This is India land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterdays bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations–the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien persons, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for all the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.
These are the words of Mark Twain, who travelled for a year through India in 1896, like him I am staying in Varanasi, or Benares as it was called in his time, he described the City as older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, in a changing world it remains much the same. Home to a million souls nestled around the Ganges, a pilgrimage site for Hindus, important to Budhhists with the ancient site of Sarnath a few kilometres away. One of the worlds oldest cities, it’s origins dating back to the tenth century BC this place is from another time.
Twain travelled to India to escape, he had two failed business ventures and was looking for a way out, his travels provided the breathing space, and in time the stories he wrote from them resolved his fortunes, he travelled on to Europe, and England. In my home neck of the woods in London there is a foundation stone at Kensal Library which I am mindful of, laid by Twain. I like the idea of being my own Twain, travelling in India & beyond, coming from a difficult place, perhaps one day returning to Kensal Green, not as a Twain, but as a stronger and happier man than the one that left.
Wandering along the Ghats of Varanasi , stepped terraces of temples and bathing places along the river there are Sadhus, Indian Holy men, who have renounced the world and chosen an aesthetic path, there are the boatmen, the touts, the beggars, feral dogs, water buffalo & cows and pilgrims all vying for a little space on the waterfront. There are two burning Ghats, where cremations take place, in open view, bodies wrapped in shrouds, red for women, white for men, piled high with wood and consumed by flames. Sitting and watching as the bodies are burnt its such a contrast to cremation in the West, where all is sanitised, remote, where electric conveyors carry a coffin, where electric doors open and close, somehow this raw and real funeral pyre is far more moving, a more life like ending than our version. I am struck by the lack of emotion, no women are present at the immolation, the men remain stoic, quiet, unemotional.
As I walk along the Ghats I watch the people washing themselves in the Ganges, I’ve read about how polluted the water is, seen the cremations alongside the river bank, the effluent and sewage washing into the river, the cow shit and dog mess, th e filth, the rats, no way would I go in that water, and then I stumble and slip walking along the Ghats, I end up on my back in a pool of filthy smelling slime, I am covered in the stuff. I look like I’ve been mud wrestling, what kind of filth I am covered in I shudder to think, there is only one option, to go in the water and clean myself, polluted as it may be, I step down to the river, wash my clothes and myself and swim. The water is cool and refreshing, the mud and the slime is washed away, my Ganges baptism, I am just another person, one more added to the countless millions who have washed here before me through the centuries.