SPINE SHIVERS & HOLY RIVERS.
Some of my amigo’s back in Australia who have experienced the chaos of India over the last few years stressed to me the importance of visiting Varanassi.
They didn’t go into depth, rattling off facts about it being one of the oldest cities on earth or boasting that it was basically the centre of the Hindu universe, instead they simply explained it was an experience not to miss when wandering this ever surprising country.
Over my time in India I have slowly learnt the importance of the Ganges river, and the holy powers it holds to the Hindu Religion. What I didn’t realise was how much it is incorporated into the every day life especially in Varanassi where it is believed to be the most Holy part of the river.
As Jonno, Lynsey and I strolled down to the peaceful waters edge for the first time we began the real life video game that is dodging, swerving and avoiding the million hecklers trying to sell you knick knacks and take you on boat rides. There are a few techniques with a good strike rate, so unless you’re willing to run I’d suggest pretending not to speak a word of english and claiming you’re from Angola or somewhere far away enough to confuse the business men trying to make a sale.
I was passing this level with no worries until a man approaches us and offers me a shave, which at first I took as a compliment, thinking my light blonde fluffy moustache I’d been growing for 3 weeks was now visible for the world to see, until he follows up the offer pointing to my neck and ensuring I needed to shave it.
I had to give in, after all the slack I receive from friends for having a hairy neck it was time for it to go. Over the next half hour I received a razorblade front and back neck shave whilst Jonno was roped into a “professional massage” which resulted in 2 Indian men assuming him into some of the most interesting positions, kind of a cross between greco roman wrestling and the karma sutra.
With a neck smooth as butter we hopped in a boat and slowly drifted up the river escaping the chaos of the heckler row. Months earlier, somewhere in the chaos of pre production in Australia I had read about the religious powers of the river, which basically explained that when an individual passes away it is common for them to be cremated by the shore and ashes sprinkled into the Ganges where they gain salvation. Suddenly one of our crew points to a boat about 15m away and the odd looking figure that is tangled in a rope. I suddenly remembered reading something about death by snakebite resulting in no cremation, and before I could do the math we were 5m away and able to clearly make out a leg and spine. Turns out that particular dead bodies (pregnant woman, snakebite victims, young children) are thrown straight in the river, and for some of the crew on our boat it was the first they’d ever seen.
Between the disbelief and slightly sick feeling in our stomachs we jumped ashore and walked to the cremation ceremony taking place. 3 bodies were burning with a 4th being prepared. A decent sized crowd was present, some were family of the deceased, others were religious figures, then there were the few tourists like us who were experiencing something that words can not describe.
Later that night a ceremony took place by the shore with 100’s of people sitting by to watch. The drum was beating, smoke was rising, colour was everywhere and candles we’re floating out over the ganges in their own private makeshift boats. I think it’s in that moment you forget about the pollution and corpses floating down the river and begin to understand just how important and holy the Ganges really are…
It should probably be noted that Jonno and I bathed in the river the next morning to top off the full Varanassi experience. With only underpants on and the pressure of confused indians onlooking our bath, there was no option to turn back despite having to dodge a dead fish and condom and we immersed ourself into the Ganges.