Ten years has passed since I was last in India but not much has changed. The streets are still filled with a cacophony of diesel engines, motorbikes, scooters, over-packed lorries, people, holy-men, beggar's, cows, dogs, incessant heat and equally incessant horns. The horn simply has no obvious use here apart from if you have one, you use it. You use it always. There is a continual deafening drone of horns in every road, in every city. This is the music of India, not the hypnotic strumming of the sitar, nor the rhythmic beat of the tabla. The humble motor horn, used as annoyingly as a South African uses their vuvaleza at a football match. I saw a deaf tourist the other day and I felt jealous, for a moment, if only you could turn off the sounds for a brief respite. But then that wouldn’t be India. India is still, as it was, and probably as it always will be, a full assault on all the senses our bodies are capable of taking in
. It’s not just the sounds of the horn, but the cries of the chai-wallahs, the shouts of the tuk-tuk drivers, the music coming from different places, the chanting that comes from behind the walls of hidden temples, the screech of the monkeys. Just by sounds alone, more can be experienced in one second than you would expect to hear in a lifetime back home. But this is India, it is not only sound which makes this place. India is built from all experience. The sounds alone can overwhelm the unwary, the tourist, the residents of the "western world", but then added to this relentless symphony is the other senses which are equally assaulted. The smells; a heavy mix of pungent bidi smoke, the alluring fragrance of incense drifting from various offerings, the bitter sweet smell of the monsoon rain all jostling side by side with the fragrant spices, the tang in the air of spicy foods being fried in vats of oil, and of course the waste, of which you are never far away from in India. With over a billion people here in India, with the majority not having access to clean water, let alone a flushing toilet, waste of human and plastic is created in vast amounts with nowhere for it to really go. From the rivers overflowing with human and plastic waste; to the mountains of poo, and piles of rubbish down every street in the big towns. Poo is the smell which underlines them all. Poo is the foundation. Then of course we cannot forget the sense of sight. The colours can overwhelm in a flurry of bright fabrics of all colours, cleanly gleaming against the background of dirty streets
. Fabrics so bright they seem unworldly, shimmering in the hazy light. Paintings on walls advertising wares, garishly painted as so to attract your attention. The small shrines, abundant in mass yet easy to overlook, decorated in garlands of red and white flowers, painted with otherworldly inspiring colour. The lush greens of the paddy fields, the deep red earths of the north, the dusky pink of Jaipur. The extravagant saris. The orange robed holy men. The iridescent bracelets and other jewellery. The mountains of spice in the market place. The rainbow that is India. For the sense of taste, then India has no rival for which she offers as an experience. From the milky spicy chai, the tooth wrenching sweets, , the endless throng of curries from the rich, red, spicy Rogan Josh of the north to the unassuming yet astounding dhal which conquer the entire, to the delicate and crispy masala dosa filled with the tang of mustard seeds and lightly spiced potato of the south. Food here is the experience of all experience. Each dish seemingly its own form of ambrosia. There is not enough time in the world to experience all the foods that are on offer here, but we shall try. Each sense can be overburdened with what there is here yet the continual assault on each and every one at once leaves little time for one to take its own burden, it is continual, there is no relief from these experiences. A deaf man will still see, smell and taste and the blind, will still hear, smell and taste.
Mark Twain wrote that Varanasi is “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together” and this is where we are now. The place we are staying in is right above the Ganges, with a view from our balcony that stretches across the river which is gradually swelling with the monsoon. Water buffalo roam the further banks, swallows flit through the air nervously as hawks circle above, monkeys jump from balcony to balcony
. We watch the boat men paddling hard against the strong current. We watch the people carrying goods through the streets below. We watch the holy men in their orange robes and big white beards going to their prayers in the river. We watch numerous pilgrims who come to wash themselves in these holy waters. It certainly is a place of wonder, the winding tight alleys in the old city houses numerous temples, sellers of bright and fragrant offerings, cows that wander freely , goats, dogs, holy men, beggars, children, all wandering through the street, dodging each other.
It’s a non- stop experience wandering the back streets, and then you have the dead. Processions seem to be constant through the streets with the dead wrapped in bright cloth being carried on stretchers down to the burning Ghats. Varanasi is the holiest of holiest places for the Hindus of India, a place where the devotee can speak to the gods and the gods come to the earth, and anyone who dies here gains instant enlightenment. Due to this reason many elderly come from all over India to live out their final days here (kind of like Eastbourne, but warmer and with more poo). When you die, you are cremated and there are two places on the river where this is continually happening, 24hours a day. It is quite a surreal experience initially when you walk by these places and see the cremations taking place, the flames licking up the stacked piles of wood as the body burns on top, it’s not something we wanted to go and see, but you cannot escape it here. If you cannot see the fires then the smell of burning is always in the air. It’s a strange feeling, life and death side by side, and although both of us are not religious you cannot help but absorb some of the intense spiritualism that abounds through this ancient place.
As I write this, sitting on the top floor of our guest house, sipping at milky chais, the monsoon is raining down on the tin roof, a ceremony is being conducted on a further bank of the river, bells are being rang in the streets by holy men in prayer, smoke is rising from another soul being helped onto its next reincarnation, and the brown river is flowing fast carrying all of the life and its by-products with it. Even with death, life doesn’t stop here. This is India.