Holy City of the Hindus
28.10.1964 - 31.10.1964
Wednesday 28-10-1964 to Saturday 31-10-1964
Returning from Nepal, we spent another night in Muzaffarpur and gave our talk to the local Rotary Club. It went over fairly well, even though a few of the members fell asleep. The following day we caught the night train to Benares. On the train we ran into John, an American we had met in Calcutta and Nepal, as well as a New Zealander, also named John, and an American girl, Marianne. The latter two were travelling without tickets, and they got away with it. The kiwi can talk his way out of anything, and Marianne bursts into tears over having ‘lost her ticket’. It made the night interesting, and it was good to be travelling with a few more westerners. 6 am on Friday morning, we arrived in Benares, or Varanasi, Holy City of the Hindus, on the banks of the sacred river Ganga. The station was like any other in India, and so was the town as far as I could see at first glance. It was obvious that it is only along the Varanasi riverfront that the city is distinctive and unique. We had agreed to push on to Khajuraho on the 11.30 am train Saturday, so we had to cram a lot of sightseeing into the one day. First we took a boat out on the Ganges for an hour,
and went from the poor man’s pyres to the paying customer pyres, then a trip through the narrow alleyways to the love temple (a donation from Nepal and similar to countless temples there - erotic) and to the Vishanath temple, the most sacred in the Hindu religion (it has 500 lbs of gold on the dome). Then a quick trip through the market lanes to a bus which took us to Benares Hindu University. Our contact there was no longer there. Big place but did not look over it. Bus back to town (Godowlia Chawk seems to be the centre of the city) and then a bus out to Sarnath, where the huge stone stupa and associated ruins are, and where Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon. The museum there, the grounds, and the park around the ruins are the best kept of all the archaeological sites in India. Back to town to Clark’s Hotel, where our second contact flunked out, so then to the station for dinner and bed. I was not satisfied. We had seen the city in such a hurry that nothing seemed to have sunk in. I felt as if I was on a guided bus tour. It was a most irritating feeling. Here I was, in the city of Benares, on the River Ganges, a city I had read about since Social Studies at school, a city I would probably never visit again, and I wanted to really experience it, especially the waterfront. I had to go back the next morning to re-see the sights of the day before and complete the experience. We all went back into town on the bus this morning (Saturday), visited the Jai Singh observatory (quite unique), and then walked down to the ghats. We spent about an hour wandering along the ghats, and I am now satisfied.
It was the same as photos I had seen, only now it was alive, and I was standing there in the midst of it. As you stand on the bank, above you tower the palaces of the various Maharajahs, built to be above the annual flood (a line exists which is the height of the 1948 flood, the highest ever). Many of them are excellent structures and the stone masonry seemed to me to be particularly fine work. Then in front of these come the ghats, the massive steps along the entire river frontage of the city, where the most significant acts in the lives of Hindus are enacted. The floods of the monsoon period have only recently abated, and many of the ghats are at present covered with feet of mud, which is being slowly dug away and returned to the river. Standing on the main ghat in the centre of the city, I looked away to the right. I could see a wisp of smoke rising in the distance, a body being burnt at the spot we had gone close to in the boat yesterday and seen the attendant beating the charred remains with a pole to hasten the process of returning to ashes. Directly below me was perhaps the most interesting part.
It was the main anchor point for most of the dirty brown but picturesque boats which take tourists out on the river, or pilgrims, or the dead bodies of diseased persons, which are not permitted to be burnt. Between the boat moorings and the actual bank is where most of the bathing in the Ganges is done, though people are enacting their ‘sin cleansing’ from one end of the town to the other. Platforms stretch out onto the water and holy men and pilgrims sit to say their prayers. Huge brown reed-matting and bamboo umbrellas dot the ghat, and beneath them holy men sit dispensing Ganges mud and red dye to the foreheads of the cleansed ones, or anyone who gives them a few paisa. The scene there is one of quiet confusion, yet the feeling is that everyone is there for a purpose. The Ganges itself is filthy, and yet these people dive in, swim, bathe and drink from it with no apparent ill effects. The Hindu religion apparently forbids burning the corpses of animals, children under five and diseased persons, so they are all thrown into the river, and I saw several bloated dead animals float by. I saw people bathing within a few feet of a bloated goat. Across the other side of the river is just mud flats, and the contrast between each bank is very striking. Lining the mud flats were small boats and some people moving about, yet in the heat haze, all on that side of the river seemed motionless. Walking back up the main steps and into the main street one comes across all kinds of pedlars and beggars and holy men. Apparently the beggars expect something from everyone with the mark on the forehead, and we had it. Two hundred yards further on, Benares becomes just another Indian town.