Date: 9 May
Location: trapped in Hotel Haifa, Varanasi.
Notable sightings: my first up-close corpse.
On any day, Varanasi hits like a hot assault. Today, in high summer, in the middle of the biggest election ever held on earth, the city being the seat of two Presidental candidates – both of whom are in town today – in the days before voting? It hits like aggravated burglary with reckless indifference to human life.
Rewind to yesterday when we arrived, bleary eyed and dehydrated, flipping coins to see who got first shower (winner!) and lusting after aircon and wifi. The Hotel Haifa has both! But neither work. The cold taps only run hot. Each room has a TV, but none pick up any channels. India was laughing up her sari sleeve again.
It's truly manic in Varanasi, India's answer to Mecca and Venice rolled up into one pungent package. The city snakes along the river and pulses with a vaguely medieval vibe. The rich glide down the river in colourful motorised wooden boats, the comfortable meander in rowed boats and the poorest row the boats. No alcohol or meat is permitted anywhere near the water. Along the river's western banks are a hundred or so ghats. The ghats are wide, oversized steps down from the teetering houses down to the Ganges and each was traditionally claimed by one of India's princely states. Some continue to bear the names of the lost states and some are named for poets, religions, places. A wander along the ghats is fraught with danger. You'll need to dodge, from least to most lethal:
- Rubbish (inorganic)
- Boatmen touting
- Children selling flower candles
- Dogs, goats, cows, buffalo
- Holy men
- Cricket matches
- Open sewers
- Rubbish (organic, including the excrement of all aforementioned)
- Fresh corpses
- Flaming corpses
You come upon the Burning Ghat quite suddenly and without ceremony. It's perhaps a little messier than its neighbours, and more crowded with people and animals both. The smell isn't unpleasant. You see the flames first, then perhaps notice the wrapped corpse at your feet or recognise the flames as a funeral pyre and jolt as you see a burning human body laid within.
This is where a Hindu wishes to be burned after he or she dies. And as soon as possible. Hindus believe that fire releases the soul from the body. The whole affair begins just a few hours after death. We have 24-Hour availability if slurpees, Varanasi has 24-Hour availability of public cremations.
But you can survive all of this, and Varanasi is special. It feels like the beating heart of India and, indeed, the favoured Presidential candidate, Modi, has sagely chosen to run for this seat and to set this city and all that it represents – mothership, rebirth, tradition, hope, faith, Hinduism – at the heart of his campaign.
This afternoon the political rallies begun in earnest. It's the grand finale: tomorrow is the last campaigning day and then the people of Varansi vote. By lunch, the old town was dotted with armed military. By one, the streets were filled with people draped in orange or white and the drums and chanting had begun. By three, the streets near our hotel were cordoned off and jammed with the military and campaigners and noise. We're essentially under house arrest until tonight. Roomate thinks it's scary but I think it's exhilarating to watch this huge, restless country get excited about democracy. The caste system favours society over the individual and I love to see the power shift to the individual; to see people take pride in wielding their vote. (Let's not kill my buzz by talking about the corruption just now, hey?)
Edit: Tonight we released flower-filled baskets with candles as offerings to Mother Ganges, and made wishes. Later, we joined hundreds of other wooden boats for evening prayer on the river. The water was hazy with incense, the boats heavy with sweaty bodies and bells rang out over the river. Surreal.