(VARANASI)15 January 1968
So I'm sitting on a houseboat on the Holy River Ganges. The sun
is hot and I've got my shirt off to soak some of it up. Just
behind me are a couple of hundred thousand Hindus bathing in the
filthy holy river. A few hundred meters up the bank are the
bonfires, where bodies of the dead are constantly being cremated
and tossed into the same river, for devout Hindus come here--to
Benares (Varanasi)--to die.
But I only came to see Benares, not to die in it. There is,
however, a young Norweigan guy here who bathes in the Ganges daily,
and who's been living the Ultimate Bottom Life Experience &
Existance for 3 years--voluntarily--who prays and begs in the
streets, wearing only holy beads and a rag, just like the other
Untouchables, except for his long blonde beard and hair. I just
came to see it, and it's worth it.
It's the most fantastic place I've seen yet in India, or perhaps
Erik and I have a houseboat for 2 rupees a night. It's pretty
comfortable and it's right on the end of the Ghat where the
stairs descend to the river and the pilgrims bathe. This being
the Holiest City of India, every good Hindu must come here once
in his life and bathe in these waters. Five miles from here is
Sarnath, where Guatama Buddha preached his first sermon. Holy
The only...well, ok...the major problem with this place is that
to get to or from the houseboat we've got to wade through vast
crowds of beggars lined shoulder-to-shoulder along the streets.
This can be unpleasant if we actually look at them...they have
it bad, and there's just too many of them to help. The other
day we saw a pilgrim's wagon being pulled through the crowd,
rich pilgrims tossing japoti (wheat bread) out to the beggars
--who swarmed over each other like animals, trampling one
another to get at the food, a completely uncontrollable mob.
We left Katmandu a week ago and came by truck to India, Erik and
I. Tom stayed a few more days and arranged to meet us in Benares.
We crossed into India at Birgani, then came by train via
Muzaffarpur. But the next train we tried to get on there was so
full that people were hanging out the doors and windows when it
pulled out of the station and we couldn't even get on at all.
So we decided to hitchhike.
It's not easy hitching in India. Drivers are friendly, but the
rides are short and it's pretty hard to go directly anywhere. We
became very lost several times, spent a night with a Peace Corps
couple. Next day hitched halfway to Benares before I found out
that I'd forgotten my sleeping bag back with the Peace Corps folks
--and also found out that there was no bridge, and therefore no
traffic through to Benares, and had to hitch back anyway (after
a cold night without my sleeping bag). Retrieved my bag and
crossed the Ganges to Patna before we could hitch on to our
destination. We finally took trains for the last hundred miles,
there was simply no traffic.
Tom was already here by the time we arrived, it had taken us a
week to come from Katmandu. But it was a good week, and we saw
a lot that we would have missed out on otherwise. It had also
been a relief not to spend so much time on Indian trains, which
Tom was now travelling with a Dutchman: Sammy, whom I knew from
Africa last year, back when the motto was "see you Christmas in
Katmandu!" Sammy and I had shared a hotel for a week in Tunis,
so it was one of those funny surprise reunions. We hadn't seen
each other for a year and a half, and he was just on his way to
Katmandu now. We arranged to meet up later in Ceylon and I got
his address in Amsterdam.
Benares is a great town, interesting and exciting, but like all
towns, relatively expensive (relative to my budget). We were
spending 15 rupees a day here, and in the countryside we spent 15
rupees a week. There's too much to buy here: beads and silks and
Went to an Indian movie last night. India makes more movies than
any other country in the world (gee, I didn't know that), so we
had to go see one; a big studio super-production about Hindu Gods
& Goddesses, (Cecil B. deMille tradition). It was so bad we
couldn't sit through it. Indian movies are worse than Arab movies
--about 100 years behind European/American standards.
A few more days here and we'll head for Calcutta, but we've got to
get some photos of the burning bodies. They burn their dead
wrapped in colored robes, then toss the ashes into the river--except
that the guys who do this don't always finish the job if the family
paying their fee has had enough heartbreak and leaves early. To
speed up the process, so that they can earn more money burning the
next body, they dump some pretty big chunks of dead people into the
Ganges. Lots of well-fed but hungry dogs are waiting: run in,
snatch a delicious chunk of barbeque from the river, and drag it off
to eat, fighting with the other dogs for the biggest pieces.
Interesting place, Benares.