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THE City of Temples. The City of Light. The City of Shiva the Destroyer. The tirtha, or crossing place, where mortals may consort with the gods. Varanasi has stood at the center of the Hindu universe, on the northern bank of Ganga Ma, or Mother Ganges, for almost 3,000 years. It is also the City of Death, where the dying gather to attain moksha, or enlightenment, which is guaranteed if they die and are cremated on the shores of the Ganges. Enlightenment means liberation from the onerous cycle of reincarnation. Devout Hindus come for an expiatory dip in the river's green-brown flux, descending to the waters on the ghats, or step landings, that cover the northern bank.
Early on the day after my arrival I headed down to the river. As the rising sun suffused the auroral haze with heat and glare, my boatman, a dwarf by the name of Bhaiyalal, with teeth stained red from chewing betel nuts, poled our skiff away from the growing mayhem of Dashashwamedha Ghat.
I had taken a taxi from my hotel to Dashashwamedha Road, alighting at the point beyond which vehicles are not allowed. But there was other traffic. Dhoti- and sari-garbed pilgrims, their heads shaved, the soles of their feet splashed with a hot-pink dye called alta, carried pots and clay vessels and effigies of the gods, jamming the narrow lanes and hustling toward the river. I found myself pressed in among them, neither sharing nor understanding their excitement, feeling most of all bewildered and out of place. A steel railing divided the length of the staircase leading to the ghat; along it squatted ash-covered fakirs and naked Hindu ascetics who held out tin bowls into which the pilgrims tossed rupees in a ceaseless din of clinks and pings.
At Dashashwamedha Ghat I met Bhaiyalal. We settled on a small fee for his boating services and shoved off.
Bathers, many laughing, some boisterous, were splashing their way out into the murky waters around us, cupping their hands and reciting their hymns, oblivious of Bhaiyalal's poling maneuvers and my presence. Some dunked their vessels and poured water into their mouths; others submerged sacks of clothes or simply soaped up and scrubbed themselves down. A few released diyas, buoyant palm-sized clay dishes matted with marigold blossoms and containing lit candles, as offerings to Ganga Ma. To give the toddler selling the diyas a bit of business, I did the same.
We pulled out beyond the bathers. Along the high curve of the bank, draped with swatches of sodden mist, rose Varanasi's Old City, an agglomeration of orange-steepled temples, burnt-sienna hostels, and houses with rotting teak shutters closed to the river -- the holiest sight in the Hindu world. Bhaiyalal paddled with the current; we drifted east. Chants echoed across the waters, which rippled as slowly as oil in the still air.
"Sir! Hello, sir!"
A corpulent boatman in Levis and Adidas was coming toward us. He put down his oar and gestured at the postcards of the ghat, the plastic temple figurines, and the rolls of Kodak film he had arranged on his bow. "You will be needing souvenir, no? Ten rupees Temple of Kali, fifty rupees a set . . ."
He persisted, and I ended up rebuking him sharply -- we were, after all, on a holy river, not in a souk. We left him bobbing amid the diyas. But soon others were besieging us with similar spiels. The floating pitchmen accept no semblance of piety from non-Hindus. Traditionally, Hinduism does not seek converts. Non-Hindus remain fundamentally separate and different from those born with a caste. In a way, a commercial response to my presence made sense.
Eventually we drew near a concave assembly of soot-blackened buildings overlooking a dozen fires stoked by sooty men -- the cremation ghats of Manikarnika. Ashes covered the banks in waist-high piles. Untouchable laborers sank shovels into these, pursuing the solemn business of dispatching the deceased into the current. Four men bore a body wrapped in orange -- a woman, Bhaiyalal said, noting the color -- on a bamboo stretcher for a pre-cremation dunk in the river.
I told Bhaiyalal to return to Dashashwamedha Ghat. I had seen enough.
FROM Varanasi the Grand Trunk Road crosses Bihar State -- a land of scrub jungle and torrid coal-black hills, caste warfare, and dacoity -- and then winds its way southeast into West Bengal, through the swamps and paddies of the Ganges delta. In Howrah, the city facing Calcutta across the Hooghly River, the GT ends. By Indian standards Calcutta is young, dating back to the arrival of the British, in the seventeenth century. From then until independence the city was an abode of great wealth and sophistication, a regional entrepôt and a locus of power, and home to an educated elite. It was Partition, in which the majority-Muslim territory to the east broke away from India and became East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), that sent millions of refugees into Calcutta and gave it a reputation for poverty. Ever since, predictions of collapse, implosion, and urban Armageddon have been made about it, but Calcutta goes on.
By the time I arrived in Calcutta, the heat along the GT had exhausted me, and the alienation I had felt in Varanasi had depressed me; I had not expected that India would prove so difficult to appreciate. Calcutta restored me. In an old monograph about the city, I had read of a certain nineteenth-century marble palace built off Chittaranjan Avenue by a prominent Bengali landowner, Raja Rajendro Mullick Bahadur. This was said to be stocked with priceless objets d'art from Renaissance Europe. A taxi driver found it for me. A dollar's worth of baksheesh to a guard procured entry (technically, one needs permission from the authorities or the family to visit), and I walked onto the grounds. The palace, standing behind a derelict fountain flanked by palms, was indeed of marble, though it was so soot-blackened as to be almost indistinguishable from the tenements nearby; its latticework shutters were rotten and filthy.
Then I walked inside. Crystal chandeliers hung in tiled ballrooms, ceiling-high mirrors of Belgian glass reflected Ming vases and bronze statues of Napoleon and Queen Victoria. Busts of hauntingly beautiful Italian mistresses filled dark corridors. A painting by Rubens, The Marriage of St. Catherine, covered one wall; well-executed canvases hung on others. As I wandered through half a dozen chambers chock-full of exquisite works of art, I felt a growing affinity with their deceased collector, sensing the aesthetic rush he must have felt in their presence. Doubtless Bahadur had been enraptured by his collection -- its profusion and disorder spoke of his zeal. I pictured him a recluse, perhaps half mad, collecting these paintings and statues to create a dimly lit but richly appointed paradise in which to live and die.
The next evening I made my way down Nehru Road toward the Maidan, the 1,280-acre public park that serves as the lungs of Calcutta. The temperature, moderated by the proximity of the Bay of Bengal, was a mere 90°. Manicured grassy expanses stretched away toward the Hooghly, and I set out to traverse them. In the last light, cricketers and soccer players were winding up their games beneath the palms; polo enthusiasts were practicing their moves, the muffled thunder of their horses' hooves on turf mingling with the whoosh-clock! of mallets passing through the air to strike the bouncing balls. Monsoon clouds obscured the sunset. I halted, breathing in the fresh air, soothed by the sounds of the mallets and the hooves.
Suddenly, above the great steel canti-levers of Howrah Bridge, the gray clouds in the west lit up lava-orange, as if the sun were a nova, and then went dark. Raindrops -- the first of the monsoon -- began pattering my forehead. The monsoon would move across India, from Calcutta to Amritsar, to soak the parched land along the Grand Trunk Road. The Ganges would rise and spill over its banks and fertilize the plain with silt, thereby renewing the annual cycle -- older than the Raj and older than the Moguls, older even than Varanasi -- on which the subcontinent depends.
Photographs by Jeffrey Tayler.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.