We had a hard time waking up that morning. It was four o’clock and one of those monkeys trained to rob tourists had entered the room. The shock was enormous, because we had been in India for weeks listening to stories of gods with simian form. The proof was eloquent enough not to underestimate a religion that has passed over mankind and subjected men to a lower level than cows.
Benares only has one street. The largest avenue in the world: the Ganges River. In the month of May it moves grown. The melting of the Himalayas carries away kilometers of natural debris and the monsoon is near. The rest of the city is a network of passageways and shops where life is bought and sold, but death is breathed. Indeed, the Vanarasi of the Indians is a holy place. The god Brahma rested after his long existential path and millions of Indians flock to the stone banks of the Ganges to purify themselves. The cycle of reincarnations is interrupted on the banks of the river. Funerary pyres are raised and corpses are set alight, spoils of past lives. That is why Benares smells of sandalwood but suffocates with smoke, a strange sensation that leads the traveler to a kind of Styx lagoon of sallow men.
AND On the way to the Assi Ghat there is a trail of burning candles and incense. All of India gathers to wait for the sunrise, on the other side of the river. A ghat is a staircase that plunges into the depths of the waters. The pilgrims sit on the steps and silently await the light of day. The shadows are dissipating and becoming human forms. That day, next to us, we saw deformed beggars, beautiful women like ancestral princesses, vendors who had traveled thousands of kilometers to get there. The times were confused. This ritual linked the world with her own birth. There were only the river and the sun emerging directly from its waters. The Brahmins began to recite mantras, first in whispers and then chanting with one voice. Once the sun had set, the pilgrims rose on the steps and began to descend little by little, until they were submerged in the water, blessed by a new sun. A new day.
We watched everything from inside the ritual. We could be witnessing a morning two thousand years ago. Little had changed the world of that stairway of the first travelers, from the clueless soldiers of Alexander the Great to the Jesuit missionaries. Now the city is a hippie paradise. It is the contribution that the West has made, along with cameras. But by five in the morning the world had forgotten Breeds. Poverty no longer hurt the bodies of men and they all wore the tunics of bare skin. It lasted an hour, but it was beautiful.
When light returned to the world, the streets of Benares embraced the noise and smell of sandalwood. We had the whole day to tour the markets and temples. We dragged our feet through dirt streets, scorched by a heat approaching fifty degrees and mosquitoes. Fearful of malaria, we went into stores and talked to shopkeepers. The city is an essential point in the country’s commerce, but the routes that cross it speak the language of tradition. It is a poor place, but not in the Calcutta way. Some streets are painted blue, as if they were a reflection of the river. The children go to school alongside small goats, feeding the cows, petting the dogs that are napping in the shade.
AND In Benares it gets dark very early, but the light does not end. We go to the Dashashwamedh Ghat, just fifty meters from our shelter (shared with the monkeys). It is the end of the path of life. There, pilgrims carry their dead relatives, chanting mantras, with rattlesnakes. They are dressed in orange. The corpses too. They stroll through the streets with their monotonous rhythm. When listened to, the traveler knows that death is near. They all end up on the steps. It is different from the Assi Ghat. It’s not that tall and shiny. The river is in a hurry to devour the steps. The water is dark and full of broken flowers.
Family members deposit the body on a wooden pyre. If the dead man is rich, it will be sandalwood. Scented when burning. If not, offal wood will suffice. But the smell of human flesh is not hidden. Hundreds of people burn during the day, but when night falls the flames are seen on the other shore. We approach a pyre. We see the body. Her world turning to ash. The dust and nothingness of the baroque thousands of years before. But in the relatives there was not a tear. They keep singing until the flames have devoured the human in a life. Afterwards, they throw the remains into the river. Another body arrives. The fire.
The cycle is repeated in Benares. So until the sun rises by Assi Ghat.