Volunteering in Varanasi
30.10.2012 - 25.11.2012
As the train slowly grumbled into Varanasi station, ending my grueling 14 hour stint on a luggage rack, I wondered what on earth awaited me. Having only seen the inside of Delhi airport and train station, Varanasi would be my first real experience of India. Sleepy and starving (despite all the train food I shouldn't have eaten but had), I was swept up in the crowds heading for the station entrance. There, as if amusing himself while awaiting distant relatives, was a cow with his head stuck in a bucket. Well, the question as to whether he was stuck or merely chewing incredibly slowly remains unanswered, as the surge of people forced me out and into the city.
I imagine "holy cow" to be many visitors' first words as they enter Varanasi. It records both travelers' varying states of shock and Indians' passing comment on the city's literal farm-like aspect; for cows are indeed holy, and they are everywhere. My immediate and enduring image of Varanasi will be a cow's rear end, for the roads are so small, and motorbikes so frequent, I spent more time than not stuck meandering slowly behind a cow. (Indian driving deems overtaking too risky a business.) In Varanasi, there clearly exists a very complicated and profound cow-politics, for some eternally haunted a certain corner while others patrolled the roads as if on sentry duty. How the wanderers ever found their way home is beyond me, for Varanasi has the most confusing system of alleyways I have ever encountered. Certain of my decision, I would walk confidently into one alleyway and emerge entirely the wrong side of town two minutes later, as if by magic (and NOT by my appalling sense of direction).
Varanasi is truly an assault on the senses, and therefore incredibly hard to depict in words. Simply walking a few minutes down the road becomes a serious logistical challenge. I now have a skill for negotiating pigs, goats, monkeys, barefooted children, dead bodies, (practically) naked holy men and piles of rubbish, as well as the usual menagerie of dreadlocked yoga-practicing travelers and pushy salesmen. The sounds and smells seem overwhelming (especially when in my usual rear-end position) but if you survive, the experience is so rewarding. The beauty of Varanasi is in the colour: flowing, jewel-encrusted saris, red, orange and yellow turbans, orange marigolds and huge piles of brightly coloured powder paint. The cows also come in a more exciting and varied range of colours than they do in England...
In Varanasi, it's not only the cows that are holy. The river itself is a God and, as a result, the Hindus come in hoards to wash themselves, their clothes and even their animals in it's waters. After several failed attempts, I finally managed to drag myself out of bed for a sunrise boat ride, and there were honestly as many bathers at 5am as in the middle of the day. Hindus believe that if you are cremated in Varanasi and your ashes thrown in the river, you enjoy (as long as you have been good) immediate passage to heaven. Unfortunate Hindus are covered in brightly coloured cloth and carried on bamboo beds down to the Ganges. The sheer number of believers that come hundreds of miles to participate in this sacred ritual is astounding. My favourite lassi stand - Blue Lassi - happened to be located immediately behind the burning ghat, and during the time it takes to drink one lassi (not long) I was guaranteed to see at least one Hindu on his way to heaven. The owner told me that 3-400 bodies are burned a day, which seems excessive but may not be far off. In Varanasi, there is not only a proliferation of dead bodies, but also old bodies, and I'm sure this is due to the Indians' meticulous preparation and forward planning.
Every day at sunset there is a 'Puja', or worship to the river, and it is absolutely incredible: over an hour long and full of flowers, candles and blessings. On my second visit, I was invited to join in - to place flowers in the river, take paint on the forehead, give a donation (obviously) and then drink some water, which I did without thinking. I then asked the priest if the water in the sacred cup was from the river, and he replied 'of course' with such unbridled joy he clearly thought this was exactly the answer I was hoping for. The water flowing past Varanasi is some of the most dangerous and septic in the world. I honestly spent all night scanning Wikipedia for symptoms of water-borne diseases and praying to their 3.6 million Gods, hoping at least one would take pity. By some miracle, I was still alive the following morning. Although, if not, I would have at least enjoyed unhindered and speedy access to the Hindu afterlife.
In Varanasi, Diwali is more like the festival of sound than of light, as fireworks are set off from every street corner and rooftop, possible thanks not only to the total lack of health and safety procedures but seemingly any laws at all. Added to the obstacle course of farmyard animals and the eclectic collection of humans was now the very real danger of unexploded or 'time bomb' fireworks. To celebrate the festival with the children at the school where I was volunteering, we lit sparklers INSIDE the classroom. It was so smoky it became impossible to see or breathe, but no one seemed to notice. It was at this point I realised that in a land without fire alarms, my fifth-floor bedroom became suddenly less desirable. Incredibly, the school had a rooftop, so we had a prime position to watch the firework show across the city. I have never been so simultaneously amazed and terrified - roofs here are so close you could walk across them, and the family next door were sending off giant fireworks that seemed to explode directly above us.
Diwali is like a mixture of New Years and Christmas, and the presents given out are tiny parcels of (excessively) sugary goodness - perfection. By the time Diwali occurred, I had been in Varanasi two weeks and had begun to feel at home. Our "local" was a tiny hole-in-the-wall manned by a wonderful old lady who chatted away happily in Hindi, ignoring our bemused expressions. On the day of Diwali, she gave us all a (slightly suspicious looking) green ball of sugar and I realised, for the first time, that I would be sad to leave. As we walked home that night, past the timed fireworks and the animals, so many people recognised us and cried "Happy Diwali" that I decided India wasn't so bad after all.