Whilst holed up in Kolkata I had time to find a guy to put a rubber bung repair in my rear tyre where I’d collected a nail a few days ago. The good thing about tubeless tyres is they don’t tend to go down quickly when punctured so I’d been topping it up every day until I found a repair. After a slightly nervous ride into the dubious industrial suburbs to a bike servicing shed, I was directed further down the road to a small rusting shack with a burning truck tyre outside. I wasn’t filled with confidence. As is often the norm here, the guy lived where he worked and he was dozing on the floor of his shack when I arrived. He got quite excited about playing with my space-ship’s tyres, checked both front and rear for holes, pulled the offending nail out of the back, stuck in a rubber bung and cleaned the rims, and all for fifty pence. I would have liked to stay another couple of days in Kolkata but the rest of the European biking convention had already shipped out, and I still felt a little lacking in mojo following the Bichkunda affair so I opted to stay with the pack for now. Thankfully the highway out of Kolkata is reasonably uneventful. Trucks, dust, bus drivers with an urgent appointment with their maker, the usual fayre for intercity India.
David and I parted company after Kolkata. I want to go to Varanasi to see the most sacred city on the Ganges, but David thinks it’s not worth the petrol or tyre wear. A questionable decision in my view, but hey! The advance party of Lawrence and Brett are already 500km ahead of me and we agree to meet in Bodhgaya. None of us had actually read the guide book on Bodhgaya but it’s got a load of hotels on Google and a river so there must be something good going on there, and it’s about 200km outside Varanasi so it makes a good staging post. You’d think I’d learnt to read the guide book before sticking my pin in the map, but I don’t seem to have got it yet, thankfully Bodhgaya proves to be a happy accident. Not that any of us knew it, but Bodhgaya is where Lord Buddha found enlightenment. To celebrate this fact there is a huge temple complex with hundreds, if not thousands of people of different religions coming for pilgrimage. It’s fascinating to see so many different ways of celebrating the same thing; there are loads of different groups of people engaged in reading scriptures, meditating, chanting, singing, praying, exercising, listening to preachers and shaman and wizened old men with long hair and wild eyes. According to a wizened, tie-tied, pseudo-hippy English teacher working in Southern China who is on her own Buddhist pilgrimage, this site represents a significant part of every religion except Judaism and Christianity. As we wandered around the temples, lakes and gardens we found big stone signs identifying what Lord Buddha did during his meditation here. I found the 5th week when he meditated under the Banyan tree and told a Brahmana that you only become Brahmana by your deeds not your lineage; I found the 4th week where he meditated in the Ratanaghara place of basic contemplation reflecting on the causal (fundamental / pivotal) law; and the 2nd week where he gazed unwinking at the Bodhi tree. But I couldn’t find the other two weeks, and we’d lost Lawrence, and if we don’t get moving we won’t make it to Varanasi before nightfall; Buddha never had to contemplate the concept of staying alive after dark on Indian roads in the 21st century. Lucky man.
If you look at the ornate figures which adorn Hindu temples you’ll notice that one of the Gods (I think it’s Vishnu) has got a crescent moon stuck in his hair. This moon represents the curve of the Ganges as it flows past Varanasi. And that Shiva is the destroyer. And that Brahma has four heads, but you can’t see one of them because it’s facing the other way, he sees everything though, he’s the top-dog-God. I know this because I spent 7 hours on a walking tour of Varanasi with Emma and Nick who are also staying in our home-stay guesthouse. They’re on holiday from Dubai although Emma is English and Nick is a Kiwi so we chat briefly about the ex-pat lifestyle in Dubai whilst Sasha, our local guide, engages us in the most detailed and extensive walking tour I’ve ever known. Sasha is working hard to be cool and westernised which seems at odds with his passion for the culture and history of Varanasi. He sports fake Aviators, a chiselled jaw with manicured stubble and constantly pushes up the sleeves of his leather jacket while explaining the ancient Hindu death rituals. I wrote down a bit of what I learnt about life and death in Varanasi but most of it, like the people who come here to die, is a memory floating down the Ganges. The best place for any Hindu to die is in Varanasi where they are cremated in the open air next to the river. Only five types of dead people now get floated whole into the river without cremation: High priests; pregnant women, snake-bite victims, children under 12 and lepers. So today, as we sit a respectful distance from the bizarre spectacle we’re grateful that there are no dead priests, dead kids, dead lepers, pregnant women or snake-bite victims being set adrift. We watch families carry their relatives down to the dirty bank of the river on wooden stretchers, buy a load of firewood from the Doms (Varanasi’s funereal fire-starters) and have a pyre built, then they transfer the body onto the pyre and set it alight using hay and wood shavings, and a burning ember from the sacred fire. To non-Hindu westerners it’s weird to watch families setting fire to their deceased in public and stand around chatting while they burn, it takes anything from two to ten hours to burn a body, depending on the Karma, and whether the spirit is released quickly. You see, being cremated by the side of the Ganges assures you of breaking the cycle of re-incarnation, and to release the spirit from the body, the chief mourner (usually the eldest son) apparently smashes the skull open with a blunt object about an hour after setting fire to it, although we didn’t stay for that bit. What makes it all the more strange is the cows and goats mooching around feeding on whatever is on the ground (just imagine what’s on the ground) and the group of kids playing cricket next to a funeral pyre (you forfeit your bat if you hook it into the river – not because it’s sacred, but because you’ve lost the ball), and the not-so-grieving relatives who see some westerners and come to ask for a selfie with us as their mother / aunt / gran is smouldering. When you add in the backdrop of the Ganges river, the brightly coloured ancient rowing boats, the impossibly cramped buildings jostling for height advantage creating tiny lanes full of snake-charmers, Shaman, ox-carts, tricycle-rickshaws, tea-wallahs, veg-stalls and flower markets you understand how alluring this city is, and how easy it is to spend 7 hours on a walking tour and barely scratch the surface. Sasha has an excellent knowledge of the city, its history and traditions, and also possesses a typically Indian approach to his love life. Quite a number of Indians who I’ve spoken to have a somewhat over-romanticised view on relationships. Twenty-eight year old Sasha thought he’d found “the one” in a blonde Slovakian backpacker last year. He’d known her for an impossibly short amount of time before declaring his love, tattooing her name on his arm and asking her to marry him. Strangely (in his world) she ran for the next destination leaving him heartbroken and tattooed! He talks about her like a love-sick Shakespearian Lothario whilst trying to burn the tattoo off with a cigarette lighter. He may know a lot about Varanasi but has no idea about removing subcutaneous ink. We urge him to seek a more professional solution before he gets a serious infection which may result in him burning up prematurely next to the Ganges.