Saturday, 22 November 2014

Cows cows everywhere

India a country of contrast. Rich and poor, splendor and slums. A glorious mix of ethnicities and peoples and languages.

Basically it is a melting pot.
Holy cow, Jaipur, Rajestan

A country that recently I had the delight to explore a small slice of that delicious cake that is India.
Apart from seeing the wonders of Jaipur and the majesty of Agra and the Taj Mahal along with the Holy sereneness of Varanasi the lasting image I will take home with me from my time there is..........cows!

Cows done alleyways, cows in the river, cows sitting nonplussed in the middle of a busy road and cows drinking from a restaurants washing bowl while a man cleans the dishes in the same water.

Cows are sacred to Hindus and wander freely roaming the streets, back alleys and generally plonking themselves down where they feel like it.

A cow just chilling in Agra's back streets
Sometimes more often than not blocking alleyways completely where you have to literally clamber over them to get past.

Some times a bull will sit looking at you as you try and squeeze by. In a moment you think he could swish his head and cause you some damage with those horns. Instead they simply sit and stare, have a little chew, contemplate defecating again and eventually wander off to block another even smaller alley.

I traveled to India in October 2014 with one of my oldest friends Alsitair Kerr. We had previously traveled to Kenya and Tanzania together and five long years later were embarking on another adventure. When he has a drink or five he does get a little touchy hence his nickname 'Captain touch'!

By the time we left India we were so used to cows that we would try and out cow spot each other.

Sitting on a balcony of a Delhi bar in Parahganj area we would look at the markets below. A crowded mass of humanity, rickshaws, cycle cabs and cars all beeping away. Stalls of colourful fruits lined the streets while tourist aimed stalls sold carvings and bright t shirts with Gandhi's image on them.

Excuse me. Cow blocks the way in Varanasi.
Sitting there we would play spot the cow. Because at first you may only see one or two standing quietly as the hustle and bustle went round them. But the deeper you looked you could always find six or seven or even more. They would be hidden, blending in or in the shadows.

The late Mahatma Ghandi said : "I worship it and I shall defend its worship against the whole world," and that, "The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection."He regarded her better than the earthly mother and called her "the mother to millions of Indian mankind."

In Hinduism, the cow is a symbol of wealth, strength, abundance, selfless giving and a full Earthly life.

The cow is so revered by Hindus that it played a part in the Indian rebellion of 1857. We know it as the Indian Mutiny. It all started when the Sepoy's (Indian soldiers) were given new powder bags for their muskets. These bags were ripped open using their teeth. Therefore they believed along with their fellow Islamic Sepoy's that the British were forcing them to brake their holy edicts of their religion as the papers were greased using cow and pig fat.

Cows are so revered that some are holier than others. Many are decorated and painted, especially using orange and blue.

Alistair and I while in the outskirts of Jaipur walked up a hill to visit the Sun temple. 

This temple is also known as the monkey temple because of the abundance of apes everywhere. Swinging from lampposts and trees and generally causing mayhem.  

They line the hill as you walk up. Many looking at you, others squeaking and an occasional few plucking fleas off others.

Once you have dodged the locals offering guide services it is a nice yet warm walk along a worn road.

This little walk that led winding up the hill that over looked the pink city of Jaipur would be the only place ever that I would see a wild monkey riding on the back of a pig. Not because anyone had put hi there, just because he wanted to!

I sadly couldn't get my camera out of my pocket quick enough to get a photo!
The sun temple overlooking Jaipur

Five legged cow en route to the Sun temple, Jaipur, Rajestan
Before we reached the temple where a small girl put a dollop of henna in the centre of my forehead we saw a decorated cow.

This cow was white and seemed to shine in the sun and had red ribbons wound round his horns with gold braid. He was tethered and just stood gazing over the city.

Further up the hill however I saw another first. This time in the form of a five legged cow

Low and behold a genuine cow with five legs was coming down the hill on a lead led by her owner. The fifth leg was protruding from further up the cows front left shoulder and was completely lifeless and limp. So much so that the hoof was pointed and unworn in anyway.

Obviously this cow was a little bit more sacred than others and was used as a means of income.

It didn't matter where you went in India cows were everywhere.

Alistair and myself wandered the streets of Jaipur one night in a vain search for a bar; (we eventually found one). On the way back Alistair literally bumped into one as it hunkered down for the night.

Until now our cow experiences had been not too close, that was until we arrived in Varanasi.

Alistair and a cow friend in Jaipur

The ancient Holy city of Varanasi is located on the banks of the Ganges river. The new town by the station is a mass of buildings and cars beeping horns. But the old town where we stayed is a maze of alleyways and arches and stairs leading to markets, temple and Ghats by the river.

This is where you at times had to breathe in to squeeze pasta cow blocking an alley. Mopeds were carried around the cows and Brahims would also squeeze by to try and undisturb them.

It didn't matter where you went you would step in cow poo and at some point would come face to face with a cow wandering in your direction.
On the banks of the Ganges cows would bathe in the waters and sift through the funeral pyres ash piles for food.

They were literally all over the city.

Only once did I see one agitated. All the other time they were a symbol of tranquility.

I can imagine being in India for years and returning to the UK to be perplexed by the lack of cows. 

The only mystery is how none ever seem to be hit by traffic when they decide that the main road is the best place to rest.

Indians simply avoid them with careless ease.

I will miss the hypnotic noise of their hooves on cobbled pavements going through a tunnel towards the Ganges.

Watch out for the horns as you try to pass

On the banks of the Ganges, Varanasi

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Transfixed by the flames

I sat in the fading light transfixed by what was happening in front of me.

My eyes must have shone with the reflective powers of the burning fires.

The heat from the blaze kept the flies away but not the stray dogs, goats and lumbering bony cows that wander past or deposit themselves on the ground haphazardly next to you.

What I was watching was a melting pot of emotions and reasoning. The fact of the matter was though that I could not turn my eyes from the fires or even contemplate leaving.

I sat on a concrete step next to a quizzical looking goat and stared into the flames.

These flames in particular were on the banks of the sacred Ganges River in the city of Varanasi.
Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh is the Holiest city on the Ganges and also possibly one of the most polluted.

Woman ready for the depth of the Ganges. Harishchandra Ghat
Once you are away from the city centre and the madness that are Indian roads you are struck by a relative serenity by the banks of the sacred river.

The Ganges flow along and every inch of the way stone steps lead down into its waters so that Hindu’s can perform a Puju where they rinse themselves and carry out early morning ablutions.

I on the other hand dipped a hand and feet into the waters as in many places it is riddled with excrement, rubbish and floating goats corpses. This however does not perturb many from drinking the waters as they are said to have healing powers.

The stone ghats look in places majestic, rustic and almost quintessentially like a piece of Victorian England with an added Eastern feel.

Manikarnika Ghat
However two Ghats stand out from the others. For one striking reason.

These are funeral Ghats. Harishchandra and Manikarnika Ghats are the two places in the city where bodies are cremated on the banks of the river 24 hours a day.

They are easy to spot with the constant stream of smoke rising and the gaggle of people milling around.

You at first cannot stand and watch without people claiming to own the place or work there and demanding money. After a while of stern ‘bugger offs’ you are left in peace and can sit with the locals and watch the funerals.

It may sound morbid and even disgusting to some but I was lost in the flames of death.

Manikarnika Ghat is the larger of the two with several funeral pyres burning all at once. This is exclusively for Hindu’s and is incredibly crowded with people, cows, dogs and boats galore.

Harishchandra Ghat is a little smaller and there you can sit without too much hassle and watch the proceedings.

What I learnt was interesting and eye opening on Indian culture.

Harishchandra Ghat is not only for Hindu’s but anyone who wants to be cremated here. Of course you have had to die in the city to be cremated here. Normally it is 7 hours after death that you are cremated.
Anyone can be cremated here publically unless you are one of the following:

A leprosy sufferer (you have suffered enough and are therefore pure)

·         A pregnant lady

·         A child

·         A Brahmin holy man

·         Died by a snake bite

These people are considered pure and are therefore not burnt.

They are wrapped in cloth, tied to a stone and taken out into the Ganges in front of the Ghat and dumped into the river.

Funeral pyres at night. Harichchandra Ghat
I watched as a woman wrapped in orange and gold was rowed out about 100 yards where she was tipped head first with a plop into the river. I also saw a small baby wrapped in white (white for males) then covered in red henna.

He was rowed out a little way where two children unceremoniously dropped him over the side. No prayers, no ritual, just another part of life.

I sat looking at the flames as five bodies burnt at the Harishchandra Ghat. My mind was blank as I soaked up the atmosphere like a sponge. 

I watched as bodies were carried out and placed on the pyres.

Before they are put on the pyre they are placed in the Ganges and given one last drink.

Then it’s on the pyre where logs are piled up high on top.

India has a caste system where you are born into your class. This can dictate what jobs and place in society you have.

Therefore the higher up the ladder you are the further from the river bank you are. If you are a Maharaja for example you can be cremated on a giant plinth that remained at this time empty.

One pyre was so close to the river that the little ripples lapped at the logs.

The one I sat directly looking at was further up and therefore this person was from a higher caste.

The man wrapped in white cloth was covered in logs and a fire was set underneath.

The twigs and kindling crackles and soon the fire had set hold.

I was mesmerised watching it. In a morbid fascination sort of way but also in a cultural understanding way.
I sat for ages watching as at first the cloth burnt away revealing a hollow face where the skin had melted. A skeletal arm fell from the fire and was soon prodded back by a stick and soon you heard a pop and guts fell from the side into the fire and instantly changed colour.

All the while the feet remained intact and unaffected. Protruding out of the pyre. As the body started to collapse into itself the feet became blistered and blackened and then disappeared into the flames.

All the while goats wandered and nibbled at rubbish and the embers of pyres that had burnt out.
People sifted through the ashes looking for gold teeth or jewellery.

Baby ready for his Ganges burial
The entire experience was emotionless. Only once did I see one can start to cry and we was swiftly taken away.

It is a part of life. One that may make people’s eye open wider and other hurry away from the scene.
But for me I felt I had seen a part of Indian culture and life that many people who pass through would never see.

I sat until the embers were black and the smoke from the other pyres hurt my eyes.

I left feeling peaceful and having a new perspective on mortality.