During that time I was in a constant state of open-mouthed wonder at everything I saw and heard: 30 days wasn’t nearly enough time to completely eliminate the culture shock of being in a place where rats are sometimes worshiped while an entire class of people are considered untouchable.
To ease my transition I’d indulged in several recently-outlawed-but-readily-available treats: I’d smoked pot in Bombay, eaten magic mushrooms in Kodaikanal, smoked bowls of opium in Madras, had chillum’s full of charas (trichome resin) in Agra, and drank quantities of bhang lassis (yogurt, clarified ghee & cannabis resin with fruit) in Rajasthan. Still, nothing quite prepared me for Varanasi.
City of life
One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Varanasi is a holy city for Muslims and Buddhists, and the most revered pilgrimage place for Hindus. Shiva, according to one legend, is supposed to have laid down, and where his body was, the river Ganges now flows.
It is a city of narrow streets and ancient buildings, perfumed and acrid smells, a birthplace of Indian art and culture. In Varanasi there are 365 holy days a year and a temple exists to commemorate each. For Hindus, a pilgrimage to Varanasi and a bath in its waters liberates the soul forever from returning to human form.
The city teems with life. Its markets are filled with the most beautiful saris and silk weavings in all of India. Bowls of fine powdered chalk, which the women mark their foreheads, come in colors that would make a rainbow blush. Wood carvers and fine painters abound. Sacred cows share space with roaming monkeys. Music from sitars and flutes echo from every corner and down each alley. Car horns blare in contest with the wailing of mourners carrying their dead down the wide, descending steps (ghats) by the river to be burned.
I’d arrived with no place to stay but quickly found a cheap room in a ramshackle hotel, then headed out into the thick of it. I was on a mission. I wanted to find one of the last legal government bhang shops in India. I was told they were not far from the Ganges, near the burning ghats, and that the government allowed them to stay open so the dead could be burned with a little treat to make their trip to the afterlife more pleasant.
I wound through streets and alleys in a slightly downhill fashion, and in perhaps an hour or two I’d reached the water. The sun was setting and the river was golden and shallow. I could see rows of people and small boats congested on a sandbar in the middle of the holy river.
I asked someone nearby if one could rent a boat for a trip on the river. The fellow, who spoke English, shook his head side to side and said “Yes. You can be having a boat. But not here. For getting a boat you must walk back up the hill to the first street, then down to the next street where they are having boats.”
I asked him if he knew where there were any government bhang shops. Again he shook his head ‘no’ while while saying yes.
“In the streets before the boats, where there are the burning ghats, there are several. But if you would like some charas I have a cousin who…”
I cut him off, thanked him and left before he had the chance to lure me to a carpet or jewelry shop where I would be stuck looking for hours at beautiful carpets or ornate jewelry that I didn’t want and couldn’t afford.
In no time I arrived at a row of little wooden shacks that were locked up for the day. I couldn’t read the writing on their signs but could smell the cannabis and knew I was in the right place. Down the street I could see a dozen or more boats moored to poles at water’s edge. I decided to come back at dawn then headed back to my room through the bustling streets.
Looking for the dream
In the morning I awoke early and headed back to the little wooden shacks. As I drew near, the streets grew thick with people, mostly mourners, carrying their dead. Some were carried on stretchers, their bodies wrapped in simple white cotton cloth; others were drawn in carriages with colorful silk burial shrouds adorned in flowers and beads. All of the groups were making their way down narrow lanes to the burning ghats. I let them pass and made my way to one of the now-open shacks.
Inside, a gaunt, shirtless man sat on his haunches on a raised platform with a rolling pin in his hand. On the floor next to him was a large, open newspaper-bound bundle of pale yellow-green cannabis stalks. A young boy placed a handful of the stalks on a sort of cutting board in front of the man, who began rolling them with his pin as if he were rolling flour. From a shelf behind him he took a container and poured a little of what looked like oil onto the stalks as he worked them: the oil mixed with the plant material and in no time he had turned the cannabis into a green, gooey paste. He scooped it up and quickly made about 30 little balls from it that he put on a tray and handed to another young man who was selling them to the passersby. I bought one and bit into it: it wasn’t very good and I swallowed as quickly as I could. The boys laughed and told me it was better in lassi, the yogurt drink.
The boys saw that I was getting high and laughed. I bought another ball, ate it, thanked them and began to make my way toward the dock.
The walk took more effort than I anticipated: my legs were wobbly and the narrow passage walls seemed to close in on me. Worse, a family carrying a dead loved one was hurrying to the ghats just behind me and I couldn’t walk any faster? the rush was coming on strong? but I couldn’t get out of their way. A large man with a bushy moustache asked me something in Hindi, but my mouth wouldn’t work to answer. He began to glower at me and I leaned against the wall to let them pass. It didn’t work. There was no room for the men carrying the stretcher to pass me.
The man began to shout and the entire family picked up on the cue. I didn’t know what they were saying but the words were coming out like cartoon letters from their mouths, colorful and large but not at all pleasant. I was feeling completely wretched that I’d interferred with the thoughtless act of eating a bhang ball earlier. Worse, it occurred to me that I’d had a second and everything was going to get even more complicated when that kicked in. I had to think of something or we’d all be stuck there forever.
Just then the god of cannabis came forward and gave me an inspiration. I indicated to the lead man that he should lift the stretcher and I would help pass it over my head. He understood, so I helped pass the body hand-over-hand. I had a brief vision in which I saw myself dropping the corpse, but I managed to hold it together. To my surprise, the family didn’t stop to thank me for the ingenious solution to the apparent impasse, but simply kept walking to the river.
I could hear sounds behind me, and turned to see another family headed my way. I couldn’t go through that scene again. I put one hand on the wall to steady myself, and made my way down the alley. It couldn’t have been more than 100 feet but it took an eternity, with the walls and floor breathing unevenly and the family behind me gaining with every step.
When I finally reached sunlight, I lurched around the corner of the building and held on for dear life, while the family flew by.
In a few minutes the sun invigorated me and I could look around without feeling helpless. To my left and right, groups of people surrounded the cremating corpses of their loved ones. White smoke rose from the fires to the heavens. Waiting families stood by for their time to burn. Other groups carried bundles of ashes to the boats. Further off I could see huge groups of people bathing along the banks of the Ganges, fulfilling their sacred obligations to make the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to this holy place.
I don’t know how long I stood against the corner of that building, but I know I didn’t move until I could make the short trip to the boats without falling. When I finally moved, my legs still wobbled beneath me, but reluctantly carried me forward.
High on the water
Before I even reached the boats, several men approached me with the glint of tourist money in their eyes. “Boat tour?” they all seemed to ask, their faces slightly misshapen in my altered vision. They all looked like people I did not want to be with just then, and I waved them off, pushing through to an old man who was sitting in his boat, eating.
“Can I rent your boat?” I asked. He kept eating and didn’t answer. I thought that maybe the words hadn’t actually come out of my mouth so I repeated my question. He still didn’t answer. I leaned down and touched him on the shoulder and he turned his head just enough to indicate with his eyes that if I was coming, I should get in. I did, crouching low so as not to fall off the other side as the boat lurched with my weight. I managed to stabilize and sit.
The man still hadn’t said a word and he didn’t stop eating. He had chapati?flat bread?and a stew in a pot. It looked delicious, and I wanted some. I was ravenous. I stared at him, hoping he’d get the message that he should share the food. He ignored me.
I began to wonder if I’d misread his eye signal. Maybe he hadn’t invited me into the boat at all. I began to get a little edgy that perhaps I should leave, but was much too comfortable to move, so I decided to sit until he either asked me to leave, or began to row.
Fortunately, he eventually put the pot down, stood, untied the boat from its piling and pushed off into the river.
“Do you want to go close to the burning?” he asked suddenly, unexpectedly, in good English.
“Um, what? No. No. I don’t. That’s private. Just the river. The river’s good.”
The words tumbled out and clattered together. The man laughed. “Bhang. Not talking good.”
He began to row us out toward the sand bar. We nearly reached it when he turned the boat and began to row parallel to the city on the river’s bank. I stared in awe: there, rising up on a hill was what looked like a wall of ancient building close on each other. Dozens of clay-colored temples, some painted white and blue, rose next to homes and old military buildings. On the river bank were the funeral pyres, boats moving goods, and hundreds of people bathing. It was as if I was looking into a sort of heart, throbbing with life, and motion and bustle. I felt a rush of joy. I might have been looking at the center of the universe. This was truly the most holy of places. Many of the people I could see bathing had probably waited years to be able to step into that water. The plumes of smoke rising from the burnings meant everything to those families. Good for them, I thought. Good that they’d made it.
“Beautiful, my city,” the oarsman said, waving his hand at the sight.
“Very,” I answered.
“Shiva lives here.” I couldn’t do anything but grin. Shiva lives here. Of course.
“Buddha came here.”
I remembered a story I’d been told about Buddha. When he first came to the Ganges, the nine Nagas?the snake deities that hold the world together?who lived by the river each made themselves into a bridge so that Buddha could cross. Buddha looked at the nine Naga bridges and, not wanting to offend any of them, made himself into nine Buddhas and crossed them all.
“You are here,” the man said. “Too bad you are not Hindu or you would be promised everlasting life.” I laughed.
We rowed in silence for a little while. The bhang’s effect was beginning to abate and I was thirsty. I reached over the side of the river and scooped a handful of the water and drank it. It tasted wonderful. I scooped another handful. Even better. On the third handful though I came up with what looked like a piece of finger and tossed the water back.
The boatman must have seen me because he burst out laughing. “Don’t drink that. It’s full of body pieces. Not everyone can afford the wood to completely reduce the bodies to ash. They still throw them in the river. Watch.”
He quickly brought the boat near the sandbar and began to stir up the sand with his oar: bits of bone, whole bones, body parts began to float around in the water. I began to feel sick.
“You are looking like you are going to vomit. Please vomit over the side and not in my boat.”
I didn’t. In a little while we began to head back.
By the time we reached the dock I had my legs back under me. I paid him, disembarked and began to head back to the alley.
“Don’t forget,” the boatman called after me. “Shiva lives here. Welcome to my city.”