The old city: Varanasi
I really did not like Varanasi or Benares as my facebook statuses made clear. I was disappointed partly because of my expectations. One of our tour guides in Rajasthan said that there is no place quite like it and we’d love it there – people get so immersed in the spiritualism they never want to leave. I wanted to leave as soon as I got there.
Varanasi symbolises lack of logic in my eyes. The Ganges river is polluted with dead bodies (humans, cows, others), sewage, whatever they use to wash clothes with, cow dung, plastic litter. You name it, it’s probably in there in the murky waters of this poor abused river.
You have to watch your step on the 100 or so ghats of Varanasi – these are stone steps down to the river for those of you who don’t know what a ‘ghat’ is. There is cow dung, saliva, paan stains and a strong smell of urine in areas. Local people chew on betel leaves (‘paan’) which release a red pigment which they spit out. There are paan stains all over the streets in Varanasi. So first thing that struck me was how people treat and allow others to treat the city they consider holy. If I considered a place holy, I wouldn’t pollute in it. Is that logic or just my opinion? It’s hard to tell sometimes.
The great thing about my trip to India was that I was not in a bubble. I was travelling with locals, talking to tour guides, drivers, rickshaw –wallahs, boatmen, hotel staff and vendors. I got to observe what life is like for the vast majority.
I spoke to two of our boatmen on hour-long boat rides on the Ganges. Curious and to make conversation I asked them ‘Are there crocodiles in this part of the river?’
The first one said ‘No’ and then he continued ‘…because Lord Shiva enacted a curse on this part of the river that any crocodile that enters it will become blind in both eyes. That’s why you find crocodiles downstream but not in this part of the river’. I was entertained at first. I turned to my fellow tourist, translated into English and added ‘This guy has really drunk the Varanasi cool-aid’.
Boatman 1 took us past Manikarnika Ghat, where cremations happen 24-7. Five hundred dead bodies are burnt there daily. He said that if the Ghat did not get a body one day it would be the end of the world
Why does the irrationality of these seemingly harmless beliefs matter? Because it shows argumentation that is not based on logic or science or anything that we can prove. We could try to disprove these views by putting a crocodile in the river which I honestly think some scientific organisation in the world should do to challenge these long-held and never-tested beliefs. Because if people use such arguments for explaining why crocodiles are not in the river, they can and will use arguments of similar quality to justify why women should not be treated equal to men; why young people are stupider than older people; why their traditions are better than progressive practices. The scariest part for me is that it is impossible to have a discussion with people who bring in unproven mystical explanations to support their assertions.
His second assertion also triggered an interesting thought experiment for me. What if one day for some reason there was no body at Manikarnika Ghat? (this will not happen, but what if?). My hypothesis is that the people of Varanasi would murder someone to burn, because in their eyes they are saving the world.
I was hoping that this boatman happened to be one who was particularly religious/<insert correct word that doesn’t offend you here> and did not reflect most people’s views. Three days later when I asked boatman 2 the same question, I got the same response with unwavering conviction. Boatman 2 further went on to tell me about ‘Dhobhi Ghat’ (Washerman’s ghat) where washermen wash clothes. He said that because the washermen pray to the Goddess Kali, she blessed that Ghat so that the clothes will always remain clean there whilst washing them at any other Ghat and putting them out to dry would make them dirty. Do we believe the neighbouring ghat makes clothes dirty? The one right next door? Really??
From far away, the city is picturesque. The sun, too far away for humans to reach and pollute, is beautiful.
But close up, Varanasi is a mad-hatters tea party. True enlightenment is when people see the truth – good or bad and accept it as the truth. Like accept that the river is no longer clean, try to restore it and stop brushing their teeth and bathing in toxic waters. There are too many unenlightened people in Varanasi for my liking.