Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 28, 2021
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On the bank of the Ganges

India’s sacred river brings millennia-old traditions to life in Varanasi

I asked an Indo-Canadian friend what I could read to prepare me for my upcoming visit to Varanasi, the spiritual capital of Hinduism, and nearby Sarnath, one of the four great holy sites of Buddhism. She’d grown up near Varanasi, and I was sure she’d offer helpful advice. Instead she burst into laughter: “There’s nothing you can read or do to prepare you for Varanasi, but Varanasi’s certainly prepared for you.”

So there I was, flying along on the elevated seat of a bike rickshaw, high above the crowd of shoppers, pilgrims, touts, beggars and bedazzled tourists who clot this narrow street in Old Varanasi — I felt like a float in a hallucinogenic parade. It’s a kind of elation that only overtakes me when I travel, a sense of being untethered and drunk with the place.

The hypersaturated colours of open-fronted silk-and-sari shops streaked by, and fine grey smoke hung in the air (was it rising pollution or falling ashes?). It all mingled with the smells of curry, freshly sliced watermelon, sandalwood incense, hot buttered corn-on-the-cob, cow dung and rotting garbage.

A small boy dashed alongside the rickshaw, offering to leap aboard and shine my shoes even though they were sneakers (“This is not a problem, man”). And the big, juicy moon rose through the smoke to the star-pocked sky.

More than two hours earlier, my guide brought me to Varanasi’s Old Town so I could see the holy Ganges River at twilight. As the driver was parking, a woman in rags holding a small baby scrabbled at my window. I opened the door and gave her a 20 rupee bill. She began to wail and was joined by a half dozen other mothers with babies, all of them wailing. The guide shouted at them and they ran off.

“If you give, there will be no end to it.” How neatly he cut through liberal western guilt. He rushed me through the throngs toward a wide stone staircase. And there it was, the river the Indians call Ganga. I’m not a terribly spiritual person, but this first glimpse of the river — a velvet strip of grey, the sky and the floodplain on the opposite bank cut from the same cloth — sent an intense shiver down my spine.

Sin and the City

It’s here that Indians come to wash their sins away at dawn in the Ganges’ waters; here they come to die, for if you die in Varanasi you’re freed from the perpetual cycle of death and rebirth and proceed directly to Moksha (the Sanskrit term for Nirvana); and here they come to be cremated and to have their ashes strewn in the sacred river. They’ve been doing this for 3000 years (some say 5000), for Varanasi is one of the oldest continually populated cities in the world.

You can’t hold on to any one idea or emotion for long here, because your attention is constantly wrenched away to other, equally powerful ideas and emotions. I was trying to think deep thoughts about the mysteries of the river, but a beautiful little girl tugged at my arm, beseeching me to buy a tea light garlanded with marigolds. “It is for the good luck, you will float it on the river.” I bought one, but she insisted that two would be even better luck. Soon her brother, her sister and her cousin clamoured to add to my luck.

The guide shooed them away and led me to a small wooden boat. A boy sitting on a white plastic lawn chair rowed us away until there were more boats than water, all blinking with tea lights and smelling of candle wax and singed marigolds.

Before us, another wide flight of stairs. They’re called ghats and, depending on which guidebook you read, there are 127, 108 or 97 ghats in Varanasi. The one we floated before belongs to the city’s largest crematorium. Its stairs were strewn with bodies wrapped in shimmering gold shrouds. These were waiting their turn.

The pyre at their centre at first was just a big bonfire. But, eyes adjusting to the flames’ wavery light, you realize there’s a charred, but still intact, body sandwiched between layers of logs and kindling.

It takes three hours to incinerate an adult corpse — that’s 140 kilos of wood, which is expensive here. Poor people often exhaust their savings in bringing their dead to Varanasi and can’t afford the entire process — hence the occasional body part, or even entire body, seen floating downstream. There’s a cheaper and more efficient electric crematorium, but it’s never really caught on.

This giant crematorium, its glittering shrouds and leaping flames are what everyone — from pilgrims (a million a year) to tourists (three times as many) — comes for, an otherworldly sight that should be hellish but is eerily, indelibly beautiful.

Down by the River

Back on shore, a Hindu religious ceremony played out under a carnival-style marquee with flashing, multicoloured lights. Drums beat and bare-chested young men in fabulous headgear waved what looked like small, illuminated Christmas trees, as an amplified voice, sang jubilantly above an exuberant orchestra. I found myself thinking, in the naïve way bedazzled travellers have, that Hinduism looks like one of the rare fun religions of the world, full of zaniness, beauty and dancing ecstasy. Where do I sign up?

The Ganges at dawn was a different place altogether. The light was soft and pale, the thinnest of silk veils. All along the ghats, men stood waist-deep in the water and the name for the yoga position, “sun salutation,” makes vivid sense as they splashed themselves with river water and prayed to the pale sun.

Farther along the shore, there was an open-air laundry where men beat garments into cleanliness. “The clay in the soil,” the guide explained, “acts as a detergent.” Meagre dogs slipped in and out of the bundles of dirty clothes and, on a terrace high above, sari-clad women impassively surveyed the scene.

Just before the ghats gave out, we came upon a group of men performing an impromptu do-it-yourself cremation. The men were all in white; the body and the logs had been burned black.

“Sometimes we see this,” the guide said. “Not often. These are people who cannot afford a full cremation.”

“Is it legal?” I asked.

The guide shook with laughter. “What a question — this is Varanasi.”

Long after I left India, I came across these lines from the late Indian writer Raja Rao: “Virtue does not grow easily [in Varanasi] and vice has no better place. For all come here to burn.”

Peace Among the Relics

The deer park in nearby Sarnath, where Buddha preached his first sermon, couldn’t be more different from Varanasi. The deer that used to run free are now behind chain link, but the atmosphere in this enclosed parkland, with ruins of monasteries and ancient temples, is tranquil, even serene. Groups of shaven-headed monks in saffron or burgundy robes milled about, taking photos of one another with their cell phones or meditating amid the ruins.

The image Westerners have of Buddha is a pudgy Chinese sage, but he was in fact an Indian prince, born in the sixth century BCE in the mountains about 160 kilometres northeast of Varanasi. He gave up his privileged life at the age of 29, choosing instead a narrow life of prayer and renunciation of earthly pleasures.

Eventually gaining enlightenment, he came to Sarnath to preach his first sermon to five followers. From here, Buddhism spread rapidly throughout India, when its great emperor Ashok converted to Buddhism in the third century BCE, and on to China and Southeast Asia.

Ashok himself came to Sarnath and built a sandstone pillar capped with four Indian lions here on the site where Buddha preached. The lions, now the national symbol of India, can be seen in the Archeological Museum across the street from the Deer Park, along with superb stone renderings of Buddha himself.

Buddhist monastic tradition flourished in Sarnath for 1500 years. There were as many as 14 monasteries, which were razed by a Muslim conqueror in the 12th century. One sixth-century stupa (a tower that usually contains Buddha relics) still stands. Pilgrims and monks circumambulate it, always moving clockwise.

Today only one percent of Indians are Buddhists, but Buddhists come from all over the world to visit this sacred spot.

The Deer Park at Sarnath is large enough that it rarely feels crowded. Perhaps the best way to enjoy it is to follow the lead of the monks themselves — ramble the ruins, circle the stupa, and then sit down on the impeccably kept lawns and think of nothing. Meditate if you know how, but if you don’t, the beauty and silence of the Deer Park will enchant you.

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