I had been waiting a long time to come back here. Fleeting memories filled with life changing moments hung over me like a pressing storm. History and traditions beyond my capacity to fully understand kept calling out to me. Its murky water flows east as it has done for thousands of years. Once the life blood of the entire nation, millions still depend on it. Millions more worship it with the ancient embrace of generations passed. The Ganga or River Ganges drifts for several kilometres next to one of my favourite cities in the world. Said to have been founded by Lord Shiva some 3 thousand years ago, the “Old City” may have been built upon his weapon, the Trishula or Trident. It is one of the seven holy cities of Hinduism, the birth place of Buddhism (Saranath) and a pilgrimage point for Jainism, the great City of Varanasi strikes all chords. A melting pot of writers, musicians, painters, and artisans have all called this city home for centuries. Some of the most important written texts and classical music of India were developed in, or partially inspired by, this city and the people who walk its streets. Varanasi is…
“The oldest living city on earth.”
A young local man paced back and forth on his cell phone oblivious to the confusion I felt. We stood at the top of a large staircase that descended down to the gnarled edge of the river where he laid. During the monsoon the whole area is inundated with the run off from the snowy peaks of the Himalayas; washing away the garbage, flower offerings and anything else you could imagine. The rains were still weeks away and the Ganga slithered along at a fraction of its grand self, seemingly weighed down by the countless sins of all the believers who have bathed in its holy water.
The stench of a rotting dog stuck like napalm to my upper lip, the visceral assault never letting up. Locals pleaded their cases as to why we should take an early morning boat ride with them. Kids played cricket with great excitement even though every at bat meant a trip to get the ball down thirty stairs to the river. Yogis sought out shade, their spiritual presence ready to carry you to a higher realm if you were willing to take the leap. We had just turned the corner from the famous burning ghat, Manikarnika where Hindu corpses have been cremated for thousands of years, when I saw him in the distance. He was lying somewhat motionless along the side of the river with only a sarong covering his mid-section. He was petting a dog that playfully stood by his side, garbage and debris littered the ground around him. “What was he doing there?” I asked myself. Even though very little surprised me at this point in the journey, this somehow seemed out of place. As we approached I saw his stomach bulging towards the heavens. The playful dog wasn’t there to receive affection from a resting passer-by but was in fact feeding off the corpse of a man that floated in from the river. The dog was tearing chunks of flesh from his hand and forearm, fighting for survival in the harsh and unforgiving environment that animals deal with in this part of the world. His face long picked off by the birds, his black hair tangled into the muddy bank and even though at first glance it was a horrific sight, he laid there in absolute peace. I looked at the young man on the phone for some type of reaction, but he didn’t have one to give. He was busy living his own life, he already knew. I quickly realized that nothing was wrong. This is where he belonged. The Ganges would take him eventually. The Ganges would know where to take him. Life and death intertwined in a beautiful dance along the river bank.