Monday, March 7, 2011

Varanasi and Final Thoughts on India

Wood for cremation

Varanasi was the India I'd hoped and dreamed for. A place where holy men wander and life, death, riches, and poverty all mingle in some sort of strange and unjust balance. The tattered buildings cling to the banks of the Ganges River and the view is so surreal the eyes struggle to believe what they are seeing. People come in the thousands to bathe themselves in the spiritually cleansing (but horribly polluted) waters of the Ganges. Smoke twists up from one point on the river bank, covering the whole scene with a cloudy haze. This is where the cremations are taking place. As I approach I can see the dead bodies, wrapped in brightly coloured fabric, being carried to the river. They dip the body in the Ganges' holy waters to wash away any impurities before the body is burnt and the soul is sent away for reincarnation. As I get closer a priest approaches and says he can guide me through the process. He asks me to follow, and before I know it, I'm standing painfully close, literally inches from a burning corpse, so that the fire is scorching my skin and ashes are raining down on me. I didn't think he meant "guide me through" literally, but apparently he did. There are several neat piles of wood, some already burning, some ready for a new body. We continue walking, and stop less than a foot from a neatly wrapped corpse. I can smell it. I can see the bare toes they leave unwrapped for the cleansing. A tuft of hair escapes the fabric. I feel out of place, like a morbid form of wedding crasher. I and two other friends are the only women, as Indian women are not allowed here. I wonder why they make an exception for us. I cringe at the fire burning the back of my thighs, it's already over 30 degrees out here. I ask to move on. Thankfully we do. I make a donation for the families that struggle to afford wood for this process, receive a blessing from the priest, and then I retreat to the outskirts of the scene and watch for some time. They unwrap the bright fabric just before cremation, leaving only a thin, transparent layer of cloth covering the body. They place the body on a bed of wood, then perform several blessings that I can pretend to understand. Finally, they wedge grass between the earth and the wood bed and set it aflame. Nobody cries, as it is believed this will stop the soul from being set free. I was suddenly very aware of my mortality, my tiny little life lost in a sea of billions of other lives on this planet. This is enough to make a girl contemplate the meaning of it all. Strangely the process was not dark or depressing, in fact is was almost peaceful, silence seemed to fall over the whole scene, although it was not in actual fact quiet at all. This ritual has been going on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for hundreds of years.

India is so full of contrast that it can be viewed infinite different ways depending on the individual. I only saw a fraction of a huge country, focusing my time mainly in Rajasthan, so I'm sure my view of India as a whole is incomplete. I have learned and seen a lot, but in the end, my opinions are just my opinions, so take them with a grain of salt.

My travels through South East Asia left me wishing for a simpler time when we were less focused on material possessions. A time when we could romp barefoot through the rice paddies, work the land, spend our nights in the comfort of a wood hut, and eat fried rice 24/7. India has elicited the exact opposite response and left me thanking God I'm from where I'm from. I'm f*cking loving my material possessions right about now! I guess I expected to find a plethora of mysterious ancient temples, a deeply spiritual people, yogis at every turn, and steamy green rice patties awash with beauty. I pretty much found none of those things. I'm disappointed to say, I never set foot in an ashram, saw a yogi, or did any yoga. Apparently I was in one of the WORST regions of India for this. Oops. Bad research. I had one opportunity in Pushcar, and I was sick, of course. The people are spiritual, when they're not trying to sell you something, which unfortunately is 99% of the time. I know I come from a privileged part of the world and as such I am seen as insanely wealthy, and compared to most of the people around, I was. About half of India seems to be doing ok for themselves, but the other half seem to be just squeaking by, on the edge of existence, working insanely or begging just to make ends meet (or not making ends meet, as the case often is). I get this and I respect this and thus I put up with the relentless harassment with a smile on my face and a polite as possible "no" every time. But it beats you down. I began to feel like a walking ATM rather than a living, breathing human being. In many cases it ruined whatever it was I was trying to experience. Being female made it infinitely worse. The nail in the coffin was I spent the majority of my time in a parched, sparsely vegetated desert with barely a blade of grass in sight, let alone a rice patty. Oops. Bad research.

Traffic in India
All that being said, there were things I liked about India. The food was not one, except Mcdonalds, which was epic. I liked the public long distance buses. So crammed full, 30 seats meant 70 individuals should about fit. You may ask WHY I liked this, but I actually found it amusing, it was so wrong and so not like home. Once I got used to it, I liked the chaos, the bazillion people and their random methods of transport, all squashed in to an area that should be double the size. You never get lonely. I must say, despite harassment, I never felt in danger and moved about in what felt like safety, except for the impending traffic disaster that luckily never took place in my presence. People here are always willing to help you out, you will never get lost or want for something. Anything is possible in India . . .for a price. Chai tea is awesome. I liked the gaping stares of some people, mostly on public transport, trying to discretely (or not so discretely) take my photo, knowing I was probably one of the only Westerner's they'd ever seen. Camels have gained a small place in my heart. There is beauty here in India, you just have to (literally and figuratively) sift through the trash to find it. I guess that pretty much sums up my opinion of India.
Bye Bye India


  1. You really have a great way with words babe! Love reading your blog:) xox

  2. Hey Jordie,
    Just getting caught up on your travels and thinking about you since its your bday tomorrow. I hope you have a great day and that things are still going well! HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Miss you lots,