Thursday, March 7, 2013

Back To The Ghats

Up before dawn...way before dawn.  Yawn.  Jai warns us as we move toward the ghats:  “After our sunrise boat ride we are walking thru the alleys, and it will be dirty.  And you know, if an Indian says it is dirty, it is really dirty.”

“Is the Ganges dirty?” someone asks.
“No,” Jai answers.
Surprised looks all around.  What planet does he live on?  Jai smiles at our confusion.  “It is very dirty!”  Ha ha.

Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges will wash all your sins away.  I prefer confession and communion, it’s less likely to make you deathly ill.  The river is an open sewer, an industrial waste dump, a corpse disposal system, and a holy site.  

There are hundreds of bathers, and a flotilla of boats.  

A shrouded body bobs past our boat, and floats within a few feet of the bathers.   They look up briefly, then go back to bathing.

Jai explains:  “Hindus believe if you are cremated and your ashes put in the Ganges, the Mother River, you can escape the cycle of birth and death and re-birth.  Children and pregnant women are not cremated, their shrouds are weighted down with rocks and dumped in the river.  It's illegal, of course, but everyone still does it.

"If someone reports a body floating in the river to the police, who are notorious for being corrupt, the police are obligated to retrieve the body and do an autopsy.  So when a body is reported, the police give some money to the locals, and the locals push the body further downstream.  So you see, the police not only get bribes, they give them.  It is our form of equal opportunity.” 

A dolphin jumps, then jumps again.   Jai says it’s been six months since he’s seen a dolphin in the Ganges.  We wonder how they survive.

During the monsoon the water rises - a lot.  The palaces along the shore are monolithic, their bare lower face showing how high the water gets.

Wood is piled up by the cremation site, a sad reminder of the  losses that fuel the fires.

We climb out of our wooden boat and dive into the alleys.  Narrower and narrower, more and more filthy.  

Cow pies every few feet, not yet scooped up and stuck to a wall.  We joke that the monsoon is the street cleaning program in Varanassi.  It is.

Two men are standing in a shallow tile-lined indentation, facing the wall.  I hear water running and think it’s a fountain, they're getting water.  How charming.  It’s not.  A fountain.  Or charming.  

Jai yells “Holy cow!   Holy cow coming!”  I duck into a side street as a fast-moving cow comes toward us - the cow turns into the side street too.  Not wide enough for both of us.  I manage to duck behind a 6 inch metal pipe and press myself flat against a wall, saying a silent prayer it’s not a cow-pie drying wall (I’m in luck) and only one horn grazes me as the cow thuds by.  Now I know how a matador feels.  Scared.  And lucky.

Miniature shops line the streets, the floors covered with sleeping mats, men sitting cross-legged on the mats sipping tea from tiny clay cups and displaying their wares.  Streets narrow until there is barely room for two people to pass.  We twist and gawk our way thru the maze.  It's hard to take a photo, stopping causes a traffic jam.  Plus you're watching out for cow pies, so unless you're an amateur scatologist the scenery's the thing.

Jai says “you have to be a skillful driver in Varanassi.  The not very skillful ones?  We saw them in the fires last night.”   

We joke about the constant horn-blowing and delicate ladylike Ilien says, “Screw the brakes!   A car’s not broken until the horn gives out.”  We crack up.

Whose Sari Now?
After breakfast (and a thorough scrub-down) we go to a silk weaving factory.  Can you call a place with two 100 year old looms a factory?  No matter, they have 20,000 weavers working at their homes.

Over 400 colors...

...and because no woman wants to see her sari on another, she will inevitably whine  “Don’t you have any other colors?” and the silk man, being an Indian and therefore a natural-born salesman, leans down and whispers in her ear, “Well, madam, I do have a few very special colors that I’ve been saving for just the right discriminating customer...”

Spinning tales, spinning silk. 

A few pieces are woven, then embroidered with gold and silver thread, with precious gems stitched in.  Breathtaking.  And that's before you get to the prices.

Jai tells us “If you are a good Hindu, when you come back you will be born in America, have an Indian wife who will pamper you and cook Indian food, and your neighbors will be English.  But if you have been bad, you will be born in India, married to an American who cooks British food, and your neighbors will be Pakistani.”  Oh yeah, that unpleasantness over Kashmir.  And partition.  

I am beginning to get a feel for the complexities of the culture, the customs, the pecking order.  And the more I learn, the more I know how little I really understand.  This is a huge complicated interwoven country.  I think you have to be born here to understand your corner.  I don't think anyone understands all of it.  I'm barely beginning to understand the menu, and the regional foods.   But I'm loving the foods.  Off to look for something to eat.

No comments:

Post a Comment