VARANASI: I saw the man hover around, standing nearby and moving when we did. This was not unusual in the busiest ghat of the city. Touts and hawkers continually pestered tourists while pilgrims gathered on the steps and awaited instructions from their guides, and local dwellers and the saffron clad sadhus bathed and washed in the holy water, oblivious to everyone else surrounding.
Walking away, the man held out his hand to shake mine. I complied as I thought it was a harmless enough activity. I had shaken hands with many Indians while travelling through the country and it usually ends with that, just a hand shake. Immediately though the man grabbed my upper arm and with very strong hands proceeded to almost Chinese burn it in an intense massage that followed down the length to my hand.
For a few minutes I was stuck, not able to get away, but at the same time given the most painful and enjoyable massage of my life. It ended with him cracking not just my fingers but my whole hand and saying for 10 rupees he would do my head neck and shoulders for five minutes. With a prolonged “thanks but no thanks” we eventually managed to keep moving in the hot morning sun.
Life on the ghats
The famous ghats of Varanasi were explored throughout the morning. We walked up and down the steps leading to the Ganges, passing the temples to Shiva, Vishnu, Kali and just about all the other gods and watching the bathers wash in the holy water, until the heat of the day became too much. We returned to the area when the sun had dropped and the temperature had cooled, to only be greeted by the same smiling masseuse from the morning.
“Ten rupees, head, neck and shoulders”. This time I complied and amidst the crowds of pilgrims, tourists and wallahs enjoying the evening on the steps of the ghat, he laid down a cloth and got me sit on it. What followed was one of those bizarre travel moments that you just have to go with. With Indians staring and tourists surely bemused I was given a full body massage from fingers to toes while laying on my back and then my front. It didn't bother me and cost more than 10 rupees in the end but it was a serene experience as I gazed over the dusky Ganges and my muscles were given a massive pounding.
Yes we are back in India and in the holy city of Varanasi and travel life is back into a more hectic and frenetic pace. But how can you not enjoy all the sights, experiences and frustration that entails. It is never boring.
Life exists everywhere here. The crammed old city swarms not only with the clamour of people densely packed in, but coexists with the revered monkeys and cows that happily bound along the rooftops and lazily wander the narrow alleys feeding on the scraps. Occasionally a bull will block access and bellow or a squabble will erupt between the simians but on the whole they all exist in the same space.
Death is not far away here either. The charred corpses on top of the pyre at the burning ghats are a very visible reminder that the Ganges is not only revered for the living but for the afterlife as well. Then there are scenes of a bloated cow's body stuck in a eddy behind a moored boat and not far away is a man gargling the river water.
Human existence takes on an almost collective cohesion. The masses of pilgrims all piling into a boat for a trip along the holy river. The jostling of the crowds as they are forced to thin down to fit through the narrow alleys. Passing the sadhus with their baskets containing cobras or, most beautifully, how the city's rooftops become the playground of the boys.
With ground space a premium, kites are launched from rooftops and with skillful pull strokes allowed to gain altitude. There is an art to flying these simple homemade paper and stick contraptions, but it seems just about every boy in the city has mastered it. We watched from the rooftop of our guesthouse an endless dusky sky full of kites bobbing. Travelling certainly has its special moments and this along with getting my public pummeling were some of them.