On the Steps of the Ghats

Perhaps the safety I feel, weaving in and out of traffic, come from the constant and overarching theme of karma. To harm or to hurt others in this life means karmic consequence in the next. So, caution is inherent. People are calm and the elderly and infirm can wander home unhindered, crossing roads with a calm reassurance that they will be avoided.

I arrive again at a threshold. Every time I arrive the river greets me, it does so as a stranger, formally and without connection. Its memory of me is poor and I introduce myself over and over. I say this with the awareness that she greets everyone, every day from time immemorial.  

But there are invisible boundaries at play here. A stranger in a strange land relies on the steps of Tulsi, Dashashwamedh and Assi Ghats to locate them in a place of holy chaos. Rituals are taking place and people are bathing with no regard to the body being burnt, meters up stream. Mother Gańgā protects all her children. I have not even ventured to the bottom step which the river laps at slowly and with conditions, yet children are doing bombs off a boat and sheets and sari are being beaten clean against flat slabs of rock.

All day, the sky is full of birds and smoke, both dance above the secrets of the river.

No one seems to have let Varanasi/Benares/Banaras/Kashi know that the rest of India was once a British colony, as an independent state it seemed to move through time as it has always done, collecting memories and layering new ones over those less resilient. Other than the Futura typeface seen on official signs of the Water Works or Theosophical Society there is little else to reflect occupation. There are still the occasional alarming mentions of the Colony on road signs and in district names, but the presence of English names has not defined the Indian identity. It has been added to it. In the amazing resilience of Indian attitude to life, more is preferable. More gods, more festivals (I just found out that different states celebrate different New Year’s Days to each other) and more lives.

So, my task then is to sit down, at the river, not on the street where people are living their lives and selling goods from durian to children’s backpacks, not in a café built especially for westerners thoroughly out of their depth, but on the steps of the ghats. To sit at the holy places, not to convert or adapt to Hinduism but to be amongst it. To give space, as Indians seem to do, to everyone here. Maybe it’s the scale of the place or the population here but I have never felt more finite and temporary. That’s the tourists lot I guess. To not matter, to be a blip on the landscape, washed away by the monsoon rains.

 Wash and dry.

Wash and dry.