Varanasi presses close upon the Ganges, buildings in the back elbowing forward to be closer to her sacred waters, compressing streets into crooked cracked pathways limited to pedestrian (foot-hoof-paw) traffic, the city’s blood flow. Most routes are too much for cows, who prefer the airy steps (“ghats”) coating the western bank of Ganga. They stand serene, slowly working over a mouthful of garbage, adding neutral eyes to the staring culture.
Leaving my boatman at the water’s edge, I wander the ghats, floating an awed gaze across the stacks of crumbling stone structures forming a sentinel for Her Holiness. Each an antique, connected to a legend or eminent historical persona.
It is not long before I find my first of the city’s many sacred spiraling trees awarded a portion of its limited space. Encircled and elevated by a stone wall — gate included — this distinguished entity extends its green gold grace to the surrounding inhabitants. A common sight in many parts of the country. Small statues nestle into nooks or carefully balance at the base, one two five maybe more. Sometimes daubs of paint stretching to a thick red ring encircling the trunk. Not necessarily associated with a deity, some simply revered for their age. I’ve seen them interrupt a road: the tree endures and the pavement makes way, splitting and curving around (would anyone do the same in the States?). A scattered sacred forest covering the subcontinent.
A nearby wall hosts a carefully painted sign advertising “Vishnu’s Tea Emporium.” I leave the beloved tree behind and wander deeper into the urban hive, enjoying its aged grace; now with a mild curiosity and hope for a cup of tea.
I’m wrong, though, and it’s a wholesale shop with a smiling young man waiting behind a row of slightly dented tin canisters. Considering my frequent experience of harassment, I hang back, reading one of the small laminated signs decorating the entrance — the chai recipe and instructions i in several different languages; I’m reading the French.
“Bonjour, vous êtes française?”
Potential for harassment decreasing, but he could be one of the many, since he’s, well, young and male. But he actually speaks the language, so I venture in, settling at the low wooden table (the room’s sole furniture), sweeping an evaluative gaze across the multi-lingual book collection propped up inside built-in shelves, and turn my attention back to the shopkeeper. The young fellow plops down across from me. This is Vishnu, the entrepreneur himself; by three sentences’ utterance, his sincerity is obvious, and the conversation grows. I linger in his little shop for hours and we share stories, information, dreams, we discover that we are both twenty-two (he opened his shop when he was seventeen). Friends shout hellos through the shop’s open front; his French teacher joins us for a while, bringing another francophone. Languages mix over tea as Varanasi continues its tumult unnoticed.
Vishnu spoils me, laying out six different samples of black tea, three loose, three rolled, on the wooden table between us, as I sit up, excited and focused. My Irish side revels in the experience, examining every angle and dimension. He runs upstairs to his family’s apartment, returning with an electric kettle and various ingredients. We carefully build a cup of chai, pausing at every level in its development so that I can taste and contemplate its construction, completing the tea-geek-fest with hand-blended masala spices matching the intensity of rolled Assam.
More than the tea event, I am grateful for a genuine friend.
More than three months into the India trip, I finally submit to a tourist role: taking a dawn boat ride down the Ganges in Varanasi.
The sole female traveler thing means that I even arrange it through my guest house; and the desk clerk knocks on my door at 5:30 AM — I’m late. Who knows how early the boatman had to wake up to get here from where he lives.
I follow the young man down misty quiet streets — how rare — in the morning’s darkness. The new emptiness fascinates me after months of writhing crowds. Once we hit the main drag, tourist groups begin to appear, clusters of Difference. If there’s an India, she or he is selling flowers or other tokens to the foreigners heading for boats. I’m just one person with one boatman, the odd ones out, moving around and past clusters of older folks getting organized. I’m throw questions at his silence, on background and story. This guy has a boss who owns the boat, while he is the one hired to collect various foreigners at an unpleasant hour. Accountable to the guest house, he doesn’t worry me; but I muse over his appearance, little sleaze under American stereotypes — I wonder if it was only his wearing chunky rings. Carefully dressed in a button-down shirt and long slacks on his thin frame. Setting a vigorous pace with long strides, taking turns without hesitation.
Visitors own this hour for an otherworldly stroll through streets typically bursting with people. It feels like walking through a movie set, or having access to an alternative version of india, where you can pick and choose what you want to see, and turn on the crowds for a second and then click back to morning mist. Maybe I view my life through a camera.
We split off the main road, through what will soon be the morning market (he tells me). The path drops off into wide, long steps, terracing down through mist, buildings fading back, to touch a strip of sand bordering the watery expanse: the Ganges revealed into a gasp. I have to jog a bit to catch up to his accustomed pace which hasn’t hesitated at the top of the giant stone steps leading down to the water. These are not stairs as any in the West. They are a space unto themselves, the “ghats”, and layer the Ganges’ edge wherever she lies within Varanasi.
He leads me down to the water’s edge, then climbs across others’ elongated wooden rowboats to get into his and bring its tip onto the sand. I climb in, and as we pull away into the gray-lit water, I see the fleet taking shape: travelers from across the world climbing into similar boats, cameras around necks carefully recording the scene. Thousands of photographs, repeating a scene in a hundred varying narratives. It is a strange experience, being a watcher with the many, floating down Ganga en masse to observe locals performing their morning rituals. Pilgrims and sadhus come down to the water to bathe and release flowers, flame, and prayers into the sacred waters.Both observer and observed happen daily; this stretch of the river will always be populated by touring travelers taking in the famous view in the famous way. Only one side is lined with ghats leading up to stacks of buildings and the tiny ancient streets beyond. The Ganges expands towards sandy, muddy beaches unable to hold the heavy stone structures, empty compared to the intensely populated western riverbank. The water reaches and recedes across the year. She is full and dense, in her prime, soaking in the prayers of millions who reach for her rippling holiness in life and death.
Here, the two intertwine, death welcomed into the space of the living — in more than the burning ghats piled high with stacks of wood ready to receive the dead. It’s that here you can freely mourn. And I do, scattering petals into the water, giving a candle in a pressed-leaf bowl, crying over loss. Making my boatman uncomfortable with the odd sight of a foreigner grieving.
Oil lamps dramatize the ghats, worshipers reaching for blessings under the whipped flames that mix into the grayish dawn. The Ganges can even subdue the sun, bringing it up small and mild.
The boat pushes forward, easing along the ghats, revealing creaking cracked beauty manifesting this time in architecture, a withered and beloved grandparent in an already-ancient country. A mystical experience, where an age-old scene is revived daily over thousands of years.
He navigates our rowboat into a spot between other boats and bathers, and lightly bounds along its length to secure it to the first stone step. I pretend it is easy as we climb the stairs up up up up up to a simplistic chai stand at the top step of the last ghat we will pass (there are too many to see in an hour). He orders chai, a stray dog wiggles along a step or two below, some stranger begins an awkward chat, some new devotees dip into the water wrapped in simple fabric, and I avert my eyes, unsure of the decency rules. The water will rise and fall along the lengthy steps with the season. The ancient alive; the new and old wound together; life and death; sorrow and joy; the complexities of humanity, life, the world. All woken and resting, commonplace and surreal. I savor the spicy familiar taste of chai from the tiny glass cup.
The boatman sits beside me and we watch the sun roll up the sky.