This is india part two from my trip in october.
I am in Darjeeling, Indian tea capital of the world. It is quite different from the rest of India, it is cool and clean and no cows. (they actually have beef on the menu!!) I arrived here yesterday by train, which left me in New Jalpaguri (NJP for short), the closest railhead. I had taken the night train from Varanasi the day before. In order to get to Darjeeling, it was necessary to take an autorickshaw from the station, first having to fight off the touts and bargain the price down, to the bus depot. From there, I caught a "share jeep" to Darjeeling. A Share jeep could be an Olympic sport, seeing how many people can be squeezed into something about the size of a Cherokee. We managed 15, and the driver kept asking passersby along the road if they wanted a lift.
The road to Darjeeling is up, up, up, to 7000 feet, with turns and twist every few feet so that the trip of 75 Km took almost 3 hours. There is a "toy train" which runs on a narrow gauge track up the same road, and the tracks cross and recross the road without signal or guard. To compound matters, it was raining, with a low oppressive sky switching from drizzle to downpour every few minutes, sometimes with visibility dropping to no more than a few yards in front of us. This did not in any way seem to bother our driver who put his foot down around every blind curve, nor apparently did the fact that the alignment in the jeep was so far out of whack that to keep it going straight ahead required the wheel be turned 45 degrees to the right. Sometimes we squeezed past trucks headed down the hill, while others we had to back up to let pass. The five of us in what would have been the trunk in a normal jeep held on for dear life as we were tossed about by the sharp turns and potholes.
About half way up, some of the passengers in the back exited, and I thought I would have a chance to stretch my cramped legs, only to confront a new experience. A sadu wished to take the ride up the hill. A sadu is a religious pilgrim of sorts, having shunned material things for a life of wandering from religious site to religious site. They are easily recognized by their saffron orange colored robes, their dreadlocks which they usually wrap, turban style about their heads, and most interestingly, a trident. For reasons which I have yet to uncover, they are always armed with a 5 foot long brass trident, which in the case at hand, was carried into the jeep as he refused to allow it to be strapped to the roof. That he sat in the middle row of seats was of only small comfort to the three, including myself, remaining in the back, because while we still had leg room, we faced the distinct possibility of impaling ourselves on every short stop. The trident was not sharp by real weapon standard, but I assure you it would have gotten my attention had I been jolted the wrong way.
Somehow I have managed to survive my Jeep ride, and when we arrived in Darjeeling, I hired a sherpa to carry my bag up the hill to my hotel. Darjeeling is set on a series of landings along a mountain range with sheer drops on both sides. Thus far (I got here yesterday) the sky has been low and visibility bad, so I have not yet seen any of the 5 big mountains (Everest being the biggest) to be seen. I have 3 more days here, so hopefully that will change.
Thus far I have drank 100000000 cups of tea since I got here, each one excellent (although after the 5th pot yesterday I considered swearing off the stuff for a while). I also visited a tea plantation where I saw the process of making tea for consumption. They were still using Irish machines built at the turn of the century to ferment and dry the leaves. I never realized what a complicated thing tea is, having learned of something called "extra fine tippy golden blossom orange pekoe tea #1" And further, that all of those descriptors are important. Scary.
Before I got here, I was in Varanasi, and before that at the rat temple in Bikaner. The temple was something which I clearly don’t have enough faith to accept, despite the feelings I got in varanasi. It is actually a complex of buildings, with a temple at its center. The whole of the open spaces in between are capped with mesh screens designed to prevent the celebrated inhabitants from being carried away by birds of prey. I wish I could say that there was something special about what I saw, but I like many westerners were fixated on the rats. They were EVERYWHERE inside the grounds, basking or eating or playing. I am told it is good luck to have one run across your bare foot (no shoes allowed), but I was spared that honor. The floors are sticky with sweet offerings brought by worshipers, and huge bowls of milk are set out as well. I have pictures of 5 or 6 rats of all sizes greedily lapping away. Raju was still with me at the time, and he was happy to reassure me that there was no plague present. I find it hard to believe....
After Bikaner, I said goodbye to Raju and boarded a night train for Varanasi, one of the holiest places in Hinduism. It lies on the western bank of the Ganges, which they call Ganga or great mother. Along her bank (I cannot help but think of the river in any other way but female) the shore is lined with Ghats, stone stairs which run to, and frequently into, the river. On these ghats one can see religious cremations, pilgrims bathing, locals bathing, dhobis (members of the washing caste) washing clothes, cows and goats bathing and drinking, people loitering, tourists gawking, and con men trying to strike conversations with the tourists to part them from their rupees. Hindus believe that to die in Varanasi is to leave the cycle of Karmic rebirth forever and go right to nirvana. Thus, the ill, infirm and elderly line up in the city, awaiting death and cremation on the banks of the ganga.
The river itself is wide and slow and brown, causing me immediately to think of the Mississippi. They might have been sisters the mighty Miss and the Great mother, but they were not identical. The ganga is dirty. Waste from animals and from the sewers of Varanasi (and many points further upstream) drain into her waters on a minute by minute basis. The ashes of the burned as well. Some people, due to manner of death (cobra victims particularly), or age (under 8) cannot be burned, and thus are placed (dumped sounds too judgmental) into the river whole. In my early morning boat ride I saw at least two bodies slowly floating away. This in no way seemed to bother the fishermen who cast their nets around the bodies...
On my first day in the city ( I spent 2 and a half) I went by taxi to the river so that I might see her as my first memory. I walked the narrow streets of the old city with pilgrims and locals, slowly making my way around cows and dogs and beggars. I walked through a narrow hallway lined with beggars and stepping back into the light of day on the far side I saw her. I had intentionally avoided forming opinions as to what I might see as in India I have learned it to be counterproductive. Things are never as I imagine them to be, and those that are closest (like the cashew chicken Chinese food I had in my hotel) are most disappointing.
The river is wide, perhaps half a mile across at varanasi, and the ghat I was on was lined with a steep staircase which ran perhaps 50 yards forward and 75 down to the river. To the south, my right, I could see the smoke from one of the three burning Ghats in the city, and I decided to walk there. The trip itself was exciting as it had rained that day and so the mud along the bank was greedy and treacherous, trying to steal my shoe with one step and threatening to knock them from beneath me on the next, all the while I had to step over cow dung and streams of foul smelling water which ran down the hill into the river.
I managed to cross the 100 yards to the burning ghat just in time to see them (a caste of untouchables are required to handle the body) carry a corpse down the ghat steps from my left to right, to a pyre which had been already erected. The body, carried on a two man bamboo litter, was wrapped in gold cloth and adorned with orange flowers, and was trailed by the male members of the deceased’s family. At the river side of the ghat a fire burned. I was told that the fire is stoked round the clock as a holy fire. No matches or fuel is used to burn the bodies, but it is lit with a flame from this fire.
Upon reaching the pyre, the body was set atop the stretcher on the ground and unwrapped until it was only contained in white cloth. The process calls for a body to be bathed in ganges water after death and so the cloth dripped water into the ground. It was slowly lifted onto the pyre and bhramins, religious officials, circled the pyre offering prayers. Once they finished, the family was allowed a final moment with the dearly departed.
Westerners are admonished by everyone- tour books, hotel workers, taxi drivers and passers by- not to photograph the cremation or anything else which occurs on the burning ghats. This rule applies only to westerners apparently. As the family assembled around the corpse, one member gleefully snapped pictures. Personally I was shocked, but in their view this is a joyous event worth remembering. Just the same, I suspect that had I attempted to take photos of my grandparents at their funeral, they would have come back to haunt me for capturing them at their worst. It was not the only thing I saw which seemed to demonstrate a certain lack of holiness however.
The kids responsible for maintaining the spiritual fire were horsing around at the end of the ghat and the smallest of them was tossed into the river, men stood and laughed and gossiped with one another, con men freely moved about the group of tourists who had gathered to watch, a goat gleefully munched on a ring of flowers which had fallen from the corpse, and a sadu watched it all while soaping himself for his bath in the river at the end of the ghat.
Then, just as I was about to leave, I saw something incredible. No more than 20 yards from the bank, a ganges dolphin leaped from the water. They are blind, freshwater dolphins who apparently make cockroaches seem fragile as they survive in some pretty bad conditions. As I watched it breach the surface slowly moving away from me, I was once again reminded that despite all of the bad that exists here, there is much good as well.
I had that cemented home the next morning when I took my boat ride. I left my hotel before dawn, and I met my captain at the riverside in the dark. Along our way to his craft we passed barefoot pilgrims making their way down to bathe and be spiritually cleansed. The boat, perhaps 10 feet long, propelled by two oars strapped to the sides, pushed off into the dark with me as the only cargo. As we moved along the river bank, still shrouded in darkness, I could make out people slowly going about their morning rituals with the river. Then I heard chanting and drums as a procession moved slowly to a temple along the river with the chants and beat increasing as dawn broke. I found myself caught up in the beat as we slowly rowed along.
The Indians are epic salesmen, and in the river was a further example. After paying 50 rupees for two floating candles made of bee’s wax leaves and flowers which I offered to the river, we were set upon by row boats lined with trinkets. I told them politely to shove off despite their assurance of "good, low prices" and watched the river come alive.
There are many people in this country who deeply hold to the tenets of Hinduism. My former driver raju was so concerned about animals that not only did he eat no meat, but he honked and braked for all animals large and small who crossed the road before him. On the one instance a lizard failed to escape our tires, he was genuinely upset. Along the river I saw more of this. Old people and young, civilians and gurus all offered morning prayers to the river. Men and boys swam and played shoulder deep in the water. Bells pealed the dawn, alerting the gods to the fact that people had come to the temples to see them. It really was quite an experience.