Varanasi is the India of popular imagination. Tiny serpentine alleys slither between gaudy temples, drab yoga joints, sad empty English schools, dark little alcoves that promote spiritual enlightenment and smell like urine, colorful sari shops, questionable food stalls, skinny old shirtless guys who look like they've eaten nothing but grass since the 1950s, piles of fresh cow dung, packs of men hauling human corpses on festively decorated stretchers, bored policeman, insistent and deformed beggars, sweet wafting clouds of incense, and other agents of sensory overload.
Hinduism has no holier site than Varanasi, which sits astride the River Ganges and throttles it with boats and ashes and passionate love and candles and relics and bottomless fervor and trash. The city is also central to Buddhism; Buddha gave his first post-Enlightenment sermon to five followers in a hot clump of trees a few miles north of the the Ganges.
I am wandering the cramped streets of old Varanasi with a friend. No idea where I am. It can be enough sometimes just to drift a little. My friend ducks into a temple, but, as a foreigner, I can't go inside. No problem, I say, we'll meet back up in twenty minutes. And I drift away. I want to find something holy. Maybe the Ganges. Doesn't matter if it's really holy or not, as long as it feels holy and you treat it holy. If so, then maybe there's something there, a flash of the vast or a sweet little sigh of some folded up memory.
The crowds thin as I move into narrower lanes. It's quiet. I squeeze past a droopy-skinned cow, an old man with an upper lip bursting with a white mustache. A guy in a tiny shop asks me if I'm thirsty. I shake my head and touch my heart and smile. He touches his own heart too.
Then there's smoke and somebody's chanting. I round a corner. Fire and the Ganges. The river is wide, the fire beside the water is hot. I can feel it on my knuckles. Especially on my knuckles. I don't know why that is. They're burning dead bodies. When you're cremated in Varanasi, you're assured salvation. And I've found salvation, all heat and sparks. I watch the fire send smoke and souls to the blue sky.
You would think this grotesque, macabre. But it isn't. It's careful and solemn. And anyways I'm looking for something holy, and there's holiness in the elemental. And fire and water and dust are the beginning and the end of us, aren't they? That's as elemental as it gets.
Later, I'm in a boat on the black water Ganges. The sun is gone, they're performing the Ganga Aarti on the shore, flame and incense. Jangling bells forever. The boat rocks and I look out over the dark waves. They're dotted with bobbing pinpricks of light, floating candles, little prayers set sail from sinners' hands on the shore. The hope of redemption. Salvation. In my life, I've seen a lot of ways the fallen try to rise, to reach out for something gracious and unseen, to believe they're more than dust that burns and blows away, to become holy. And if it feels holy, and you treat it holy, I can't really tell you it's not.