Varanasi, City of Death, City of Passage to Worlds Beyond.
Founded by Lord Shiva on the banks of the holy Ganges, Varanasi (once known as Benares) occupies the most sacred land in India, and is a reputed tirtha (passage point to the Other World). For at least 3,000 years Varanasi has drawn India’s dying, specifically those dying Hindus seeking release from Samsara, the burdensome cycle of birth, death, and rebirth in which all beings are karmically rewarded or punished for their deeds on earth with a new round of existence, accordingly torturous or pleasant. However, if you expire in Varanasi, have yourself cremated in a pyre beneath the handless clock of Manikarnika Ghat, and have your ashes consigned to the Ganges, you achieve moksha, the highest release possible, the most munificent mercy of all: freedom from Samsara, everlasting surcease of suffering and dispatch to the ethereal Void beyond the world of the flesh.
Well-read travelers to India probably know this much about Varanasi even before arriving. But Varanasi is not only a citadel of mortal passage and spiritual relief. Soot-stained, chock-full of crumbling temples and hostels for the moribund and screeching monkeys, reeking of incense and sandalwood and less salubrious odors, ostensibly holy Varanasi is also home to some 3 million human beings with entirely mundane, even profane, proclivities. I found myself with an unexpected chance to see this for myself during my third sojourn there, two years ago, during the springtime Hindu festival of Holi, when people ritualistically splash each other with colored dyes and ignite corner bonfires in celebration of the deity Prahlad´s escape from the flames into which the demoness Holika had cast him. There are other rites associated with Holi, but for some youths celebratory antics have recently taken more serious turns involving drunkenness and debauchery, the groping of female tourists foolish enough to wander the streets, even assault and rape.
All of which prompted me to wish for Holi’s end even before it had started. As it was, an undercurrent of violence seemed to flow through the city, born of overpopulation, caste-related violence in the surrounding countryside, and desperate poverty. My Varanasi-born Indian friend, whom I will call Rajiv here, to protect his identity, sensed my trepidation, and invited me to festivities he was arranging for later in the day.
“Holi out on the streets is one thing,” Rajiv said. “But I will show you another.” He winked slyly. “If you attend my party, I promise you will not regret it.”In his forties, Rajiv was a landowner and builder with money and status — an Indian Big Man, as it were. He was erudite and earthy, devoted to his gods, and a man of inestimable good humor who nevertheless managed to succeed in Varanasi´s challenging environment of violence and corruption. He was also generous, perhaps to a fault.
“I’m throwing a Holi party for our laborers” — mostly migrants from Uttar Pradesh state who led lives of unimaginable penury and deprivation. “I will show them a good time. One like they never get a chance to see.” He winked again, and smiled slyly. “A real good time.” The local district administrator would be there, along with a high-ranking official from the state security services. Big Men all. My safety, he said, was “guaranteed.” Which seemed to indicate it could be dangerous indeed. Just dangerous enough to intrigue me.
“What time should I be there?” I asked.
The day waned and darkness fell, but the March heat hardly abated. I was not to walk the Holi-stricken streets of Varanasi alone. One of Rajiv’s servants pulled up to my doorway on a motorcycle and I hopped aboard for a rumbling, tipsy-turvy ride down yard-wide, serpentine streets, to one of Rajiv’s properties, a three-story cement building, stained with ashes from Varanasi´s endlessly burning cremation fires. The event he was staging would call for privacy, so it would be held on a rooftop enclosed within walls.
The party was already on. With a pistol stuffed in his belt, seated behind a table, dressed in a sweat-blotched sleeveless t-shirt, Rajiv was ministering to his flock: some twenty pencil-thin men in robes and turbans squatting above paper plates piled high with steaming dhal and vegetables, which they scooped up and ate with their fingers. His brother, a powerful fellow who had received training in hand-to-hand combat, was also in attendance and seated behind the table, armed with a handgun as well.
“Get up!” Rajiv commanded his guests, pulling a bottle of English whiskey from a box packed with more of the same at his side. The workers arose, and with downcast eyes, formed a line. Rajiv handed each one a plastic cup, which he filled to the brim with booze. “Keep it moving!” he said. The laborers applied his command to their elbows. They upended their cups of whiskey, burped raucously and shook their heads, walked on, and straightaway got back in line. This was no doubt the first time anyone had treated them to whiskey, a proscribed substance in Hinduism, and illegal within the sacred precincts of central Varanasi.
Soon the administrator and the security chief arrived, pot-bellied men in plaid shirts, well-coiffed, splashed with cologne, their collars starched, their cheeks immaculately shaved. They nodded greetings to me, without a smile. Rajiv pulled another bottle of whiskey — higher-grade hooch reserved for Big Men — and poured us honorary Big Men cupfuls. I sniffed it. I don’t usually drink whiskey, but this was fine stuff. We all downed our shots and pulled up chairs by Rajiv. Soon I broke into a sweat, and felt the whiskey burn its way through my capillaries. Mists were now drifting over the rooftop, the humidity was rising, the workers, a few already drunk, were talking louder and louder. The whiskey high hit me fast and hard. How fine it was to be in India! I proposed a toast to my host, who was showing me there was nothing to fear, and, indeed, much to enjoy, in Holi.
But Rajiv was struggling urgently to keep up with the workers and their outstretched hands. “Keep moving!” he shouted, pouring the wondrous bronze elixir into their wobbly cups. Slackers were not allowed; each continuously drank his share to the dregs and returned to the end of the line. Intentionally or not, Rajiv was prompting them to drink much, and rapidly. He turned to me. “I’m doing these fellows a good deed. They don’t get a chance to drink whiskey in their villages. So they will never forget this Holi!”
In other circumstances, I might have ascribed all sorts of abstemious virtues to these impoverished laborers. Knowing little of their lives, but having many preconceptions about India, I would have doubted whether they would drink alcohol, even if offered it for free, or engaged in other vices. Now I saw the truth.
It might seem wrong to some to watch villagers being debauched, but a certain amount of vice keeps people human, whatever their social status. I noticed that the administrator drank at the same pace as they, and soon was leaning into my face, belching whiskey fumes and trying to tell me something of great apparent significance. The security chief kept to himself, working his elbow up and down, his eyes slowly losing focus. All livened up when someone popped a cassette tape into a boom box, and raucous Indian dance music blared forth. Instants later workers were leaping about in frantic sloppy duets, their turbans unraveling, sweat spinning off their foreheads. Men all, drunker and drunker, they began hip-thrusting belly dance moves with each other, with the occasional fall onto the concrete floor.
At some barely perceptible moment, when ragged clouds drifted over the moon and a fetid stench arose from the streets, the party’s mood shifted. Sweating profusely, the security chief slumped in his seat, babbling incoherently. The administrator lifted his finger, as if to make an announcement of momentous import, but staggered past me, vomited onto his shirt, and collapsed. Shouts arose — the workers, bleary-eyed and soaked in perspiration, were berating their sloggered Bihari supervisor, who lashed out at them with his fists. Those still dancing took to shoving one another and cursing. A melee was erupting.
Rajiv jumped to his feet, brandishing his pistol, as did his brother. Both grabbed the workers and started breaking up the squabbles, shouting violently and calling for order, their commands drowned out by the music. The Bihari hardly appreciated any of this. He fell onto a chair, vomited into his lap, and then collapsed onto the cement. Finally, even I was called into service as a bouncer of sorts.
The administrator and the security officer had had enough. They staggered to their feet and leaned on the shoulders of their own servants, who walked them carefully to the stairwell. A half-hour later, we had herded the laborers back out onto the streets and were alone on the rooftop amid puddles of vomit, crushed dhal-splattered plates, soiled turbans, and broken plastic cups.
Whatever Varanasi was, it was above all a hive of humanity, with only a superficial layer of sanctity that covered its multi-faceted identity. It was not as it seemed, which accorded perfectly with the Indian concept of Maya, the veil of illusion shrouding the realities of our world, realities common to India and the West.
“Happy Holi!” Rajiv said to me, wiping sweat from his brow. We boarded his motorcycle. Glow from the pyres of Manikarnika Ghat reached into the skies, and we bounced off into the serpentine lanes leading back to his home.
Jeffrey Tayler is the Moscow-based correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of numerous books, including Siberian Dawn, Facing the Congo, Glory in a Camel’s Eye, Angry Wind, and River of No Reprieve. His most recent book is Murderers in Mausoleums. He is also a contributor to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic, Harper’s, and Smithsonian magazines.