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The Leaving Journal

Varanasi

INDIA | Saturday, 26 December 2015 | Views [293]

   Our boat was surrounded by others just like it: rickety, in a word, with peeling paint and shoddily assembled wooden planks. I could feel my whiteness in the empty space between us and our boatman, where the other boats were packed to the brim with chattering Indians. Crinkled old women, their hands kissed in prayer, young men snapping selfies with their phones, children wrapped in scarves, asleep in mother’s arms.
A boy and girl hop on nimble feet from boat edge to boat edge, selling floating candles nestled in beds of fresh, bright orange flowers. A man passes with a big silver teapot of milky chai, which we bought and sipped from tiny clay bowls, the handmade roughness warm beneath my fingers.

Cement stairs rose out of the river before us. Flood lights spilled over the water, offensively glaring and white. At the top of the stairs, five men sat on raised platforms covered in orange silk. Clad in long-sleeved, brown shirts, khaki-colored skirts and a matching scarf draped across their chests, the men stood slowly and gathered around a single microphone. Their chanting, loud and grainy, boomed out of lily-shaped metal amplifiers, the five voices uniting in the unrecognizable murmur of one of India’s hundreds of languages. When they returned to their individual platforms, the voices were replaced with the clanging of heavy bells - not melodic, but hypnotically monotonous. The clanging became a tangible part of the air as the ceremony progressed. The sound never left, never softened or crescendoed, but grew to live in your ears like a physical element of the night air.

Each man lit a bundle of incense and began an intricate dance, moving in a square, waving the smoke in delicate half circles with artistic flips of the wrist. They presented the smoke slowly, in all four cardinal directions, painstakingly choreographed. The bundle of incense was then replaced by a long-handled, golden bowl embellished with a flared cobra. The bowl’s billowing smoke, thicker and darker than the incense, shot small flames, creating the illusion that the cobra was breathing fire.

For the final four turns, the cobra was replaced by a seven story cone of candles, their pinpricks of light flickering in the dusty wind. Just as the men were making their final turn to face upriver, our boatman gracefully detached us from the group and began to row back down the river. The glare and noise of the ceremony was swallowed by the eerie, silent gloom of vacant river banks. We disembarked far south of the festivities and trundled through dark alleyways to our hotel, dodging piles of trash and manure and the shadowy masses of sleeping cows curled up with stray dogs. We’d wake up the next morning with sharp stomach cramps and spend most of the Christmas holiday doubled over in feverish sweats, nursing “Delhi Belly,” but we didn’t know that yet. The chaos, the dirt and grime and barren humanness in every recess of the city, still felt romantic, exciting. With the velvet chai still lingering on my tongue and my imagination alight with visions of flaming cobras, I felt inspired. But maybe it was just the bacteria growing in my gut, preparing its brutal punishment for the morning.  

    
    
    
  

Tags: culture, delhi belly, developing world, india, puja, river ganges, varanasi

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