Sunday, June 21, 2015

India travelogue 5 - What's life?

I was cautious - first time in a new place where you don't know about the local practices you ought to be careful; I had read stories of foreigners getting in trouble when they were simply taking snaps. I observed and walked; felt a little eerie as I went further to the left because people were very few.

I noticed two fires burning near the Ganga river bank - it looked like a funeral but it didn't seem clear because I didn't see any family around. There were only a group of young guys chatting, moving things around, walking up and down the Ghat etc. 

A little further up the steps of this Ghat, there were huge piles of wooden logs cut in fixed lengths. There were a couple of guys carrying few of these pieces from the stockpile to near the fires where they arranged them neatly. 

Ceremony at the Ghat

While this was happening there were a couple of other scenes that caught my attention. I heard huge drumbeats coming from somewhere beyond the Ghat. The sounds became louder with every minute and I saw three stretchers being carried by people to the river bank. These were wooden stretchers which were wrapped in the centre in ornate colourful cloth. Were those bodies? Or was this some other ceremony?

Another scene unfolding near me was that of a small boy, hardly 8 years old, trying to steer two buffaloes up the Ghat (each Ghat has a series of steps leading to the river bank). He tugged with all his might but the buffaloes wanted to go in the other direction; it was quite a sight - a little boy trying to control something that was so huge and he was trying it bravely without fear that in case the buffaloes charged at him he was a goner. I would have feared holding the rope. The boy wasn't successful; he got help from another man who seemed a veteran in handling them - he tugged and the buffaloes reluctantly changed direction climbing the Ghat.

My open questions were soon clarified. The stretcher was placed on the ground; two men removed the ornate cloth to reveal some mass that was wrapped in a white sheet. Both of them held the mass on extreme ends, lifted it from the wooden stretcher and placed it on the rectangular structure that was created with the log pieces. When they lifted the mass I was sure it was a body; one guy held the head while the other held the legs. Everything was covered but you could make out the shape. This was left in place for a few minutes; would someone from the family light it? All of a sudden another youngster casually lit a log and slipped it under the body. He did the same from the other side as well and soon the flames rose; consuming wood and the body as fuel. Two more bodies were still on the stretcher and two more were burning on the side.

Dust in the end

The words of the manager rung in my mind, "Time doesn't matter here." 
I watched the flames lost in thought. On the steps I saw an Indian guide explaining something to a foreigner. I saw a couple of foreigners sitting near a tea stall smoking beedi; that was quite a sight - soaking in Indian culture was great but I didn't expect to see Europeans smoking a beedi! 

A couple of foreign ladies stopped near me because their guide stopped abruptly. He started explaining to them, "It is considered very holy to die here. People stay in hostels hoping to die here. Hostels are near by. People stay to die in the hostels.” 
Was he promoting the hostels? Fortunately he didn't dwell on that for long. "When someone dies elsewhere it is holy to have their funeral here. Because the person can reach moksha or nirvana or enlightenment. But the body has to be brought within 24 hours or else it has to be done in their own place."
At this Ghat there was also an electric furnace inside a building for burning bodies - electric furnaces were now a common way of cremation. The exterior of the building had a strange black charred look; apt I guess considering what happens inside.

The guide explained the practice of Sati - wife jumping into the fire where the husband's body was cremated. He said it was no longer practiced. It seemed like he memorised the lines or perhaps he had said it so often that his narration sounded like a robot.

Witnessing funerals and deaths makes you ponder over life; even changes your perspective. Here I was seeing 5 lifeless bodies; no matter what they had achieved in this world - be it fame or money or ego victories over others; no matter what, in the end everything is dust. 

Everything seems so petty when you think of the dust - ambition, designations, placements, career growth, increments, number of people reporting to you, rank in college, prettiness, beauty, health, wealth, friends, relatives, anger, love, hatred, lust, desire, addiction, Facebook likes, retweets, comments, girlfriends, boyfriends, bank balance, heat, cold, hard work; everything fades.


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Monday, June 15, 2015

India travelogue 4 - Scenes at the river Ganga

Barefoot anyone?

Even amongst this crowd heading to the river Ganga Ghats, there were two wheelers honking their way; at least no four wheelers attempting to wade through this human traffic! There were plenty of small shops: clothes, tailors, food, sweets, chaat, vegetables, fruits, oily foods, religious items, jeans, betel leaf with paan, grocery etc. Not one big shop I saw. I also observed that there was absolutely no one who walked barefoot - since this felt like an old city I expected to see people barefoot - the reason I would find later. 
Streets were dirty but with so many people you barely noticed what was there on the ground! And even with the dirt and large mass of people, the place was not smelly. 
There were many schoolgirls walking in gangs, many couples, many elderly people and few South Indians. Hadn't yet spotted foreigners amidst this bustling crowd.

I can't say the Ganga was a breathtaking sight; it was a river but since we've grown up hearing stories about the importance of the Ganga from a religious as well as geographical perspective you do pause a moment to admire the river. The Ghats were one beside the other - so if you land in one Ghat you could walk from one to the other without having to go back to the street to access them; they were connected in a sense. There are about 50 steps that lead you from the road to the river bank (that forms a Ghat); and these steps span out horizontally to the other Ghats; not completely connected but you will be able to find a path from the stairs to the next Ghat. Many people simply sat on the steps, gazing at the preparations happening for the Ganga Aarti (puja/ceremony).


Since the aarti would begin at 7pm, I had time to wander across the Ghats; I took the left side. As I went further I saw foreigners; some as a pair, some in groups of 3 or 4, some single with an Indian guide but very rare was the case of a single foreigner. Some hotels (not 5 star ones) were located right next to the Ghat. I had read reviews online that said some of these hotels will cater well to foreigners but wouldn't care much for Indian travellers; cater where the money is! 

In many Ghats, the buildings bordering the Ghat had huge wall paintings on them along with the name of the Ghat; unfortunately they weren't maintained else that would have been a beautiful way to depict our culture. As I went further to the left, the crowd kept thinning. In almost all the Ghats you had guys who would take people on boats across the river; simple wooden boats without a motor. In some of these Ghats there were benches on the steps and there were couples enjoying the moment away from prying eyes. Typically when someone says Varanasi, people think of aghoris (guys with long unkempt hair and beard, who use drugs, who don't interact with humanity, who eat flesh, who are in search of liberation or nirvana or enlightenment); did I see any here? Not really; at least no one eating flesh. But there were few elderly men with long beards, wearing a thin robe sitting with some items like rudrakshas, scrolls, some notes and other items scattered all around them. 

There were also small gangs of local guys; and there were few trolley tea shops on the Ghats. In one such shop, there were two kids in shorts dancing to some old Hindi songs playing on a radio; the kids were full of enthusiasm and didn’t care about onlookers - the entire scene felt like a shot from history; the songs were also really old like 'Chumma chumma dhey dhey... chumma chumma dhey dhey chumma...' And I shall not attempt translating that!

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Saturday, June 06, 2015

India travelogue 3 - Fear and boredom

I came to Godowlia Chowk - kind of like a junction area where two important roads intersected. The crowd of pedestrians was heavy here. I was happy to see a police beat station with a couple of cops around. Even amidst such heavy crowds, vehicles still found their way! I kind of got lost for a while trying to locate Sonapura road. My destination was on a side branch that ran parallel to the main road and strangely that road was quiet! You can expect to see plenty of cows and bulls and buffaloes walking along with you - you see it in Chennai also but I felt it was more over here. Dung is there in unexpected places. My destination was a place run by a trust; when I spoke on phone they said I wouldn’t be able to stay there but they were happy now to let me stay in one of their rooms (they have 60 rooms); no AC but the room they gave me was a spacious one with a couple of single beds, attached bathroom, basin, 4 windows and 2 fans. I could have survived in a place one-third that size. I chatted with the treasurer for the place.

I got chided politely by him for not knowing what was my sub caste, sub sub caste and what not; had to call up mom to get those details! "You should learn these things," he said in a friendly manner. You could at this point get into a debate over whether all of that even matters; in the end does any form of classification matter? But surely this wasn't the time for philosophical debate with someone who had just given me accommodation. The manager I guessed was in his late 50s; he had a couple of sons - one doing business and one working in Wipro. He told how 6 years back his son took the parents to Switzerland for a month when he was on an onsite deputation over there. He told about seeing the banks where Indian money was claimed to be, the Alps, the chill weather, not being able to step out even in the daytime for a week, wearing jerkins instead of sweaters, his trip to Italy with north-indian Wipro guys, having to throw his knife that he had for cutting apples before entering the Vatican etc. You could see the joy in his eyes as he narrated his travelogue; happy that his son took him abroad, happy that he had stepped out of India at least once. A few years back he was bored at home after having retired. That’s when he visited Varanasi and liked the place. He joined this trust and has been working here for 3 years. He finds it peaceful; food inside this place was also more South Indian style food and he was content.

We hate work; but we still need it!

In old age, boredom is one issue and fear is another - it is strange that as we grow older we seem to have more and more fear even though you would think that logically it is absurd. As you live out more of your life, you are nearing the inevitable; you have seen a lot of things in life; so why worry now? Shouldn't we be more worried when we are a kid since we don't know if we will live to experience life or whether life will end soon; strange it is but that's just my observation of people around. The treasurer didn't talk about fears but he did seem happy that he had work; he made me wonder why we work - it is so hard to stay idle though we always keep thinking while working 'if only i could just relax at home without working then I would be content.' Unfortunately once we stop working, we feel bored! What a vicious circle! The job he did had a bit of social side to it; he interacted with many people; helped poor people by giving them accommodation in the building etc. He said how people would come all through the day and night at odd hours and someone had to be available to handle that. Social work always helps - you think of others and that helps you forget yourself. 

I had to perform a function tomorrow and was told in Chennai that I should do it after 11am; but the manager for the trust said, "In Varanasi, time doesn't matter. There is nothing like good time and bad time over here. You don't need to bother about time."
But he assured me that he’ll try to fix an appointment for as late in the morning as possible.

At about 5:30pm I started for a walk; I thought of checking out the river Ganga and also catch the aarti (aarti is a puja/ceremony done with lamps). The Dashashwamedh Ghat was only about 10 minutes away; the Ganga is a lengthy river and there are about 80 places in Varanasi where there are steps that take you to the banks of the river - each of these points are a Ghat and they have names for them. The Dashashwamedh Ghat is the main one. I was surprised with the crowd I saw on the road heading to that Ghat; it was literally packed on both sides and you could see hoards of people as far as you could see. This was like Ranganathan street but more longer than that (that street is a famous one in Chennai). 

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