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Davestaval in Varanasi

Varanasi - located on the holy Ganges River - is where Hindus go to die.  On that respect, it can be considered India's answer to Florida.  Varanasi has earned this title not because if its favorable tax structure, pleasant climate, abundant early bird dinner specials, or easy access to grandchild-attracting entertainment.  If a Hindu dies in Varanasi, then he or she is liberated from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.  I am not exactly sure why.  One guide said that this has something to do with Fine Silk.  Only 5000 rupees.  Another said it was because of "Change money?  Good rate."

Varanasi is also a location where Hindus engage in various rituals involving the Ganges River.  In fact, most of the riverfront is lined with ghats - stair / temple combinations - leading down to the water level.  Some are used for bathing, others for washing laundry or other household items, and a few are reserved solely for the purpose of cremating bodies.  The so-called bathing ghats are rigidly segregated by sex and caste and have self-imposed, self-policing enforcement systems that would make any South Shore beach club or small, Arkansas town green with envy.  Even the burning ghats are segregated by caste.  Manikarnika Ghat is the most prestigious; it is reserved for Brahmins or those of lesser castes who have somehow managed to distinguish themselves in their most recent incarnation.  Bodies cremated here are first carried through the streets of Varanasi on bamboo stretchers, bathed in the waters of the Ganges, covered in an ornamental orange shroud, placed in the middle of a Lincoln Log-like structure located at the water's edge, and burned.  Slightly less prestigious are the Harischchandra and Smashan Ghats.  Ceremonies here are not so elaborate and are designed to give a large number of people an adequate funeral - the state college version of the ghats.  Here, the body is taken to the water's edge and deposited on a wooden pyre.  Untouchables and other low-caste individuals sent to a factory outside of the city and are turned into Soylent Green for export to the Chinese animal feed market.  There is no need to segregate the washing ghats; only lower-caste women use them.  There may even be a Hindu myth about the universe ending when a high-caste man uses a washing ghat - there is no hell to freeze over in Hinduism.

By far, the most common ritual is the simple act of bathing in the Ganges.  At all hours of the day, men and women are in various states of undress standing in knee-deep water furiously scrubbing themselves with brushes, reeds, and bamboo sticks.  Some people use soap; most use the Ganges cleansing waters.  I use the word 'cleansing' only in the spiritual or metaphoric sense.  The Ganges River is little more than an open sewer for nearly half-a-billion people.  The river has a fine, frothy coating organic scum; floating bags of garbage dot its surface; and, when the breeze is just right, the river smells like a fraternity house toilet that has gone unflushed for a long, hot, summer week.  Cholera, dysentery, and other water-borne diseases are epidemic along the banks of the Ganges.  A disturbing statistic is that samples of the Ganges show 1.5 million fecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml of water - an amount 3000 times higher than what, by Western standards, is considered safe for bathing.  I always cast a wary eye at the Ganges - I half expect some creature is going to extend a slimy pseudopodia out of the river and drag some poor soul into its gaping maw.  I do not know whether the ritual bath is designed to increase the odds of one actually dying in Varanasi.

 I almost did not make it to Varanasi: all the direct trains into the city from central India were booked. There was even a waiting list for Sleeper Class - the second lowest of India's arcane caste system of train travel.  I tried some creative routing - an express to Lucknow and then a local train to Varanasi; buying a ticket for Calcutta but getting off at Varanasi; and even changing trains in Marburg - but even these were booked solid. Getting a reservation out of Varanasi was no problem.  I had this strange fear that perhaps India was in the midst of yet another bubonic plague epidemic and countless people had purchased their one-way ticket to liberation from the cycle of rebirth.  I had been rather tired and I did have this persistent hacking cough. 

After a four hour ordeal at the ticket office - involving changing lines several times, a mysterious work stoppage by the ticket counter employees, several computer crashes, the regularly scheduled mid-afternoon power failure, and a 'voluntary' contribution to the Railway Workers Union Widows and Orphans Fund - I did secure a confirmed ticket to Varanasi under the name Devandri Chandrakant, Member of Parliament from Aurangabad.  As expected the train was crowded.  Much to my disappointment, nobody was riding on the roof of the train.  The ticket inspector treated me with the respect deserving of a member of India's highest legislative body.  In fact he was so respectful, I decided to make another contribution to the appropriate Widows and Orphans Fund.

My compartment mate, a middle-aged man with five children in tow, turned to me and said, "Are you going to Davestaval?"

"No.  Varanasi."

"Davestaval in Varanasi"

"Davestaval in Varanasi?  Oh!  The festival in Varanasi!  What estaval?  I mean festival?"  He explained to me that this weekend was the Ganges Festival.  People were traveling from all over India to attend a celebration of the holy river.  No wonder the trains were crowded.  I did not have the plague.  My 'symptoms' were easily explainable: I was perpetually tired from the protein-free Indian diet; and my cough was from breathing the alien-planet atmosphere of Delhi.

I was not sure exactly when the festival started.  The man on the train said sunset.  The owner of my hotel told me "when full moon rises."  He further explained that the date of the festival is based upon the cycle of the full moon.  My rickshaw driver told me, "Hashish?  Marijuana?  Woman?"  I applied a statistical analysis to my three data points, discarded aberrant results, and decided to head to the river around sunset.  If there was a full moon, then it should rise around sunset.

It would be interesting to see a Hindu holy festival.  I imagined garland elephants, haunting tunes played on exotic instruments; snake charmers; dhoti-clad holy men; and cows, lots of cows.  When I got down to the ghats, I was faced with one of three possible conclusions: 1) I was in the wrong place; 2) the Ganges Festival must have been something created by the Indian counterpart to P.T. Barnum; or 3) amusement park rides, Midway-type carnival attractions, and water front promenades are intimate parts of Hindu ritual.  Each ghat was covered in blinking lights that formed patters, chased each other in circles, or created the tumbling into the Ganges.  At several points along the river I could see the klieg lights, and flashing red neon of portable Tilt-a-Whirls, Mad Hatter Tea Cups, Merry-go-Rounds, and Bumper Car tracks.  I questioned the need for the later - the average Indian street is one big Bumper Car track.  I theorized that it might be form of drivers education.  Hawkers and vendors had set up kiosks selling food, drinks, assorted kibble, and, of course, fireworks. 

Along the river front pathways, families walked together - the parents eating a snack while the children carried balloons, held oversized stuffed animals, or walked invisible dogs.  Groups of young people sat on the steps, smoked cigarettes and tossed firecrackers into the crowd.  Loud music blared from the decrepit hotels, restaurants, and shops above the river.  The whole effect was reminiscent of the boardwalk of any down-at-the-heels New Jersey shore town.  I started to look for T-shirt stores selling shirts with sayings like: "My friend went to the Ganges River Festival and all I got was this lousy T-shirt," "I am not fat.  I am just Buddha reincarnated", or "I knew Gandhi.  Gandhi was a prick."

At the Dasawamedh Ghat, located in the middle of Varanasi's riverfront, a large crowd of people had gathered to watch some type of show.  Several very attractive and perfectly coifed young ladies wearing elaborate saris stood on a raised platform.  An announcer was speaking into a microphone and, occasionally, one of the ladies would walk around the platform, wave to the crowd and then return to her starting position.  On the other side of the ghat, another raised platform held several attractive, stylish young men who were engaged in a similar ancient Hindu ritual.  Surprisingly, the men's beauty pageant or fashion show drew a larger crowd and more enthusiastic applause then did the woman's.

At one ghat a crowd of people were waiting to have their faces painted and soak their hands in an elaborately carved, stone container.  Several elderly gentlemen muttered something as they applied paint and placed the person's hands in the container.  My initial thought was that this was some type of Hindu ritual.  Then I put the rest of the festival into perspective - the lights, the rides, the beauty pageant.  This could be nothing more than a carnival a barker offering to paint your face with the colors of the local cricket team, or to read your palms.  It could even be something as mundane as an emergency hand washing station.  "Mommy.  I touched the river water, yuck!"

I speculated how a Hindu, as ignorant of Judeo-Christian ritual as I was of Hindu ritual, would view some of our 'religious' festivals like Memorial Day or Labor Day.  When you want to get baptized, you climb into the tiny room and sit on a chair.  Your family throws things at you - perhaps as punishment for your misdeeds. When you have been absolved of all your sins, the chair drops and you fall into the water.  There is a machine with a mechanical horse.  You get on the horse and it goes around in circles for a few minutes.  During this time you are supposed to contemplate the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.  There are temples called Budweiser, Miller, and Coors where one can get Ganges River Water.  At least I assumed that it is Ganges water, since they dispense a foul-smelling, dark drown liquid covered with a white bubbles.