The second we step off the overnight train from Agra it begins. Barefoot and chanting, the sea of orange swells around us and streams away as they jog along the platform to the exits. On the street and along the congested roads the small plastic containers swinging at either end of the ornately decorated poles they carry bob to the syncopated rhythm of their voices. The torrent of young male orange-shirted, orange-shorted, energy courses past the window as the rickshaw careens into nominal lanes, trying to somehow outwit the traffic jam. I’m wondering if the red dye on the soles of bare feet has some protective charm and struggling to follow the litany of chants between “Jai!”s over the blare of horns. My vision swims. Our rickshaw driver, petulant in his inability to change our destination, refuses to take us further than the first stand-still. “Road closed ahead! You getting out here!” “But I can see the road is open!” “I stop here! You out!” Too exhausted to express our indignation, we shoulder our packs and join the jostling parade toward the OldCity and the Temple.
Turning out of the throng into the alley world of the old city we are resolutely lost within moments. The dank stone walls close in overhead over like towering jaws, deeply shadowed passages narrowing with each arbitrary turn. Mounting hopelessness threatens to give way to despair until a passing stranger insists he can show us the way. Weaving through the labyrinth, treading carefully over the slimy stones, we sidestep cows and their steaming squelching piles of excrement, squeezing past crushes of hagglers at vegetable stalls and devotees at shrine entrances and avoid the beckoning leers from sinewy shopkeepers, “your guest house very far! My guest house very nice, right here!” Nervous glances and urgent whispered consultations notwithstanding, the silent stranger turns again and again, into crowds and away from them, until finally in a dim alley he stops at an unmarked door. Our knock is answered by a 4 foot gentleman in his mid-thirties wearing a pressed blue button down shirt over his (I assume) children’s shorts and a wry smile. “Did you get lost? You’re late.” In a flood of relief and slightly ashamed gratitude we push a few crumpled bills into our guide’s outstretched hand before he turns the corner and disappears.
Our host’s charm seems to have grown in inverse proportion to his legs. He gets us settled in a comfortable room four floors above the alley. “You had trouble getting here, yes? The festival makes much trouble. Rickshaw drivers are terrible.” Over 3000 years old, Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in India, generally thronged with Hindu pilgrims who come to bathe in the blessings of the Ganges or cremate their dead. We’ve arrived bang on the first day of the annual month-long Shiva festival which brings much of the city to a standstill for its duration. Always grumpy after a night not sleeping on the train, Gail is pessimistic. “Should we try to get a train ticket out of here tomorrow?” But I’m not ready to quit yet. I still have too many questions.
After a nap we order lunch on a roof terrace café recommended for its affiliation with a local charity for children. The flood plain of the Ganga stretches as far as the eye can see, ashy and pockmarked with detritus in either direction. The grey sky arcs to the horizon in either direction like a slingshot aiming the heavy humidity from the clouds to the city. As we wind our way down the stairs the deluge is unleashed and water thunders against the stone, coursing down the paths. Lingering in the doorway of the building, the proprietor of the shop at street level invites us in for chai, “and maybe you have a look. Tell me, what you think of my shop? I just change it. Now you see everything. You like these colors? I choose everything. Let me tell you, you no find quality like this in all places. You have children? No. That’s good. Let me tell you, I love children, but relationships like that; not for me. Let me tell you, I don’t want say nothing bad about nobody but that man upstairs, he no good man. I just rent him his café and he not paying rent at all for four months now. This my shop. I need to earn a living too. Oooooh he says he loves children, says he run school but he just trouble. He come here, a German, a few years ago, living in that guest house where you staying and he just doing heroin and he say he here for charity. He find some other German woman to pay and sure, he give some to school, but mostly he just living high life on Indian streets. Let me tell you, I have school too. Look here, this my school because this my city. I lucky with my shop like this. Have to try to help out a little. You want more chai? Oh these boys, always running, shouting. This time of years terrible in Varanasi. All these boys making trouble, like party the whole week. You like these shirts? You try, good price for you. Girl that color good on you. You got it goin’ on!” Both the rain and the whooping sprinting parade of orange suited pilgrims slow to a leisurely babble. I bid our host goodbye with a sassy wave and wink (“You come back any time! We have chai again!”) and step back onto the stones grinning.
Winding out of the alleys into the bazaar that surrounds the entrance to the ghat, we dive into the flood again. A sea of teenage boys in orange shirts and orange shorts rush chanting down the steps to splash into the Ganga, dunking themselves repeatedly until soaked through. They fill their swinging buckets and clamber back onto the ghat to regroup before they jog off with a renewed chorus of “Jai!”s. Teeshirts and shorts shellacked to their skin, rivulets of holy water coursing from their limbs, they bound up the steps to deliver their holy waters to the shrine of Shiva in the Temple 500 meters away. The ghat is a riot of spectacle. Hawkers (“you want boat? Boat ride, very cheap!”), sadhus, beggars, families and orange-suited pilgrims all gaze around at one another. Further down river on the ghat a group of boys play cricket. Further still, men and women perform every day ritual ablutions in the water before clambering up the slippery stairs to a small temple on the bank. In either direction plumes of smoke snake into the sky from the continually burning funeral pyres of those devoted fortunate enough to be laid to rest by the holiest of holies.
As night falls the crowd condenses around the seven alters on Dasawamedh Ghat for evening aarati. Seven men in traditional dress go through the complicated choreography, proferring incense, fire, water and roses to each other four directions with their right hands while continually ringing a ceremonial bell with the left. The Ganga is crowded with boats of on lookers moored just off shore while the crowd presses in on all sides to watch the service. Child vendors slip under elbows and around knees selling floating candles adorned with flowers to be lit and sent out across the water. Over a loud speaker an unseen caller speaks the prayers until the crowd joins with the final chorus of “Hail!”s and begins to process past the central plinth, touching fingers to the alter and then their hearts. Dusk has fallen on the river, a deep otherworldly blue. In the distance the funeral pyres burn and the orange shirted masses congregate around the market stalls buying new orange towels, new plastic water containers, samosas and chai. While the boatmen ferry their clients back to shore, they lay their thin orange sarongs over the cement for the night and huddle together as the darkness falls over the Ganga.