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.

Varanasi Begins

Upon arrival before my feet hit the tarmac the heat of the city carries with it the smell of hot beeswax and honeysuckle, it wraps itself around my head and holds tight.

I’m entering an ancient place that is so frenzied and disorderly it should fall apart. I hold on to the side of the taxi expecting to see everything collapse at the next bend. It never does, and it hasn’t fallen apart for thousands of years, I must remember to keep my arrogance in check. The river will flow through this city long after I'm gone, and it does not care for my smallminded view of “the proper order” or what it means to finish or begin.

I record a video out the window with my phone for a few minutes, but my hands begin to sweat with excitement and 35-degree heat, the road is bumpy and unfamiliar, so I put it away, though I’m afraid of missing anything, or everything. I open my eyes wider attempting to take more in. My mind tries to set my visual memory stores to high definition, but short-term memory is blurry and unreliable. The dust from constant creation and destruction of the city gets in my eyes and mouth, even the dust here is sweet, yet it stings just the same. I am stared at by passersby, I’m the oddity that momentarily catches their eye, the strange anomaly in a sea of ordinary faces.

The driver has used his horn continually from the airport into the city, confidently foregoing indication or the use of side mirrors. The weaving of cars, motorbikes, rickshaws and tuk tuks blend with buses, trucks, carts and bicycles that all unite in a kind of raucous dance that I don’t know the steps to.

I am dropped off down short driveway past an old mansion formerly owned by the gardener’s father. I’m greeted by two friendly dogs that graciously guard the residency members from the angry monkey I still haven’t met. They make themselves comfortable in my studio as I unpack. The garden outside is being watered and small lizards patrol the tree trunks while squirrels survey the canopy. The horns continue their evening chorus. I think I’m gonna like it here.

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Studio warming/welcoming committee. 

Studio warming/welcoming committee.