From my Brother Brent Matsuda ...interesting reading pretty good writer & escrimador!
After more than 2 weeks in India, I feel like I'm finally starting to get
a feel for this country. It has been exhilarating, exciting, and
exhausting. Oftentimes the frustration of doing anything with any semblance
of efficiency or common sense is maddening. But then you experience
something that makes it all worthwhile.
The Holy City of Varanasi did just that.
Arriving late in the afternoon on an overnight train from hell, we make our
way through the maze of narrow alleyways towards Mother Ganga - the Ganges
River. My compadre, Anthony, is a 27 year old British lad who I met during
the 7 hour train delay in the village of Gwalior. Anthony is the first
traveler I've met this trip where we've been hanging out eating and sharing
transport, both of us relieved to have a fellow cohort to help disperse the
craziness - negotiate taxi fares, figure out directions, and watch each
other's packs and backs. This situation was much more frequent in my early
backpacker days during longer trips abroad, but there have been fewer
opportunities to develop such bonds on relatively short trips of less than
a month. Or maybe I'm just getting too old for this shit. But now I've
strayed from my original musings.
We emerge from the tunnel-like walkways of Old Varanasi and fall in behind
throngs of people moving in the direction of chanting - like mice following
the Pied Piper. As we arrive at the wide expanse of concrete steps leading
down to the river, we become mesmerized by the crowd of people, many
dressed in brightly coloured sarees of golden yellow, red, and green,
swaying to the chanting emanating from loudspeakers. All eyes are fixated
on 5 platforms set up on the sidewalk upon which 5 men, colourfully adorned
in gold and red, ceremoniously wave about a lantern with flames billowing
from the top; they all move in unison with the chanting while the crowd
sways around them. There are hundreds of others watching from boats on the
river. The air is electrifying.
The Ganga Aarti festival lasts about an hour. Then the crowd disperses from
the public plaza, the boats leave, and everything seems back to normal. But
the hypnotic surrealism of the whole event still has Anthony and I
enchanted, so we mill about aimlessly for the next half hour as our "high"
wears off and we're back to people-watching and taking photos.
This becomes my pastime in Old Varanasi for the next two days as the
diversity of people, cultures, religions, all aspects of humankind for that
matter, intermingle in one of the most ancient cities in India and
certainly one of the holiest.
Every morning, hundreds, if not thousands of people, bathe in the Ganges
River at one of the "ghats" - a ceremonial area comprised of temples or
other shrines established on the concrete steps leading to the river, Most
bathers are fully clothed in the colourful garbs, while praying and pouring
water over themselves. This is the Mother Ganges River, through which the
lifeblood of India flows.
While many pray, others do laundry, beating clothes against small concrete
abutments on the river terraces designed for that purpose. Judging by the
amount of litter lining the shoreline in addition to the all the cow and
dog crap on the sidewalks of the ghats, I wonder how the river is supposed
to cleanse when I'm scared to even put my foot in it. Yet people are
filling their water bottles to take home!
A sunset boat ride takes us by a burning ghat where at least a dozen large
fires are blazing. Amidst the large piles of flaming wood are bodies being
cremated. Their ashes are then set afloat on the Ganges. Apparently family
members will stand by for the 14+ hours it takes to reduce a body to
nothing but ash, yet there are no tears being shed here. In fact, apart
from the bonfires, life goes on as usual. The seeming lack of emotion may
shock Westerners, but in a country of over a billion people that has
thrived for several centuries beyond our infantile cultures, death has long
been accepted as regularly as living itself.
This is just one small aspect of Indian culture that diverges from our own,
and leaves me to ponder how different our country might be if we had over a
billion people within our borders. Given that we're the 2nd largest country
in the world, on a relative scale that would probably have to be equivalent
to at least 5 billion people in Canada to get a sense of the same crowding
effect. Then maybe someone would outsource to us!