Tuesday, August 01, 2006
July 30, 2006 - 20:32 IND
Stepping off our train today in Varanasi and into our autorickshaws, we fully expected to be hounded by crowds and crowds of people fighting to get our money however they could - anything from selling their wares to picking our pockets. This was going to be a hot, sweaty, terribly crowded and bossy town we were getting ourselves into, this Varanasi.
But Varanasi met us with cool weather and cloudy skies. Riding through town on the main roads, I felt like something was different from how I imagined the whole city, and I think the weather was the first indication. And step out of our rickshaws, grab our bags, and follow our driver through the maze of paved back alleys, and we were all struck by just how much we liked Varanasi. Rather than feel cramped in its narrow backstreets, we were all taken with the simple beauties of everyday life here. I would even say these slivers of streets felt broader and kinder than even the generous, green plots of the Red Fort or India Gate. Blue wooden doors stood opening to sunlit staircases down halls of dark brick. Boys sitting with their fathers in shops shouted hellos between toothy grins. We met motorcycles inching through, friendly cows with swishing tails, and pilgrim after orange-clad pilgrim.
And then came the Ganges. Each step down our twisting, turning path had brought us closer to the holy river, and we hadn't even known - not until, suddenly, the buildings around us gave way and all that was left was a stone clearing, sloping down in stairs to the windswept brown waves of the river we'd come to see. There was no sound for a moment. No one moved. No one had known how sacred this place could feel. But under the majesty of weighty gray clouds, with birds soaring in the breeze above and naked-chested men bathing in the water below, graced on one side by balconies and temples and on the other by sands and shrubs, the scene - one countless vagabonds and holy men had come upon before we did today - could only stop our bodies from breathing. For a few seconds I felt the Mother Ganga welcome me to a home I'd never known.
I can't tell you exactly why I felt that way coming down to the Ganges. But I can maybe guess - and guess pretty accurately - at one of the big reasons. Every image I've ever seen of Varanasi's ghats, those platforms and stairs at the river's edge, has been one of the sun's scorching rays bearing down on hundreds and thousands of dark-skinned bodies, bathing and dipping in the river's brown waters, bodies lining the ghats in noisy confusion, an endless mass of frantic Hindu devotion. Today rather than stimulus and disorientation I found myself under the influence of an ambience of calm. That calm must have been magnified by the contrast between what I expected and what I in reality found.
I fully expect, in the next couple days I have here, to find myself dealing with the same culture shock I've experience anew in every town we've come to. But for now, durinig this 'honeymoon' phase of experiencing Varanasi, I'm pleased to announce that I'm pleasantly surprised at how much I'm liking it.
One more thing about today. We went down to observe some of the cremations on the riverbank, and on a balcony overlooking the scene, Shawna was talking to a man next to me about the particulars of these ceremonies. As they got onto the topic of who performs the ceremonies, priests came up. Shawna turned the conversation pretty immediately to things she wanted to know about - how often this guy went to temple, and for what god, and what he did there. She wasn't at all afraid to just ask the questions she wanted answered, and I feel like that's a trait I need to work on in my own research and fieldwork.