Cycling India’s Wildest Highway: The Ganges

Travel Stories: In which Jeffrey Tayler pedals more than 1,000 miles along the Grand Trunk Road. Part four of five: "Thou shouldst not mourn."

02.26.09 | 11:03 AM ET

Bodies await cremation on the banks of the Ganges, Varanasi. REUTERS/Arko Datta

Notions of the sublime perish quickly in India, especially on a trip like mine. Omens were realized, and my bike broke down as I left Agra. All at once the chain chinked, the gears gagged and the derailleur died. A chubby local mechanic managed to bang, clank and fiddle the machine into a serviceable state, so I set out again, only to have his labor undone by stretches of mutilated road, delaying me further.

Almost two days behind schedule, but past the halfway point on my itinerary, I found myself in shambolic Etawah, straddling my ailing bike, mud-caked and beat before one of the “classier” Indian hotels, the kind with “palace” in the name and padlocks on the doors. The lobby opened onto the street, and its yellow-gray walls bore a patina of exhaust fumes and dung dust. Beneath a glowing effigy of Krishna, the polite receptionist registered my passport details and invited me to follow him upstairs to my “deluxe AC room.” With aplomb, he jimmied open the door and asked me to feast my eyes on my lodgings: ants swarmed in my bed, the single sheet on which might have last been changed in the Buddha’s time; mold splotched the walls, spotted with the bloodied carcasses of mashed mosquitoes; the sink emptied through a pipe onto the bathroom floor; the toilet lacked a seat; and in through the besooted porthole window poured the manic bickering of rickshaw wallahs. My packet of hotel soap had been slit open, and a stout human hair lay curly and embedded in the central splotch of goo.

“I’ll take it,” I said, tired and lacking appetite for more cycling in the rain.

Already late and fearing another breakdown would cause me to miss my return flight from Calcutta (and, thus, Christmas day with my wife), the next day I decided to hire a vehicle and transport my bike across the upcoming 65 miles of road (which I had heard was under construction in parts and demolished in others) to Bhognipur, where it would become passable again. To find a vehicle I addressed the receptionist. Gariwallah (“the car-guy”), he said, would come henceforth, and we could strike a deal. What kind of car did he have? 

“Motor-car, sir!” 

After reaching a deal with gariwallah, I descended steep stairs to the sooty dungeon where gaunt inmates huddled around an open fire, stirring a steaming greasy vat the basement restaurant. A jovial waiter dropped a sticky-paged menu at my table and stood by while I peeled open its pages to examine the offerings: “Chainies,” “Japonies,” and “cheese boil masala.” 

“And we have chicken,” he added.

“Oh, by all means, chicken!” How sick I was of vegetarian food!

The maitre d’ came up, tilaked and bearded and imperious, and shoved him aside. “What you tell guest? No chicken, sir. Only cheese boil.”

So I ordered cheese boil, straight from the bubbling vat.

MORE ON INDIA’S WILDEST HIGHWAY: Part one | Part two | Part three | Part four | Part five | Video: Jeffrey Tayler on Cycling Across India | Video: Jeffrey Tayler: ‘I Was Getting in Over My Head’ | Video: Jeffrey Tayler on Why He Started Traveling | Video: Jeffrey Tayler on His New Book, ‘Murderers in Mausoleums’ | Slideshow: Bicyclists in India

Renowned among Hindus as Kashi (the Luminous), Varanasi appeared, at least to the faithless like me, anything but. Legendarily founded by Shiva the Destroyer God, the 5,000-year-old city looms over a bend in Ganga Ma (Mother Ganges), shadowy and death-wracked and crumbling, reposing under layers of soot and ash emanating from funeral pyres ever aflame, the center of the Hindu cosmos and the holiest of all its tirthas, or crossing points, to the otherworld. More than a million pilgrims flock to Varanasi every year, many hoping to die and attain the moksha that accrues to those expiring on its hallowed grounds.

I arrived in Varanasi unnerved by increasingly close brushes with the Grand Trunk Road’s grim, 16-wheeled reapers, troubled by its vignettes of gory death and, most of all, stymied by the disjunction between the saving eschatological truths inscribed in the battered copies of the sacred texts I packed in my panniers and the violence and estrangement I experienced out on the highway. The businesses of Varanasi being blessings and demise, early in my stay I made for the ghats (river landings) where both could be had along with, I hoped, some enlightenment from resident Brahmans.   

At foggy dawn I picked my way down Madanpura Road, a claustrophobic lane snaking between incense shops and sari merchants. Grimy yellow pennants crisscrossed above, hanging motionless in the humid air. Below, bald runt dogs cringed at the clanking passage of cycle rickshaws; hucksters in droning tenors hawked marigold wreathes and ritual oils; sadhus (Hindu holy men) squatted and begged, wrapped in saffron rags, their hair knotted in gilt bonnets or billowing out in ratty tangles; and cows reigned over dung paddies, masticating their cud and observing with benevolence the doings of their bipedal worshipers. 

I turned left onto Dashashwamedh Road and saw (finally!), between pastel-colored temples and dark shuttered towers, the pewter-brown currents of the Ganges. Gushing from Gangotri Glacier 13,000 feet up in the Himalayas and believed by Hindus to flow from Shiva’s matted hair, the Ganges is, they say, the elixir of life, possessing unique purifying powers: drinking it (untreated) or bathing in it washes away sin and speeds one toward moksha. Ahead of me, at Dashashwamedh Ghat, Hindus stripped down to their underwear and waded into the river to perform joyful ablutions, splashing around, cupping water in their hands and gulping it down, scooping it into bottles for home consumption. Health-wise, the latter is a debatable practice, to say the least, and not only because upstream lie cities and factories pumping out noxious effluents. In 1999 a Brahman informed me that those too poor to pay for cremation often “go for the discount alternative—the body stone. For 200 rupees the Dom [cremators] will tie a stone to your dead body, row you out to mid-river, and dump you in.” 

Ghats curved away upriver, some half sunken and brooded over by ramshackle temples, others encrusted in rose petals and teeming with bathers. Just ahead of me, on a raised wooden platform, a young, well-shaved Brahman was performing puja (the Hindu rite of propitiating the gods) for an Indian couple. I sat down behind them, intending to ask the priest, once he was finished, to explain puja, but they arose, and I found myself its recipient. He began chanting at me, bathing me in incense from his tin thurible; he daubed a tilak between my eyes; he dipped his fingers into a jar of yellow goo and smeared three horizontal stripes on my forehead; and he handed me a fistful of marigold blossoms. 

“Toss them into the Ganges!” he ordered. 

I complied. His voice turned nasal and he chanted and flourished his hands over my head. 

“Ganga Ma, Ganga Ma! Puja, puja! Ganga Ma! Good life! Good wife! Good baby! Ganga Ma!” He paused and cleared his throat.  “Ganga Ma! Comme si, comme ça! Five hundred rupees! Five hundred rupees! Comme si, comme ça! Five hundred rupees!”

Money. Always, in India, everything has a price. He touched my gooey forehead and proffered a pale but insistent palm. Disdaining whatever catchpenny wisdom this pitchman could offer, I gave him 200 rupees (puja’s going rate), thanked him, and set off for Manikarnika Ghat. 

But first I detoured back into the alleys to visit a shrine, the Dharma Kupa, wanting to express my gratitude to Yama, the God of Death, for sparing me en route to the Luminous. There, a short-tempered priest chided me, a non-Hindu, for entering his sanctuary. I emerged chastened and lost in a welter of alleys scarcely two yards wide, to be swept by a fevered rush of pilgrims over pavement stained with cow urine, inhaling odors of musk and patchouli and sweat, my shoulders gradually acquiring epaulets of crud from the walls pressing in. Every filthy inch of Varanasi bespoke lives lived and lived again, moksha sought but not found, samsara and suffering. Just when it seemed things could get no more crowded or hectic, men bearing corpses wrapped in silvery shrouds surged through, shouting “Shri Ram nam satya hai!  Shri Ram nam satya hai!” (The name of God is truth!), carrying their charges down toward the pyres of Manikarnika Ghat.

I followed them, reaching an ash-blackened Gothic castle of sorts, the manifold balconies of which faced the Ganges. A handless clock atop a belfry marked this as Manikarnika’s House of the Dying, a pyreside inn where the destitute come to spend their last days knowing that moksha is just a last breath and the strike of a match away. 

In 1999 I had found the balconies crowded with prostrate goners, some groaning, most silent and resigned. Now, a single old lady sat with her head in her hands near the door. It was, nevertheless, a quieting sight. 

That evening I returned to contemplate Manikarnika in relative solitude. Six or seven pyres blazed, the bodies obscured by flaming cordwood. Four Dom brought a corpse down to the river, and one opened its shroud to reveal the waxen, collapsed face of an old man. “Shri Ram nam satya hai!” they chanted, dunking him in the water, and then placing him on an unoccupied pyre plot, stacking wood on and around him. 

Five men (family members, I assumed) looked on. They circumambulated the body five times (symbolizing, according to Hinduism, the elements of fire, earth, water, air and ether of which we are composed), lit the tinder under the pyre, and the flames licked up. “Shri Ram nam satya hai!” rang out, another corpse arrived with more Dom, and on and on. Yet all about me, just beneath the House of the Dying, the mood was festive—men played dice, slurped milk tea and chatted. Raj’s last words sounded in my mind: “Death is our girlfriend and will be with us always. Through burning you discover who you really are.” 

God, God, it is true.

With the pyre now fiercely ablaze, the family of the cremated walked off, not looking back and shedding no tears. There was no cause for grief - their departed had attained moksha. But even for one disbelieving in moksha, like me, the Gita had words I found starkly comforting, if I could only implement them: “For to one that is born death is certain ... Therefore, the thing being unavoidable, Thou shouldst not mourn.”

The smoke from the pyres wound up in wraithlike formations and drifted back over the timeworn alleys behind us.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and the author of six books, including River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny. His latest is Murderers in Mausoleums. His second book "Facing the Congo" ranked No. 28 on World Hum's Top 30 Travel Books of all time. He was the subject of a World Hum interview.

3 Comments for Cycling India’s Wildest Highway: The Ganges

sfauthor 02.26.09 | 5:54 PM ET

Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?

bradford daly 02.27.09 | 2:30 AM ET

That sink draining into a hole in the floor is such a wonderful detail of the kind of weird things one sees in Indian hotels.  I stayed in a place in Ludhiana, one of those bizarre simulacra of a luxury hotel, that had an electrical outlet INSIDE the shower stall.

This is a wonderful series from Jeffrey Tayler, one of our best travel writers in the adventure tradition.

Sam 02.27.09 | 6:38 AM ET

I got this article in my inbox through google news alert. I live in Madanpura, the one which is in Central Mumbai (previously Bombay). And I am the one who had developed a site for Madanpura. Check that out

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.