The river rises and Sebastien doubts

by Gabriella Sonabend

In contrast to my passive day yesterday, today was overloaded.

At breakfast I ate copious amounts of homemade yogurt and took some of Petra’s herbal remedies, psychologically preparing myself for any length of adventure. Fortunately I bumped into Terry who seemed to have woken with the same mentality and we decided to grab our things and head for ghats. Terry was on a mission. As part of the work Terry is making here he has become obsessed by the Shiva Linga and the bright orange figurines painted into the walls of the old city of Varanasi.

What is a Shiva Linga? Shiva is the Hindu god who presides over Varanasi as is said to have come to Varanasi from the Himalayas and settled here as his chosen home. When he first revealed himself in Varanasi (there are many differing versions of this story) he appear as a bright shaft of light shooting up from the ground of Kashi, this shaft came to represent his form and as a result in Varanasi the shape of a shaft (which essentially looks like a domed phallus) can be found in shrines and on the streets throughout the city, symbolising Shiva’s presence. This shaft is known as a ‘linga’ and it is said to represent both the male and the female ‘creative’ counterparts, at its base the linga sits on a leaf shaped platform, which represents the feminine aspect (sometimes perceived to be Parvati, the wife of Shiva). These Shiva Lingas vary in shape and size with the feminine aspect exaggerated in some and the masculine in others (indeed most), they can be found everywhere in the old city and to someone who is not aware of their symbolism must be an extremely confusing site. Even to someone who is aware of their symbolism they are quite peculiar.

In the old city of Varanasi every alleyway has at least one temple and many shrines. Every alleyway has its own pilgrims and sadhus, its own vendors and beggars, its own practicing ‘tour guides’ and aspiring Casanovas. The old city of Varanasi has two main points of access, either it is possible to approach it from the river by climbing up the ghats or it is possible to come into the city from the main road where vehicles have to be abandoned to enter its maze.

This week the Ganges has risen to unusual heights, heavy rainfall in the north of India (which is abnormal as the monsoon season has now passed) has finally caused it to swell and rise in Varanasi where mother Ganga has claimed the steep steps of the ghats and everything that sits beneath. The main funeral pyres of Manikarnika ghat , the ceremonial grounds of Dashashwamedh Ghat and every other stone which stretches beyond these lay beneath the silt and debris of the water, creating an incredibly striking panorama and a logistical nightmare!

Terry and I surrendered to the maze of the old city and followed the strange orange figurines and the numerous temples. I took a photograph of a woman and her daughter and soon we were being led by her along the back alleys to buy milk for her baby, which neither of us minded doing but it certainly didn’t help our sense of orientation! We patted cows to encourage them to continue moving through the streets and chatted to young boys who appointed themselves our tour guides against our wishes. Terry seemed completely at ease in the old city and I allowed myself to slip into a curious and nonjudgmental mindset as I wandered with him. We gave money to beggars and removed our shoes at the doors of temples to tread barefoot in the cool dark corners of the old city. Eventually our meandering brought us to the crest of Manikarnika, the cremation ghat.

Although the majority of the ghat had been subsumed by the Ganga the top tier of cremation pyres, which sit on platforms at the top of the stone staircase still loomed above the water and fires raged as they devoured the bodies at their centre. This was the first time I had seen these funeral pyres in daylight. My last visit to Varanasi 4 years ago has been short and rushed and I had only seen the pyres at a distance from a boat at night. Now Terry and I stood at the base of the cremation ground behind the mourning family and I watched for a brief moment the body, which burned and which seemed to become animated as its heated limbs contracted and arms bent, drawing the remains of hands towards the heavens. For that brief moment as ash floated in a haze above and around us (the mourners, the tourists and everyone else employed upon the ghat) and as the stench of burning flesh and sandalwood merged and bonded to every particle of oxygen in the surrounding air, as the heat from the flames created sweat on my face and my palms – for that moment I could not think, I could not process, I could neither look nor try to tear myself away.

Terry started walking away from the pyres and I quickly followed. We walked further along the ghat, the water almost reaching our feet. We turned our backs to the river and climbed steep steps back into the strange shelter of the old city. Our winding adventure continued and we found another higher ghat where some steps remained above water. Here we sat and watched the river away from the action of Manikarnika.

By this point along the river there were barely any tourists and the behaviour at the water edge was completely different to that at the more popular ghats. Here young teenagers who had stripped down to their underwear plunged into the river and tossed around a water bottle playing with a surprisingly domesticated dog (this is a rare sight as most of the dogs in Varanasi are mangy strays). Two small boys chased the dog through the water and dived in and out filling their mouths with water and spitting out fountains at one another. Here there was a sense of joy and playfulness, an innocent indulgence that I had not as yet seen in Varanasi. As the boys played, laughed and chanted joyfully, an old woman sat at the water edge and scrubbed a shawl with a bar of soap. Every few minutes she turned her head to look up the stone steps and almost every time she turned I caught her eye. She smiled a very private and humble smile and turned back to the Ganga and her washing. Once the shawl was clean she removed her top and let loose her long straw like black hair. She cupped her hair and poured the river water onto it. She took the same soap bar and worked it into her roots and ends and dunked her head into the river rubbing away the soap with filthy green and brown water.

Here where the tall buildings along the water cast a shadow, which stopped exactly at the water’s edge, I felt I was very much in a city of life, populated by real people whose own personal stories were not defined by the myths and legends of Varanasi. We stayed here a while in silence. I felt that I could have stayed for the entire day.

Terry explained that because most of the tourists in Varanasi only stay for a few days they only go to the most famous ghats and the tourist parade in the old city. Once you walk north beyond Manikarnika the tourist route quickly ends and here lived and bath the real people of Varanasi. Here there was silence and laughter. I know now that for the next few months I will be heading north.

On our way back through the maze Terry decided it would be a sensible idea to pop into an old barber for a quick short-back-and-sides. He seemed remarkably calm as the barber covered him with a filthy cloth and absentmindedly chopped away at his grey locks. I stood over him and acted as some kind of quality control, shouting “STOP” when I thought the barber was about to lose restraint and take off everything. Terry walked out with a haircut resembling that of a British army officer, or perhaps a small boy.

We took a cycle rickshaw back to Assi ghat (the southernmost ghat) where Terry had found a hotel that served hummus and falafel and was evidently frequented by Israelis. Here we drunk bitter lime sodas and shared some falafel. I told Terry about how I had come to be in Varanasi.

By 2pm I was exhausted but I had organised to meet with Sebastien (a German scholar and friend of Petra and Navneet’s) who was staying in an extraordinary house, which he had agreed to show me around. We met Sebastien near the local bookshop and he led us into the house next door, which had been the previous residence of the artist Alice Boner.

A little background on Alice Boner

Born in 1889, Alice Boner was a Swiss painter/sculpture and Indologist who moved to Varanasi in the 1930s and here she spent the rest of her life. In Zurich, Boner met the Indian dancer Uday Shankar in who she saw enormous potential and talent and became his manager, (and allegedly his lover). She decided to follow him to India where she helped create a dance troupe of musicians and dancers to accompany him. After her death at the age of 91, (although she spent the majority of the rest of her life in India she actually died in Zurich), her house was turned into an institute for the support and education of Swiss artists interested in Indian Art and culture.

Sebastien, who is neither an artist nor a dancer, nor is he even Swiss has been staying alone in the Alice Boner house for the past month working on his second PhD thesis, a work entitled “Debt in Varanasi”. This work, which he has been researching for the past 15 years, will tell the story of corruption and money lending in Varanasi. He is looking at the city from a strangely hidden and secretive economic perspective, which follows the trail of the black market at the heart of the old city. Sebastien had of course known about the Alice Boner house for many years and this year asked the Swiss Institute of Art if he could stay there and was given access to it. The building itself is rather magnificent, built in the early 1900s (probably) It is a tall house with a central courtyard and intricately carved low wooden doorways. The objects, which Alice Boner collected and made in the house still remain and her library is still fully intact (with additions from the educational institute), embroidered carpets cover the ceramic floors and the whole house feels as though it has been frozen in time, the time she lived there.

I expressed an interest in seeing this house when Sebastien mentioned (at Navneet’s birthday dinner).There are rumours of the house being haunted. The night watchman, who is the only other person occupying the house with Sebastien, has reported on countless occasions; having seen the ghost of a fat sadhu and a woman who knocks against the windows. Sebastien had told me this night watchman was a dubious source as he is prone to talking to himself, is slightly blind and seems to have little sense of general awareness. However, he is not the only person who has reported these sightings. Naturally when one hears of a ghost story in an old city like Varanasi one is compelled to discover more! Walking through the house I was struck by how tranquil it felt (which is unusual given its proximity to the river) but I did not feel any particular presence, it just seemed very large and extremely empty! However, discussing the house later with Terry and Phyllis, Terry did say he felt Alice Boner’s presence there very strongly contained within the objects remaining and the way the rooms were still positioned for her usage.

We drank chai on the rooftop and looked out towards Assi Ghat, (which was almost completely flooded), and watched as a team of determined men who are employed to clean the mud deposits off the ghats struggled against the ever rising water. We asked Sebastien questions about the local history and the authenticity of the local traditions. I was not surprised, but slightly disappointed, to discover that many of the current rituals only developed in the mid/late 1800s (around the same time that the Victorians invented all sorts of British traditions and legends and the concept of antiquity developed) and that in general even the ‘historical’ accounts of the ‘oldest city in the world’ are heavily distorted and embellished. Sebastien talked about the level of corruption in Varanasi and assured us the local municipality of Varanasi was one of the most corrupt organisations in India. I can assure you that is bold statement! He explained that the terrible infrastructure in this city and its utter inability to develop, (as other cities in India struggle to move forward with the times, Varanasi seems incapable of changing), are not the result of lack of funds, but rather a result of hopelessly disorganised and irrational bureaucrats funneling funds away from the city into – well – we really are not sure what!

Sebastien is convinced (through his research and its verification by many knowledgeable locals) that Varanasi is in fact one of the richest cities in India, but it’s wealth is hidden like the Shiva Lingas in the nooks and crannies of the city, the money passing at a thrilling rate through the black market can neither be utilised nor exposed – it is there but it is utterly useless. When the British occupied India, Varanasi was one of the most affluent cities in the country, for many years it was a more important point of trade than Delhi, a centre for politics and commerce.

Now Varanasi is an economic puzzle, a place where little makes sense and little gets done. The religious figureheads paint an image of great spirituality with rituals imbued with the authority of ‘history’ and ‘tradition’ and makeshift self-appointed tours guides leading tourists around back alleys pointing to ‘the most magnificent temple in the world’ and the most ‘holy cow’ and the most ‘beautiful sunset’ and the most ‘perfect time of day to take a boat ride’.

Like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland when you seek in Varanasi any form of directions its arrows point off at every conceivable angle. Here is not a city to be understood and dissected with Western logic, or even with Eastern logic! It is a jumble of sounds and stories and new rituals are devised on a daily basis to cater for eager onlookers and cultural voyeurs.

We returned to Kriti exhausted and I slept for a few hours before eating what I felt was an extremely well deserved dinner! Tomorrow Terry wants to return to the ghats. I will most probably join him.