Kevin Goss-Ross is a freelance photographer new to the city of Dublin, Ireland. He recently moved here from the sleepy, sweaty town of Durban in South Africa. Design Stories presents Ten Rupees, a journey in India described by him.
The cold bites at my skin. I didn’t pack for this. I was told that India would be a place of unbearable, choking heat, but here we are sitting around a smoky little fire. The man sitting next to me hands me a pipe. There is an entire crowd gathered around us but – militaristic and insufferable as they are in this country – the police aren’t going to try anything. I take a respectable lungful and pass it to the god to my left. He shifts his trunk-like growth to accommodate the pipe and reveals a slobbery, mucus encrusted hole of a mouth. Thank god I smoked before him.
Feeling rather too toasty I thank the people gathered around the fire, get up and walk towards where I left my shoes. No one is allowed wearing shoes around this man. He is the supposed reincarnation of Ganesha, after all. When I get to the edge of the crowd who have all gathered to pay their god for a blessing I spot my shoes under a cow adorned with orange flowers’ hoof. This might be tricky… the cows know their place around here. An amused local laughs at my worried face and gently slaps the cow’s flanks to make it move off of my now thoroughly compacted footwear. “Joke’s on you, cow” I laugh to myself, “the shoes are leather”. I walk along the Ganges in the hope of finding anything which resembles food and come across a beggar dressed in orange. He mentions for me to sit next to him and with breath reeking of cheap wine and stoned slits for eyes he starts telling me that he is a baba: a holy man who depends on people to give him money to survive since he isn’t allowed working.
He tells me that he isn’t allowed having a wife, a family or any property and that he’ll bestow on me priceless spiritual information for the small price of a hundred rupees. I ask him if I can take a photograph instead since I don’t care too much for the idea of paying for drunken babbling. I can get that for free in any pub. Almost as if on cue his face lights up and a hand is extended, palm up. I’ve been in India for a week now and by this stage I’m ready: I reach for my back pocket which is crammed full of Rs10 notes. He looks slightly offended but takes the lowest denomination of note anyway.
I click the button, thank the professional bum and continue my quest for food. I know of a safe place further up river. Some of the folk from our hostel ate dodgy food at a restaurant (a place recommended by said hostel) and were hospitalised with dysentery so I’m not taking any chances. Walking along the riverbank I stop to look at the Hindus washing themselves in the holy river. I am enthralled by the vivid colours of meters and meters of sarees the local women are washing and drying on the ghats. Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the haphazard, chaotic yet natural way it has grown and expanded over thousands of years makes it hard to navigate.
Stumbling along in a daze past beggars, goats in vests and all types of different faeces littering the concrete I accidentally and unfortunately find my way to Manikarnika, one of the two burning ghats. The smell of burning sandalwood fills my nose and I immediately feel ill. We’d been trying to avoid this area. There are four fires burning at the moment, and I can see a foot sticking out of one. A young man walks up to me and tells me in a stern and aggressive tone that there will be no photographs. I assure him that the last thing I want to do is take photographs. Before I can stop him, he starts telling me the story of Varanasi and the rituals of the burning ghat. Two hundred people are burned here every day, 24 hours a day, within 24 hours of their death. They do this in order to escape the endless torture of reincarnation, he tells me. First the uncovered, painted body is marched through the narrow streets of the old city with grieving male family members chanting “Ram nam satya hai”. The holy fire Shiva is said to have bought down to earth thousands of year ago then has to be purchased along with holy wood: sandal, mango or other types of wood which mask the smell of burning flesh. When the fire has burnt out what is left of the corpse then gets thrown in the holy Ganges by the oldest son. The family then has to pay the owner of the ghat, who also has the right to fish out corpses and keep any jewellery or gold teeth the dead might have been burned with. Children under two years old don’t get burnt as they don’t need purification. The same applies to pregnant mothers, anyone killed by the bite of a cobra, holy men and lepers. Instead they get chucked straight into the river, weighted down with ‘holy’ stones which also cost a pretty penny. As my self imposed guide tells me this, I see the foot sticking out of the fire swell and turn around 180 degrees. In the pile of ashes next to it, a cow munches on a wreath of marigolds that escaped the fire.
My guide explains that he is collecting money for people too poor to afford enough wood for their funeral and that the standard donation is Rs500. The taste of the smoke starts to make me nauseous, so I stuff my last Rs100 note into his hand and start walking. The chances of him giving it to a family who needs it are slim, but I just need to get away. As I head into the narrow alleys of the old city a young man comes up to me with rare exotic birds in a tiny cage and informs me that he’ll set them free for a nominal fee. It’ll be good for my karma, he tells me. I ignore him and for an instant I hope that karma really does exist, and that he’s on a fire behind me in the not too distant future.
In a society where Karma is supposed to be king the people are shameless in trying to screw over foreigners as well as each other. For some it’s like a hobby or a sport. In my ignorance and a rare bout of positivity I had hoped that Hinduism at its origins would be the one religion still untainted by the greedy paws of Mammon. I’d hoped that I’d finally find a religion free from TV evangelist bullies. The holy men will jabber about their life of abstinence from anything worldly: no wife, no family, and no property but will try to lighten your wallet at every opportunity with promises of enlightenment or yoga lessons. They are masters of sidestepping worthy questions with unrelated, pre planned answers which might sound vaguely intelligent to anyone who is less jaded. The religious leaders milk their already impoverished people for every fucking rupee they’ve got and it would seem that the general populace see that as a go ahead to do the same to each other. Karma is law, except when it comes to money.
As the sun sets I’m perched on the roof of the hostel. The smoke from the burning ghat tints the sky. Varanasi is an incredible place frozen stubbornly in the past. Despite my anger I have fallen in love with this magical city. If I do nothing else with my life, I will make it back here one day and probably never leave again.