BY KATE EDWARDS
At evening in Varanasi, children fly coloured-kites from the city rooftops. Scraps of colour lift off above the skyline at dusk. From on top of my guest house in Varanasi, the two contrasting worlds of India’s oldest city are visible: one of the incessant flow and clamour of traffic and trade in the streets below; the other of the timeless sweep of the river Ganges to the East.
Varanasi, Benares or Kashi, as the city is also known, is situated in Uttar Pradesh, Northern India and the heartland of the Ganges river basin. For thousands of Jain and Hindu pilgrims, the city is a revered destination, where they come to take a dip in the sacred Ganges waters. For many pilgrims, Varanasi is their final destination in this lifetime. They come here to die and be cremated, believing the river goddess Ganga will guide their ascent from Earth to Heaven. The holy city isn’t the end of my journey; it’s the gateway en route from western to central India, and I’m just passing through.
I’d spent most of the day on foot exploring the bustling aspects of the city, visiting its temples, ashrams, silk shops and ancient ghats, and I was feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. My plan was to eat at the guest house and turn in, ready to catch an early train the next morning.
But the hostel owner, Adil, who stands chatting with me while I finish my food, has other ideas. He waves his hand towards the river.
“Before going, you must make boat trip.”
At least I think he is the owner. There are an army of staff at the hostel and they all seem to swap jobs interchangeably, so it is hard to tell. Adil does have the air of a boss about him, but since arriving I have also seen him driving guests around, checking them in and helping them change currencies.
“No time,” I say, “I’m leaving first thing.”
Adil gives an undeterred waggle of the head
“No problem. There is sunset trip tonight.”
At that moment, the door from the kitchen swings open and the cook strides out, his face gleaming with sweat. The cook is an elderly guy, who nevertheless seems to possess boundless energy. He comes over to collect the empty plates and begins stacking them up.
“How do I book?” I ask Adil.
‘Aha!’ he says, whacking the chef on his shoulder. “This is man with boat.”
“You’re the boatman?” I ask, obviously looking puzzled about his multifarious job roles.
He beams me a broad grin and says, “Sometimes cooking, sometimes rowing.”
Just then, the hostel telephone rings from inside, a demented ‘Happy Birthday’ ringtone which seems to sound off every few minutes. Adil holds up his hands apologetically and dashes off to answer it.
“Group is meeting at hotel backside, 6 o’clock,” says the boatman, and with that he clatters off with the plates.
An hour later a group of us are following the spry figure of the boatman as he hurries through the labyrinthine, dim, back lanes of the city ghats. The sun has almost set but even the last dregs of daylight can’t reach into these cloistered alleys.
A total of eighty-seven ghats are clustered along the cities riverbanks. Ancient stone steps that are access points to the holy waters. Many of the small ghats are used for bathing or ‘puja’, where people take a dip in the holy waters and make offerings in return for blessings, while the larger ghats are used for sacred, public ceremonies or cremations.
“Come, come,” the boatman urges the straggling group at intervals. Bewildered by the gloom and maze-like twists and turns, we follow like the slow-moving, holy cattle that clog up the streets here. Small, backroom shops appear, brightly lit and stacked up with tourist trinkets, cigarettes and puja garlands. Through a doorway, I spy workers in the back room of a silk shop stitching fine embroidery into scarves of silk stretched out in front of them, under naked electric bulbs. An air of intense concentration surrounds them as their eyes follow the detailed movements of their fingers. I am struck again by the industriousness of people in this city, where work continues incessantly in a drive against poverty.
The air seems to change as we get closer to the river and the boatman quickens his pace.
“Come, come,” he summons and we follow as he disappears around a corner, only to find ourselves spat out onto the steps of the Shivala ghat, and there in front of us, the dark, gleaming expanse of river.
Easing us from our launch, the boatman shows remarkable strength as he heaves on the oars and manoeuvres the heavy boat into open river to join the rest of the river traffic heading for the evening ceremonies. All grinning teeth and working elbows, he proudly declares his age to be ‘70 years’.
Still, I can’t help but wonder, as we are overtaken time and again by tourist boats with engines, whether the boatman wishes his boat had an outboard motor to help ease the workload of his days. I try to read his expression as yet another boat zips past but his face remains inscrutable and his row sure and steady.
Despite feeling guilty about the elderly boatman labouring away while his much younger and stockier passengers sit idly, I am nevertheless glad to experience my journey on the Ganges by rowing boat. The Greek myth of Charon, the aging boatman who ferried souls of the dead across the River Styx to the underworld, comes into my mind.
Palaces of pink sandstone, saturated in electric light, rise from the water’s edge. Temple spires proliferate the skyline and disappear. Hindu priests, bodies glowing with white paint, move absorbed in their rites and rituals on riverside podiums.
Darkness descends when we approach the cremation ghat, where huge, sultry fires glow on their banks, illuminating the faces of the crowds that throng to honour the dead. It is an atmosphere that is strangely electrified, rather than morbid. Children as well as adults and elders gather and death is not hidden away or sanitised with formality. The routine nature of cremation here is illustrated by the enormous piles of logs, epic in scale, stacked up beside the pyres to keep the fires continuously burning.
To worshippers, the Ganga represents the continuous flow of life, death and rebirth. By morning, the ghats are full of vitality as people come here to bathe, launder clothes and exercise. At night, they gather in public outpourings of faith and grief. It seems all life, sacred and mundane, is here.
We finally pull up alongside a flotilla of boats converging on the main Dashashwamedh Ghat, where proceedings are already underway. Through a haze of incense smoke, I can just make out four shadowy figures sounding mournful notes on handheld horns.
The Hindu Aarti, or ceremony of light, is performed daily on the river and sets its banks ablaze with fire and sound. Throughout the rituals, the golden-robed celebrants circulate an ‘Aarti plate’ or ‘Aarti lamp’ around a person or deity. We watch as they swirl incense, followed by blazing plates of fire and tree towers of burning lamps, accompanied by the continuous percussive clamour of bells and devotional songs from the loudspeakers. As a non-Hindu who doesn’t understand the full significance of these rituals, it is nevertheless impossible not to be sobered and mesmerised by the spectacle.
After, I’m offered a candle on a paper raft of flowers to make a puja. The young vendor lights it and says, “For your father, mother, brother, sister.” I silently extend the list to: “and recently-deceased cat”, then float out my blessings for the living and the dead. Mine joins a sea of hundreds of other bobbing candles—a sight that lingers here in continuous rounds, night after night.
Arriving back at the Shivala ghat, the boatman yanks us one by one onto shore before hopping back in the boat.
“Five minutes,” he announces. “Boat parking.”
As we stand there abandoned in the darkness of the ghat, silent except for the sound of creaking oars becoming distant and water slurping at the steps, the bright visions of the Aarti seem like a receding dream.
“遊船怎麼預定呢？” 我問 Adil。
“ 啊哈！” Adil 說著，在廚師肩上拍了一下，“他有船。”
之後，我在一艘紙船上放了支蠟燭來完成一次 ‘Puja’。年輕的賣家點燃了它說：“為了你的父親、母親、兄弟姐妹。” 我默默地把 “最近去世的貓咪”加進了名單，然後讓我對生者和逝者的祈福漂流遠去。我的蠟燭加入了成百上千閃爍著的燭光，那是一幅循環往復，夜夜縈繞於此的景象。
Kate Edwards’ roots are in the Black Country in the UK, from which she escaped to study in London and Paris, and travelled widely before settling in the countryside of Yorkshire in the North of England. She co-founded the all-female touring theatre company, Jammy Voo, in 2006 and is a performer and writer of plays, poetry and fiction. Follow her misadventures in writing, theatre, travel, vipassana meditation, and yoga teaching here: Twitter: @k8_in_space, Instagram: kate.in.space
Kate Edwards 出生於英國黑郡，之後逃離故鄉，於倫敦和巴黎求學。早年遊歷廣泛，現定居於北英格蘭約克郡的鄉下。在2006年，作為聯合創始人參與創辦了全女性巡回劇團Jammy Voo，同時她也是一名表演者、編劇、詩人及作家。Twitter: @k8_in_space, Instagram: kate.in.space