Letter from Varanasi

December 31, 2008

Dear Friends,

Nowhere in my travels have I ever experienced anything as intense as India, Everything — the traffic, the street smells, the poverty, the pollution, and the attention of the touts, hawkers and rickshaw wallahs — has the exaggerated character of a dream.


Indian street scenes are by turns amusing, irritating, frightening, saddening and astonishing, but they are never boring.


Consider that the overpopulation of this country (in area, a third the size of the U.S.) speaks at least 27 distinct languages and worships at least half a dozen different and sometimes violently opposed religions. There are millions upon millions of Indians who exist on the equivalent of one or two dollars a day.


I’ve read that 70% of this multitude has no regular use of a toilet and that 50% is without clean drinking water. India has no social security system, and even the civil law regarding marriage and divorce differs for Hindus and Muslims. India is also a democracy, the world’s largest, with all the factional politics democracy engenders. Considering all the social limitations and cultural contradictions, it’s a wonder that the country exists at all, let alone as peacefully as it does.


The answer, I believe, lies in history and tradition. For the vast majority of Indians, family values aren’t notions to be debated. And they aren’t optional. They’re real and ever present just as is their spirituality.


The spiritual life of Indians is as intense as every other public aspect of their lives, and I’m especially present to it today because I’m staying in Varanasi, the holiest of all Hindu holy places. This is the city where many Hindus come to die and be cremated in the belief that doing so will release them from the cycle of rebirth and give them a straight path to Nirvana.


Early this morning I had the opportunity to witness some striking Hindu spiritual practices in the flesh, so to speak. At 6:30 I boarded a rowboat on the sacred Ganges and slipped slowly through the fog together with dozens of other similar boats bearing the city’s tourists. At first I saw nothing and heard only the sound of the bells that accompany Hindu worship and the slap slap of wet laundry being beaten against flat stones along the numerous bathing ghats that line the riverside.


Later, came the ritual bathers wading into the water of Mother Ganges as an act of purification. Purification! Of all the contradictions that exist in Indian culture, this is to me the starkest. If there is a body of water more polluted than this river, I’m not able to name it. Every kind of human and animal waste and putrefaction there is finds its way into the Ganges, and yet 400 million people use its water for bathing and washing and feel privileged to do so. I just can’t get over it.


There are about 80 ghats on the river at Varanasi, and one stands out above all. Its name is Manikarnika, the cremation ghat where photography is forbidden. I thought I had signed up for an hour’s boat ride, so imagine my surprise when I was put ashore on Manikarnika for a closer look at its unusual (for me) funeral customs. The man who guided me around the ghat hoping for a generous charitable donation took me into a building where an eternal fire burns. Brands from this fire are what light the individual pyres on the ghat. Around the fire and in its shadows I saw the forms of the dying waiting their turn to be cremated. Outside, logs were piled helter skelter, sandalwood for the most affluent families and lesser varieties for the others. No corpse was burning during my visit, though one was lying by wrapped in a shroud. According to my guide, it takes a couple hundred kilos of wood to completely burn a body. If the timber money runs out before that happens, the unburned parts are cast in the river. In fact, on our way back to the starting point, we passed a corpse floating alongside the hull of a boat. It was clothed and bloated but showed no signs of having been burnt. Who knows?


Other than the sightseers, most of those on the ghats are engaged in some sort of puga or spiritual activity. It is this city’s reason for being and it has been for centuries.


Love and a happy new year to all,