog, six or seven of them. Groups of men with handkerchiefs wrapped around their heads, eyes glittering in the half-light, gathered barefoot around the flames, drawing closer. An almost naked figure with dusty, tangled dreadlocks to the waist poked a burnt head with a bamboo pole. In the distance I could hear chanting, jingling bells, frantic drumming in the distance, and in the infernal darkness of the New Year’s twilight I could make out almost nothing but orange flashes far away by the river.
How much did I dream about it? How much of an “alien influence” was I, at least from time zones and displacement? From the mist floated towards me figures smeared with ash from head to toe, holding a trident bearing the image of the patron saint of the holy city of Shiva, “End Time.” Passing through the little lanes behind the flames, I came to a series of tiny streets in which a shriveled candle burned in the darkness of a cave with bare earth. A boy was sitting on the ground behind the scales. Cows walked incessantly along the littered, manure-splattered lane. Every now and then another group of singers floated past, a dead body under a golden shroud on bamboo litters that they were carrying to the river. I pressed myself against the wall and the whisper of death touched me.
Hindus believe that cremation in Varanasi will bring salvation (Photo: Dinodia Photo/Getty Images)
I groped my way through the impenetrable darkness in the maze of narrow passages, and another corpse came by, two women in their finest silk saris, barefoot, sloshing through the soft mud toward the holy waters. I followed my intuition in and out of dark streets, past small candles flickering in shrines and openings where people whispered sacred syllables. Then, turning a corner, I came to an intersection, and in front of me stood three men with rifles sticking out of their backs.
It was amazing to think that just 72 hours ago I was on the other side of the world celebrating a quiet New Year in the sun. Now goats trotted around with auspicious red markings on their foreheads, embers were burning and oil lamps floated down the river in the mist. Painted along the walls were orange faces, laughing monkey gods, looming sacred phalluses. Shops everywhere sold sandalwood paste and clarified butter for corpses, tiny clay urns for ashes.
The City of Death was once known as Kashi, or the City of Light. The English writer Richard Lannoy, who almost lost his soul in Varanasi, called it “The City of Darkness and Dreams.” In a long and often hallucinatory book, he quoted the Chief Superintendent of Police of what was once called Benares, describing “the abduction of women from temples, prostitution in the name of God, the prevalence of theft among pilgrims, cannibalistic customs… of aggoris, drunken orgies of false tantrics.”
But what struck me the most when I started walking its streets was that the city of extinction was without a doubt a city of joy. The people hurrying past me to the burning fires, carrying the bodies of the dead to the sacred river, raised their voices in praise and in a great, all-consuming shout of thanksgiving.
At night, burning oil lamps pierce the fog of Varanasi (Image credit: Aman Chotani/Getty Images)
Urban India is everywhere an immersion in intensity—a kind of shock therapy—but the holy city inhabits a special category. Traffic converged on every inch of the road on all sides, but despite its mystical contempt for reason, the place had no traffic lights. Here and there, an elderly policeman with a mask on his mouth stretched out his hand past hope, and cars, cows, bicycles, and trucks carelessly rushed past him. The dogs were sleeping in the middle of the busy road – Varanasi’s Fifth Avenue, I assumed – and the men were sprawled (sleeping, I hoped) along the curb and on the sidewalk. A crowd gathered in the middle of the street around a man who was twirling his swords around.
I knew my first stop was at the holy waters, so I left my bags at the hotel and jumped in the car to drive to the Ghats. In a 20-minute drive, we passed two joyful corpse processions, two children’s parades.
“This is a very bad time,” a young local turned from the front seat to warn me (behind him I could only see a mass of furious but not moving bodies and vehicles with horns blaring). “It’s called Harmas. All remain hidden during this time; no one talks about weddings etc. Everyone is silent. It’s like a curse placed on the city.”
If only this were Varanasi at its quietest, I thought, barely hearing him as the train too thundered past the brick bridge above us, I couldn’t imagine it on one of the frequent holidays. “The curse is lifted on January 14th,” my new friend told me. “Then let’s celebrate.” It was no cause for celebration for someone like me to go on January 13th.
Mourners regularly carry corpses through the streets of Varanasi to the ghats (Image credit: Yadid Levy/Alami)
We got out near the Christian church and joined the stampede of bodies going to the holy river. Signs along the road spoke of “The Oldest Arithmetic Center” and “Famous Ladies Tailors”, which made me wonder if the glory lay with the ladies or their seams. “The British language school is now called Trounce Education,” I read on another, offering a humorous summary of the end of Empire. In Varanasi, half a million people are crammed into the darkness of the one-square-mile alleyways known as the Old City, leaving some foreign visitors more or less discouraged and others wondering if some foreign substance has slipped them a tab.
“Things are always changing here,” my guide announced as we approached the riverbank, where holy men sat under colorful umbrellas on the ground, chanting and smearing paste and ash on their foreheads. “Other colors. Another spirit. Another energy. You must be alert when you come to my city.”
I have already collected so much.
We started walking along the river, dodging garbage and excrement on all sides, and passed a nearly naked man who was watching us from the shelter of a small fire in a hut.
Sadhus or holy men wander the streets of Varanasi (Image credit: Maciej Dakowicz/Alamy)
– Is he meditating? I tried
“Everything to him is ashes,” came the reply. “These sadhus really enjoy living with cremation. They don’t wear clothes like we do. They do nothing like the people who live in the material world. They want to live in a world of ashes. “
A little further down, we almost ran into a man in a bright blue tunic and turban, offering what seemed like bon mots, like a regular neighborhood barber shop (although here in Varanasi, a neighborhood barber shop is like a cemetery, a church) and a zoo was outside, and open to all). “The laughing yogi,” explained my guide, and laughed himself, as if suddenly jolted into enlightenment.
A huge, bloated cow swam slowly past. We clambered precariously into a small rocking boat when, on the shore, a handful of handsome young men in fancy gold trousers held up five-handled oil lamps and began to practice their ritual purification by fire that night. Other vessels carried the pilgrims to the dark other shore, a long empty sandbar as far as I could tell. Fires blazed north and south, and the air was thick with the smell of marigolds and coal.
Cremations take place in Varanasi 24 hours a day (Image credit: Graham Prentice/Alamy)
“Only in this town, sir, do you see 24-hour cremation,” suggested the boatman, as if referring to the shop. In other cities, cremation grounds are traditionally located behind the city gates, to the south. Here they burn in the center of all life.
I went back to my hotel to take it all in. “Everything is moving,” my young Virgil told me as we walked along the river.
“Everything is a constant sequence of becoming. Nothing remains the same.”
Author: Konstantin Kryvopust