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Thursday, 28 February 2013

Body of the Ganges, Varanasi - Page 2

Written by Adrienne Rose Block
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Varanasi is a maze of cobblestone alleys. Dozens of stone staircases called ghats lead down to the Ganges, continuing below the surface so bathers can use them to enter the river. As Steve and I descended, the pollution in the water became even more obvious. I could smell its odor, rancid and warm. Plastic bottles, crumpled wrappers and brightly colored cloth from funerary pallets floated in clumps along the shore. 

Part of me wished we hadn’t gotten any closer, that we had simply watched from above. I realized why most of the pictures I’d seen of Varanasi had been taken at sunrise or sunset. It wasn’t just for romantic effect; the light of day held little compassion for Mother Ganga. I turned to look down the riverbank, eager to see the Ganges from a distance again. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a flicker of movement near one of the clumps of trash. I squatted down to look more closely, my hesitation overcome by curiosity. 

I motioned to Steve. “Hey, I think I see a fish!”

“Really? I didn’t think anything was alive in there.”

“Neither did I.” 

Unbelievably, it was a fish, and another swam behind it. They looked like small carp, mottled with orange, black and white. The two wiggled back and forth, pulling at pieces of garbage with their puckering mouths. They approached and retreated, approached again. Little bubbles rose to the water’s surface. 

Steve and I walked along the concrete riverbank between the ghats. We soon came to one of the ghats designated for bathing, and found it nearly empty. High season for pilgrimage to Varanasi is from October until March; in late July scorching temperatures and monsoon conditions keep many away. Because of this, less than ten people, all men and boys, lingered at the bathing ghat. Most wore swimsuits or underwear. Younger boys swam and splashed in the river or climbed onto the metal railing of the concrete pier and dove in headfirst. A sign painted on the side of a nearby building advertised a swimming club for girls and boys. As I watched, all I could think about were the vast quantities of fecal matter floating in the river, the input of raw sewage and industrial waste, the residue of corpses and ashes, and the thousands who die each year from drinking its water. 

A man waded into the river. He cupped his palms together and lowered them to gather water, then raised them to his mouth and drank, smoothing the remaining wetness into his hair. He touched his hands to his forehead, palms clasped in a gesture of prayer. I wondered at the strength of faith that could lead a person to drink this water—maybe I even envied it. I wanted to feel that same devotion. 

“Adie,” Steve said, taking my elbow and turning my gaze away from the river, “Look.”

Midway down the long flight of stone steps leading to where we stood, a herd of around twenty water buffalo picked its way down the stairs toward the river’s edge. We watched, motionless. Since arriving in India two months earlier, we’d grown accustomed to animals roaming free in urban environments: monkeys, donkeys, the occasional camel or yak, skittish street dogs and slinky backyard cats, and of course, cows. Hundreds, thousands, of cows. But we hadn’t seen water buffalo before, and they were much bigger than cows, even bigger than the wrinkled white bull with oil-slick eyes that Steve and I had dared each other to touch earlier that day. And here they were, smack in the middle of a city with over four million people, lumbering toward us.

The buffalo walked carefully on their delicate hooves, their unwieldy bodies swinging side-to-side as they went. Their sleek brownish-black hides glistened in the late-morning sun like they’d been rubbed with mustard oil. Their bodies were more cylindrical and compact than cows, reminding me of a childhood craft project when I’d built barnyard animals with soupcan bodies and pencil legs. The heaviest among them seemed to have a precarious relationship with gravity. Standing on his dainty legs, he looked like a cartoon drawn intentionally out of proportion. 

The herd arrived at the river’s edge. None of the bathers paid much attention, even though the herd approached the same section they were bathing in. The buffalo entered one by one, some with grace and others with a loud, splashing plop. As they submerged, their exaggerated shapes gained coherence; their added mass posed no problem under water. They seemed relieved and at ease to be soaking in the holy river. I saw nothing menacing in their appearance or manner, and I admired their thoughtful brows and short, curved horns tucked close to their heads.

Their smooth flanks sank into the water until I could see only the arc of their backs and long wedges of their heads. The crests of their spines emerged above the waterline like bridges and mountains. The Ganges was shallow enough that the buffalo could stand on the bottom and sink down according to how they bent their knees. As they settled into the water, common mynas, gray birds with yellow beaks, came to perch along the massive ridges of their vertebrae and shoulder blades. The buffalo tipped up their chins and tilted their heads back to keep their mouths from drowning. Some sank deeper and their faces floated disembodied—their calm, doleful eyes half-shut against the sun. 

The bathers and the buffalo mingled in the same water that had appeared poisonous to me only minutes earlier. I still couldn’t keep my eyes on the river for too long, and despite the endorsement of the buffalo and religious faithful, I couldn’t find anything inviting in its color or texture. The river had none of the clarity of water. Its consistency was like milk, and the color like creamed coffee in the bottom of a forgotten mug. It had none of the coolness of water either. If a breeze blew across its surface, it gathered heat and wafted up onto the river’s banks like stagnant breath. 

This, the holiest site on the holiest river in India, did not call me into its currents as I’d hoped it would. Maybe I’d imagined that once I saw it, once I was actually there, I would be overwhelmed by the desire to immerse myself and nothing else would matter. 

(Page 2 of 4)
Last modified on Friday, 01 March 2013

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