How do you find words to describe a city that is two thousand years old? Where spirituality mingles with revulsion. Where the engorged Ganges river floods homes of gentle sweet people trying to survive. Where streets are filthy with garbage, enormous cows stand motionless for hours and tuktuks spewing exhaust fumes pollute the air. And where a dark-skinned low caste man like Pramod Sahani is able to laugh when he talks to us about the dreadful living circumstances of him and his family.
One day in this city has brought up every emotion for me. There were times I felt like throwing up at the stench and disgust and at the same time wanting to weep with the enormity and overwhelming feelings from the inspirational sights and sounds.
We started the day in a coffee shop with Pramod, a new friend who was introduced to us by a mutual friend in Thailand, and ended it on the river Ganges, sitting on a makeshift wooden boat alongside floating garbage and a rat which made its way across the rope to our vessel.
It was just the three of us – along with a young fellow named Babu, who’d decided to tag along – and what began as a disgusting wade through knee-deep raw sewage turned into an hour unlike any I’ve ever known. Smoke and incense rose from the burning urns which were whirled in the air by the Brahmins on the rooftop next to us, and the hypnotic vibration of the drums drew me into a meditational state.
Alongside our boat, a reed thin dark skinned Indian with a long grey beard and draped in bright orange robes clambered from vessel to vessel till he reached a house which was half submerged, and two men hauled bucket after bucketful of black polluted water from inside their boats.
There was nobody else in sight. The immense crowds on the road had faded into the distance as we sat on the dark river and watched fire light up the night sky and rose petals being flung into the black water.
An hour later it was over. We waded back through the water – Pramod holding my hand, watching carefully that we were safe – and we mingled with the heaving mass of people packing the winding streets on foot, moto, tuktuk and bicycle.
It was one night. A night like every other in Varanasi –where rain, flood, famine and death hold hands in a dance of life, and will continue to do so for centuries to come.
For me, it was a night that will live in my memory for a lifetime and I know this jumble of wondrous, disgusting, beautiful, filthy, gentle and distressing images will remain vivid, sensual and indelible forever.