There are a lot of people in India. A lot. A constant stream of humanity flows through the country like a river unbound by the laws of physics. There is almost too much to comprehend and some would say too much to sustain. So it was without this in mind that we naively tried to procure a train ticket to Varanasi. We strolled into the travel agent in confident mood. It was a week before we wanted to go, how could there possibly be any trouble? As soon our lips formed the V sound necessary for communicating our destination, the agents eyes darkened to a black not seen since “let there be light.” His expression changed from one of affability to one of anaphylactic shock. In a country where “everything possible” this was most certainly not. What we hadn’t taken into account was that we were trying to go at the time of the largest Khum Mela for twelve years. Khum Mela is a mass Hindu pilgrimage to bath in the waters of a sacred river. This year 50 million were expected and we were not among them. In the end we managed to travel to a place roughly 200 miles from the promised city and there we were forced to take a taxi the rest of the way. So on a brisk morning in northern India we were finally on the hallowed road to Varanasi.
The road however was in a state of some disrepair. Indian disrepair. The surface resembled that of the moon without so much as a puddle of tranquillity. Potholes and trucks jostled for position on the thin crust of disintegrating tarmac as the drivers played a game of chicken that nobody lost. Lord Shiva himself must have been watching over us because we emerged unscathed 13 hours later in the holy city. A place ‘older than legend’ (Mark Twain, 1897), it rises from the Ganges like a mythical monster. The mist of a million souls hangs in the air blurring the city’s outline like an impressionist’s dream. This is the masterpiece Monet never painted. Pinks, reds, greens and blues dance through the haze like garlanded water nymphs and the murky river reflects only what it wants. Luminescent spots of orange holy men decorate its edge like Siddhartha of old, hoping to gain enlightenment from its millennia of meanders. The banks of the river are stepped into ghats that run the length of the old city. These are the steps to salvation and in Hinduism there is no better place to die. The dead are brought down to the water’s edge to be burned on pyres of scented wood. An unsettling smell of sandalwood and burning flesh emanates from the cremation sites and the smoke of death rises high into the air, sometimes catching a dancing kite in a final embrace before disappearing into the heavens for ever more. If there was a god this is where he would reside, lurking among the ghats between the land and the water. Between life and death.
Climbing the steep steps you enter the lachrymose labyrinth of the old city. Ariadne herself would struggle to navigate the medieval lanes that seem to lead only to claustrophobia. Desperate twists and turns through gorge-like alleys only lead to further despair until your only company is a monkey, smirking at your primitive bipedalism. In the dark this becomes even more oppressive as the multitudes meander down to the water’s edge for the nightly ceremonies. Freeing yourself from the crowds you can then stroll, relatively easily, along the quieter ghats. In the light of the lamps that illuminate the way I noticed that snow seemed to be falling. A million tiny shadows, caught by the breeze, fluttered a fickle path through the beam. The temperature was a miraculous 18 degrees and as I contemplated the supernatural one of the snowflakes entered my mouth. It soon became distressingly apparent that the delicate ice crystal was in fact a winged insect keen to live. I was more than happy to oblige and released him to back into the light. He rejoined his swarm to be lost in similarity, and as the light receded into the distance the blizzard seemed to return. Distance and time have always been the greatest conjurors.
Due to its duodecennial nature we thought it might be a good idea to actually visit the Khum Mela that was taking place not far away in Allahabad. We were enthusiastically told that it was the largest human gathering on the planet but in a country like India it felt like a strangely flat boast. However, the sight of so many souls encamped on a river bank was as astonishing as it was alarming. The only other time you will have seen anything like this is in the somber pictures on the news after some cataclysm. Just the vaguest ghost of Partition floated through my mind as I gazed on these religious refugees, but they were pilgrims compelled by devotion rather than decree and they were smiling rather than dying. Driving across the high bridge out of Allahabad the full extent of the scene came to life in the gloaming. Lights enough to extinguish the stars shone from below in an iridescent mosaic that sheltered five times more people than London. The individual vanished and we left them all to their avowed intent.