Stair-stepped ghats hug the western shore of the Ganges River like a string of very old pearls, one after the other, fused together by faith and history and mud. The stairs link the mucky dung-spattered streets on land to the murky brown water of the holy river below, with riotous colors of fabric and flowers between.
I was expecting more dead bodies in Varanasi – really, burning bodies everywhere – for this is the place Hindus come to die, hoping for instant liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth. But instead I discover that only two of the dozens of ghats are “burning ghats,” stacked with wood and smoldering funeral pyres. Most everywhere else, people are just very busy living. Some do cremate their loved ones here, but most engage in more quotidian tasks.
They wash dishes, wash clothes, wash their bodies. Mothers cook, feeding twigs into compact wood cook stoves and food into hungry mouths. People sell things; they buy things. They pray and dunk themselves in the water vigorously, jumping up and down as they fulfill a lifelong Hindu requirement to bathe in the waters of the Ganges. Others light candles and incense and circumambulate the grand broad-leafed pipul trees where I’m sure all these deliciously pagan-disguised-as-Hindu rituals originated, the idea of God and greater things tumbling from the branches like dappled sunlight.
While children string garlands of radiant marigold flowers, sadhus do yoga. Young boys fly kites and launch their lithe bodies into the river, flailing skinny arms and legs before they land with a splash. Men sit in circles playing cards. They squat and shit in not-so-discreet places and urinate anywhere. (Women find ways to be private in these matters.) Straightedge razors glide across chins and scalps, sometimes in preparation for a ritual and sometimes just to clean up. Come nightfall, bodies slumber, covered head-to-toe with thin blankets. In the past week, I have seen humans performing almost every act that fills a human life except the one that makes more life. For that, my eyes drift, just for a moment, to the stray dogs and randy bulls that roam the narrow alleyways.
I’m staying on the southern end of the series of ghats, at the Assi Ghat, named for the river that once flowed into the Ganges at this spot. The river is no longer here because city planners and civil engineers decided to move it south a few years back, part of a complex plan to Save the Ganga that has gone terribly awry at every juncture over the last 25 years. The Holy Ganga – the goddess whose fall from the sky was broken when Lord Shiva caught her in his locks of hair – is now thick with heavy metals, pesticides, human waste and industrial effluent. All attempts to clean her sullied waters have failed. But to bathe in her waters is to tick a checkbox on the to-do list for achieving moksha, final release from the interminable cycle of samsara in which we humans are trapped, lives sentenced to deaths that only lead to more lives and more deaths.
Remnants of Hindu blood pass through my veins, but this river is not holy to me. My father’s family, from South India, has traveled here for pilgrimage. My grandparents came once, a long while back, though they died in the South, their ashes spread in a river a thousand miles from here. Aunts and uncles and cousins have been more recently.
My father hasn’t made it to the Ganges, though; his own pilgrimage was a one-way journey to the United States in 1959, a young engineer in search of a PhD. The only relic of Hinduism he carried was a small wood-framed image of Saraswati, the goddess of education and knowledge. In an Indiana college campus chapel, he married a midwestern woman who had outgrown the Jesus of her childhood, just as he had removed his sacred Brahmin thread. Together they raised me in a seaside town, where I found my own holy ways in the waters of the pond behind my house and the rivers that drained into the crashing surf of the Atlantic Ocean just a few miles away.
All that liquid life created my own desire for communion with water, which I seek out wherever I travel. Yet I feel no such pull toward these polluted waters. Last week, I made one tentative dip of a finger into the river while on a boat ride (just to say that I had), but that was enough contact for me. I am a science journalist traveling in India as I write a book about the environment. I have read too many bleak studies. A billion liters of raw sewage seep into the Ganges each day, causing cholera outbreaks and virulent E. coli strains. Lead, cadmium and other heavy metals, along with PCBs and organochlorine pesticides all swirl in her eddies. And now that I’m here, the anecdotes back up the science. One local tells me he rubs his body with mustard oil before taking his daily Hindu ablution and washes again at home afterwards, to reduce the rashes.
Yet for most Hindus, the Ganges remains inviolably sacrosanct. Vendors sell plastic water bottles to pilgrims so they can carry her water home to share with others unable to make the journey. Five years ago, I watched in horror as my father, recovering from surgery in a hospital in South India, was offered a vial of the grey Gangetic water to drink, a blessing from a kind friend to aid my father’s healing. (He politely refused.) One can view something as so sacred that no foul substance should ever be allowed to defile it. Or one can believe that something is so sacred that nothing, absolutely nothing, could ever desecrate it, no matter how toxic or dirty.
The moving of the river Assi has not helped clean the water one bit. Instead it left a deluge of silt on the shores. I’m told that while mud has always washed over the ghats with each monsoon season, it’s even worse after the river relocation. The clay is 15 feet deep at Assi Ghat, and every day men with fire hoses force the dirt back into the water to continue its passage downstream, along with human remains and Durga statue sacrifices and offerings of flowers still trapped in plastic bags.
It’s here on this clay deposit that I’ve decided to take a wander one morning at dawn, as a fiery sun rises through the smoke and haze. A group of men are rolling what appears to be a dead cow toward the river when it suddenly kicks and tries to stand up, startling them all in a Monty Python moment. Broad wooden boats cluster at the shore, unloading passengers and awaiting others. I pause by two men sitting on the clay that has hardened and cracked like the surface of a desert, watching as they paint lovely soft-hued watercolors of the buildings along the shore, glowing with the dawn light. The clanging of morning puja bells emanates from the small temple under a pipul tree up by the sidewalk, where men sit drinking chai tea, and I head toward them. And then, with one step, my right foot vanishes. In retrospect, my next step should have been back, not forward – but forward I go, and the lower half of my left leg vanishes completely.
What trouble have I gotten myself into now? It was more than a morning wander that sucked me into this muck. It was a pull to roam that has greater control over me than I like to admit. Such insistent desires are why I’ve left my home, my garden, my love, to travel solo across India, doing research for a book, for months on end. And while South India is a place where I have homelands of the heart, places where there is family who will welcome me and nourish my body and soul, I have not made time for such destinations in my itinerary. I have sought out the unfamiliarity of the North, where the Hindi language is nothing more than sounds whirling in my ears. I let the stories I seek take me where they will. And each time I arrive in a new place, still the urge to wander more fidgets in my feet and I am up at dawn, trying to figure out where to roam next. On prior walks in other unknown towns, I’ve ended up on desolate roads with leering men. I’ve explored hidden nooks in a fortress wall … and stumbled upon couples fully engaged in private affairs. Now, I seem to have found quicksand.
Somehow, I’m able to pull my right foot out, my sandal completely smeared with the colorless clay. But my other leg is lost. There is no bottom to press my sole against, and so I freeze and look up. Because this is India (population 1 billion and counting), I am not alone. The two chai-sipping men sitting under the tree (which seemed so close a moment ago and now is an achingly long 50 feet away) see my predicament. “Go back!” one calls out, while the other, waving his arms, motions me to retreat. But I can’t move at all. I shrug and shake my head.
A visit to India, and Varanasi in particular, is always met with warnings of “touts,” a word we seldom use back home though we, too, are besieged with advertising from every direction, imploring us to purchase something we may or may not need. Somehow we’re more troubled by an individual wanting to sell us peanuts or a boat ride than a barrage of car and drug ads booming from our television sets. But the India I have often experienced is one where more people want to help than harangue. Ask one man a question and four will appear like iron filings to a magnet to proffer an answer, maybe even based in a smidgeon of truth. When one cycle rickshaw driver left me far from my destination a few days earlier, a random passerby stepped in to assist me.
So I am not surprised when the men set down their tea and rush to my rescue, traveling on the hardened path amid the quicksand, the safe passage that I had missed. The two men each reach out their hands and I clasp them, abandoning the shoe as my leg slides out with a loud sucking sound. They call over a small boy who carries a wicker basket with delicate cups of marigolds and candles, which he sells for river offerings to pilgrims and tourists. Someone holds the basket while his tiny frame floats atop the clay that my weight sank into, and he sticks his thin arm down the bottomless hole to fish out my sandal.
As quickly as they came and before I can even utter dhanyavad in thanks, the men vanish. The boy, Raju – the only hero whose name I get – and two other children with their baskets of flowers are now leading me back down a hundred feet to the water’s edge. Sticky as glue under my bare feet, the clay is the same color as the warm water of the Ganges that we use to wash away the mud, the difference merely a matter of concentration. But with enough splashing, the silt slips away into the river. I give Raju some rupees for saving my left shoe, and me, and then I squish my way back in my soggy sandals to my guesthouse, intact but for a humbling dose of humiliation. Only later do I learn that just a week ago another woman slipped into the same mire … and it took a crew of people, including one man stuck up to his neck, three hours to get her out.
Belatedly, back at the guesthouse, I suddenly realize I have taken my requisite Hindu bath in the Holy Ganges. I think my grandparents would be happy, that is if their souls weren’t already busy living new lives, or, perhaps, tripping the light fantastic of moksha. What they would think of my solo wanderings around India, I’m less certain. But just as they were dedicated to the recurring rituals of their daily faith, I am hooked to inching my toes into the unknown muck of unexplored horizons. My pilgrimage has no endpoint, no set destination ordained by the gods. The peregrinations themselves are the purpose, and the stories of the people I meet along the way carry as much weight to me as Lord Shiva must have felt when he caught the heft of the tumbling goddess Ganga.
For my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, Varanasi is the place where Shiva whispers his secret “mantra of the crossing” to whisk you at death to spiritual liberation. It is where the Ganges concentrates the energy of the Great Goddess that courses through India, and through their own veins. For me, this city and this river mark the sacred site where Raju and a cohort of strangers saved me from sinking, releasing me so I could continue on my own wayward sacred journey, in search of other stories.
[Photo Credit: Flickr user martinvogt]