Varanasi, India: Wrestling at Dawn and Cruising the Ganges by Twilight.
Some favorite memories from one of the oldest cities in the world
Varanasi is one of those cities you either come to love or hate -- I ended up loving it. I loved it for all the reasons people keep visiting Varanasi: the ancient rituals of re-birth and death played out by twilight on the riverbanks; the stone ghats that seem to go on forever, holding a microcosm of the life of the city; the labyrinth of alleyways containing statue vendors and saree shops and mysteries hidden behind every bend. And, something a little different but my personal favorite -- morning wrestling on the shore of the Ganges
I arrived skeptical, thinking that a lot of the talk and myths about Varanasi were overblown. Having already spent 6 weeks in India, we had heard tall tales about this town, the country’s holiest city and one of the oldest in the world.
Example: if you go to a certain area by the river, you’ll meet the agoris -- Hindu ascetics who live in the burial grounds, cover themselves with cremation ashes, and eat human flesh -- or worse. (see slightly sensationalized video below).
Or: stories of bhang, a concoction made from hashish that people drink to enter into a trance state of union with the god Shiva. Unwary tourists drink larger portions than they can handle, and end up zoned out for hours, waking to find themselves in a strange cafe with their pockets emptied.
None of these happened, but the city still did defy our expectations. Instead of trying to encapsulate the entire spirit of Varanasi in one post, here are two of my favorite experiences from our visit: early morning wrestling, and an evening boat cruise.
I had heard of the akhadas (traditional Indian wrestlers) while perusing some photos at our hostel. I decided I wanted to investigate more and see if I could jump in on a match, to satisfy my masculine-ego-fighting-desire and find out if I still had any skill left from high school wrestling.
Luckily, one day we happened to be having a beer next to a training gym, on the banks of the Ganges (how we managed to find a beer near the Holy Ganges, which is strictly forbidden, just speaks to the fact that you can get anything you want in India). The owner of the cafe was a past champion of Varanasi, and said I could find wrestling training every morning at Tulsi Ghat, and they would be happy to let me take a crack at fighting the fellas.
The next morning, Donna and I showed up at Tulsi Ghat at 7:30 am. Inside a fenced compound there was a wrestling ring with dirt floor and a small altar on one side. Training implements were strewn about the complex, some familiar, some foreign -- cement blocks on the end of a long pole, dumbells, concrete tubes, benches of varying heights, pull up bars. A couple of guys meandered about training and stretching, and the guru (and coach I guessed) performing a small ceremony to start the day. To add a bit of absurdity there were about two dozen white tourists, looking to be part of a photography tour, carrying fancy cameras with huge telescopic lenses. For the entire time, they were snapping away like paparazzi -- and the wrestlers were loving it.
I managed to get into the ring after asking the guru/coach a couple times (and also with some prodding from Donna). My opponent was probably 20lbs heavier than me and a couple of inches taller. Oh, I forgot to mention -- all of the Indian wrestlers were wearing small loincloths and no shirt. So the paparazzi were probably getting some great shots, and I know Donna was quite amused.
My wrestling lasted 6 or so minutes, it turned out to be a pretty even match (see video below). For those of you who haven’t wrestled before -- although it only lasts 6 minutes, this is one of the most exhausting forms of exercise ever. You use muscles you’ve completely forgotten about, and once the match is over, you become sore over almost your entire body.
When the match was over, I bro’d out with the fellas for a while. Received an almost backbreaking stretch from an Indian Supreme Court Lawyer, who wanted to drop in on the akhadas to relive his glory days while at university in Varanasi. I showed the guys some of my favorite moves, and tried to mimic some of their crazy acrobatic warm-ups. And I found out that although the akhadas are located right on the banks of the Ganges, they don’t have any outright religious connotation, but instead are a way to train the body and mind. It’s considered a really healthy practice, with the dirt of the wrestling ring even being infused with turmeric, mustard seed oil, and other beneficial herbs.
Although the wrestling only lasted a morning, it is one of those experiences that will stay with me for a long time. It is not very often that you get the chance to connect on this level with people from a different culture. Maybe one day in the future I’ll spend a longer time training, and can get initiated into the inner secrets of the world of akhada wrestling.
Another experience etched in our memories is the twilight boat cruise we took on the Ganges. Our hostel (GoStops Hostel) arranged the tour, but I’m sure a similar one could be found with a few minutes of asking around. We had two young Indian tour guides, and a muscly boat rower for our group of 10. The trip first took us to the opposite banks of the Ganges to watch the sun set over Varanasi. The light was great, and a generally beautiful evening -- perfect opportunity for people to come out of the woodwork and try to sell you stuff. Paul (Donna’s father) got a head and back massage, and also a ride around the beach on a tired-looking horse.
After the sun dipped below the horizon, we piled back into the boat for viewing of the cremation Ghats (Manikarnika Ghats). These ghats seemed to contain an almost continual stream of people bathing bodies in the river, covering bodies with shiny cloths, placing bodies on the holy fires, performing various ceremonies, and just generally conversing on the stone steps. During our few days in town, we ran into funeral processions -- all the relatives chanting and carrying the body through the streets to these ghats. It’s considered extremely auspicious to die in Varanasi, and moreso to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges. Even though I’m ignorant of most of the meanings behind these ceremonies, it didn’t really matter. There is something sacred about being reminded of the certainty and ever-present nature of death, right before your eyes. It can’t be avoided or ignored when bodies are paraded through the streets and burned on the banks of the river. And, I have to imagine, this helps you to appreciate this gift of life a little bit more, when you’re always forced to remember that your time on earth is fleeting.
The last stop on our river cruise was to watch the biggest puja I have ever seen. These evening prayer ceremonies take place all up and down the river -- of course, our guides took us to the largest and most famous, at Dashaswamedh Ghat . There were actually two competing pujas, with the left side ahead of the right side by about 30 seconds in the ceremony. Again, I have no idea about the context of the ceremony, but it was somehow fitting to see priests clang bells and wave around fire, after having watched corpses being burned 20 minutes earlier -- that these pujas were, in a way, an affirmation or acceptance of life. Flower offering vendors were leapfrogging from boat to boat, and Donna’s mother Connie bought an offering, lit a candle in its leafen boat, and let her wishes float down the river. We ended the night with some chai and a feeling of incredulity, thinking to ourselves (certainly not for the first time in India) “what the hell just happened?”