We’ve stumbled into a crowd of a million stoned Indians.
The streets are lined with huge vats of free bhang lassi, a powerful marijuana milkshake. Busy men ladle psychoactive green into outstretched cups, bowls, and mouths but there’s no way they can spoon it out fast enough — there are tens of thousands of people.
Fathers pour the lassi into the mouths of their young sons and daughters while dozens of men flail and howl along to ear-splitting Hindi pop.
Everywhere, glazed eyes and radiant smiles.
It’s March and I’m with my girlfriend in Varanasi, India during Mahashivaratri — the annual Shiva Festival — a mind-altered mass religious experience.
Varanasi, also known as Benares or Kashi, is a confounding city: filthy but beautiful, holy but depraved.
It’s the centre of the Hindu universe and the place is high on religion.
The spiritually extroverted sadhu, Indian holy men, stroll the streets in orange robes carrying bronze tridents and begging pots, collecting alms from the faithful or blessing tourists for rupees.
A naked sect of sadhu sit down by the river. They smear their unwashed bodies in ash, smoke superhuman amounts of Kashmiri hash, and do impossible-looking yoga — you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a dreadlocked man’s upside-down penis.
Marijuana use has long been a part of Shiva worship.
Legend has it that Lord Shiva, creator and destroyer of the world, also had a wandering eye, often straying from his wife Parvati to amuse himself with loose nymphs and goddesses. Parvati was understandably pissed, so the next time Shiva returned from his philandering she offered him a bowl to smoke. Apparently, that weed unlocked the doors to divine bliss and after that Shiva was more than content to sit home and get high, all day every day.
So that explains the oil-barrel sized drums of bhang lassi: it’s an attempt by mortals to synch with Lord Shiva’s elevated mental wavelengths.
And Varanasi is crazy enough, even before adding unlimited free drugs to the equation.
Mark Twain wrote that “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
The city is at least 3,000 years old, making it one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. It has sat on the banks of the Ganges since Jesus was only a rumour and iron tools were cutting-edge technology.
And like Twain said, the place looks and feels ancient. Alleys narrower than outstretched arms spiderweb erratically, making my tourist map seem like fiction. Plodding ox carts and cycle-rickshaws dominate traffic. Stone walls are covered with hand-printed patties of drying cow dung, natural and abundant fuel for cooking.
The street-level real estate is lined with shops selling the famous Varanasi silk and stalls serve food as delicious as it is unhygienic.
About 1.2 million humans call Varanasi home, but it’s easy to imagine that there at least as many animal residents. Heartbreakingly skinny street-dogs pick at garbage piles, bleating goats and pigs roam in packs, and sacred cows are given carte blanche, fouling the streets with their shit and snarling traffic with their indiscriminate mid-road naps.
But those aren’t even the cheekiest residents.
While waiting outside a shop for my girlfriend, I saw a tiny face with glittering black eyes peering down from a tin roof. It was one of Varanasi’s infamous Langur monkeys, notorious vandals and thieves — like black-faced children wearing fuzzy white pajamas and carrying rabies, stealing anything that isn’t nailed down.
Don’t walk with bananas.
The monkey grabbed a purple T-shirt hanging by the rafters.
“Umm …” I said to the shopkeeper. “I think that monkey just stole one of your T-shirts.”
Cursing, the merchant pulled out a long bamboo pole from beside his door and poked at the monkey, pleading with him to return the merchandise. The little Langur could not have looked less interested, scratching his belly and holding the shirt at arm’s length before tossing it just out of reach.
Then off it leapt, all limbly-bimbly from balcony to lightpole lightpole to roof to join some screeching friends.
I swear I saw it get a high five.
“Happens all the time,” the merchant sighed.
As wild as the monkey-infested lanes are, Varanasi’s real action is at the ghats, the concrete steps lining the Ganges’ west bank.
A dawn boat-ride is a shutterbug’s wet-dream. Hindus come to the water to dip themselves and offer prayers while the sun paints the temples and forts in water-colour golds and reds, everything impossibly picturesque as the wooden boat is rowed silently across the glass-flat water.
Every night, the main ghats host ceremonies called Ganga Aarti. It is total sensory overload: a relentless half -hour of bells, drums, smoke, flowers, fire, and chants all done in tight choreography by seven young priests.
Wandering touts sell floating tea-candles and the Ganges glitters with dozens of tiny, bobbing prayers being carried downstream and into the dark.
Boating and photography are fine, but dying is a much more popular activity in Varanasi.
Hindus believe that a death and timely cremation in Varanasi is stellar luck, as it means release from the tiresome cycle of reincarnation — basically, guaranteed heaven. Every year, thousands make the pilgrimage here to die, the rich spending their last days swaddled in luxury and the poor begging for food on the streets.
Two burning ghats handle hundreds of cremations daily, the final purification. Stray dogs hang around the fringes while brash tourists snap pictures of melting faces and limbs — something to show the folks back home.
The ashes and bones are then collected and dumped into the Ganges. Children, holy men, and pregnant women are considered clean, so they are simply weighted with stones and thrown in the waters. Occasionally, rotting corpses wash up on the east bank.
On my first day in Varanasi, I saw a well-fed looking stray trot by with what could only be a crispy human forearm. Bouncing limply in the dog’s mouth, it almost looked like it was waving.
There are many legends surrounding the Ganges. It’s believed that the river descended from heaven as the maiden Ganga, a gift sent to wash away the sins of a lifetime.
If that’s true, then today the Ganges is a very dirty girl indeed.
And it’s not just leftover bits of human. Water buffalo wallow upstream, dozens of streams of raw sewage run in untreated, unregulated tanneries spew heavy metal-laced effluent, and plastic garbage bobs like jellyfish.
The Ganges is one of the worst polluted rivers in the world. Sections near Varanasi have been recorded as having anywhere from 3,000 to 200,000 times the accepted safe level of faecal coliform bacteria.
And even though some parts are literally saturated with shit and worse, the ghats still swell with people coming to bathe, do laundry, and drink the sacred water.
Many poor use the river out of necessity, but still more make pilgrimages solely to be spiritually cleansed in the water.
Indeed, we got the hard-sell from a friendly Hindu from Delhi who tried for 15 minutes to get us to join him in his Ganges dip, extolling the holy ‘purity’ and ‘proven scientific benefits’ of drinking the water.
While Varanasi might not be the cleanest, at least it knows how to party.
The same attitude that accepts filthy streets and an unbelieavably polluted sacred river also allows free drugs in the street and one hell of a crazy parade. For better or worse, anything goes.
On the night of the Shiva Festival, speaker stacks powered by grinding generators blared Hindi hits, banging fireworks were set off just feet away, and random marching bands lurched around pounding out frantic double-time New Orleans-style jazz.
We dodged wandering mounted elephants, I had my forehead smeared in three colours of holy paint, and we saw more stoned people dancing than a Damian Marley concert in Kingston.
The noise was incredible and there was absolutely no regard for human safety, but the people seemed so joyfully and unselfconsciously happy that it seemed worth any future tinnitus or possible injury.
We decided to escape the blissful anarchy of the streets and headed to the relative calm of the river.
Small groups of sadhu huddled quietly, murmuring prayers and arranging tiny candles and sand into intricate patterns as the Ganges flowed by silently.
Maybe this was the real Shiva Festival, down by the sacred river in mysterious, holy, and stoned reflection.
It was India: wild, scary, beautiful, filthy, and totally alive.
Published May 19, 2011 by Josh Marcellin
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