Of all the cultures I’ve managed to see around the world, India truly stands out as one that offers the most diverse people in the world. Not only is the country defined by a divided religion, but its people are completely alienated by the gulf in riches between the classes.
Just from the two and a half weeks of travelling through the Northern stretches of India, down from Amritsar to Kolkata, its volatility was striking. The North Eastern region of Punjab, central to Sikhism, demonstrated the power of wealth, where gold and land is king, the rich served hand and foot by those lower in the society. Huge plains would be desolate, overgrown with charred shrubs and burnt out grass, the dust sweeping up off the ground from the side-sweeping winds. The only elements that broke the view of the horizon were the plots of land with arenaceous roads leading up the high walls concealing rich mansions or palaces within – the barriers preventing the distribution of wealth to the local communities.
The Golden Temple at Amritsar showed off the treasures of the Sikh religion with its beautifully gold plated façade, but for this city, although the riches weren’t distributed in monetary terms, it was instead shared through the power of its religious core. Those of lower class, although evidently poor, showed riches in their devotion to the afterlife. The people were united in warmth and gratitude.
From there, the ugly side of society reared its face in Agra – the tourist haven for those visiting the spectacular Taj Mahal. The wealth again preserves itself within the walls of this great Palace, away from the local community on the outside, one scratching at survival, willing to cheat and deceit outsiders for a chance of a better life. One would assume religion here would be as powerful as the Golden Temple, but this seemed to elude its people here, the black Yamuna River depicting the town’s darkness and lack of being.
The most incredible train journey from Agra to Varanasi then brought with it evidence of India’s repugnant bureaucratic face. With invalid train tickets bought online, each member of staff sat seamlessly unwitting to our situation as we tried to board a 12-hour train at 1am. The attendants one by one would move us on to the next, unwilling to help us at all. The language barrier was apparent, but nobody came forward to help us out. It was a free for all as people dashed around in a frenzy, selfishly going about their business without due care. As we faced the umpteenth uncooperative attendant who simply threw the tickets back in our faces before physically turning his back to us and saying, “it isn’t my job”, we just had to gamble by jumping on board the train anyway. We sat by the stinking toilets in the uncomfortable gangways of the train carriages, sheltering ourselves from the cold air outside and for the next few hours, were met by the most inhuman of attendants who kept repeating to us that our tickets were invalid.
As much as we explained that that we would pay for the second time (seeing as they had taken money out of my account already from the online purchase) he refused time and time again to help us out, accusing us of bunking the train. After 5 hours, half the people on the train got off, freeing up plenty of space and beds, but this still didn’t coax the guard into letting us stay on. Instead, he threw our bags off the train as it was about to leave the station, forcing us off into a town called Kanpur in the middle of nowhere at 6am. We were the only white people in the town, one that was completely impoverished. All we could do was dash off to the nearest hotel whilst groups of people followed us through the town, praying that we would make it safely. And in complete contrast to all this aggravation, the porter of a hotel nearby managed to help us hire a cab for the rest of the journey to Varanasi.
Landing there sent us into another world of intrigue. Throughout the stay here all aspects of what we had witnessed bear fruit to us again. The streets upon arrival were full of people crazily rushing around the narrow back streets lined with kiosks selling all kinds of gold and haberdashery, flowers and food.
Even slaughter shops could be seen as we moved on through the town, with chickens put to slaughter right in full view of the streets. People seemed to be scrambling around, bartering with each other before moving on to the next. Survival was still clearly a predominant factor of life. Within the melee, army officers would gaze out as if in charge of the ensuing chaos, ready to strike at anything unruly.
Once dropped off in the centre of town by the taxi, a local took us down the backstreets to our hostel on the banks of the River Ganges for a few rupees – a journey that passed through excrement at every turn, one that we again hoped would have a happy outcome. Fortunately, the local was true to his word and offered us his services in return for a just reward. There was no scheming. Just one man helping out another.
Suddenly, we then entered a completely different world. The deeply religious heart of Varanasi revealed itself off the back its unruly back streets.
Here, the kindness and honesty of its peoples lined the banks of the Ganges and presented to us a reality that completely juxtaposed it from what the experiences of the past few days. People were peaceful and caring, often approachable and helpful. Many would sit along the embankment at prayer or simply to contemplate.
There were even conversations struck up with some of the locals down at the Dashashwamedh Ghat in the evening at one of the Agni Pooja ceremonies (Worship to Fire) in which a dedication is made to the Lord Shiva, River Ganges, the Sun and the Universe. A Ghat, by the way, is a series of steps on the embankment leading to the River Ganges.
One character we met was a very smart 14-year old boy selling postcards, his English as every bit as good as my own, chatting away about his background and intrigued as to what ours was. Another interesting character was an elderly man who was simply interested in who we were and the reasons for our visit to Varanasi. Both people were welcoming and pleasant. Along the embankment, kite runners would sit in peace. Highly sacred cows would wander aimlessly through the streets.
Lining the embankment would also be many shrines or places of worship. And what was strange about these places, was that the opportunistic characters would sit waiting like a snake ready to pounce on its prey. You couldn’t take a casual look around without feeling a hand in your pocket clasping at your wallet. This was also later evidently true as we sought out the famous crematoriums. Families would go on pilgrimage to Varanasi to lay to rest their loved ones in the River Ganges after a deep spiritual cleansing of the soul. For this, the body would be wrapped in special linen and then strapped to planks of wood previously bought off a local supplier. The body would then be brought to the edge of the River to be washed – a final cleansing the soul before being cremated. The body when then be placed on the burning fires in the open for everybody to see. This was a powerful experience, one that from our cultural perspective seemed wrong to share, but from theirs, completely acceptable. It was a deeply emotional moment, one that brought religion, the human soul and the Earth together. From our viewpoint, we were standing in a refuge for lepers and those who travelled to Varanasi to die. Deeply unnerving, the snakes were ready again to pounce on the outsiders, an experience that forced us out quickly into the streets with a weird sensation.
Outside the rituals, all along the stretches of the River Ganges, people would be busy selling all sorts of things to locals and visitors alike, with others manually working. Others would simply rest or bathe in the River. By night, boats would sleep silently on the calm surface whilst local sacred animals took refuge where they could.
The atmosphere in Varanasi was somewhat distinguished by the arrival of Holi Week. This is the celebration of the passing of winter into spring at the end of February. Holi Week is a chance for people to completely relax in a world of colour and celebration.Colour is the most important element of the festivities; it needs to be everywhere – on the skin, in the hair, on clothes, on buildings, on the streets, on the passing cows, everywhere! The colour comes from a mixture of “tika” powder and water. On the evening of the full moon, bonfires would be lit to signify the destruction of the holy demon Holika, and gave everybody a chance to drink and party the night away. So, even amongst the deeply sacred practices, the bureaucracy, the leeches and scammers who patrol the streets, the rich and the poor, the sick and healthy, people still didn’t forget the heart of humanity – the creation of community and the chance for people to come together to share experiences together. It’s in these celebrations like everywhere in the world that the ugly side to life is put to one side. The diversity of humanity being left behind.
Further Reading on Varanasi and Holi Week
Varanasi City Tourist Guide
All About India – Ganges River
More Photography :
“The India Collection” by Antematters