Seagulls on the Ganges ...
TRAVEL TO VARANASI WITH JULIE IN HER DEBUT NOVEL
'SEAGULLS ON THE GANGES'
... They changed planes in New Delhi, travelling to Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport, at Babatpur, around twenty-six kilometres northwest of Varanasi. From here it was a fifty-minute taxi ride to Varanasi. Along the way, Rahul spoke to his family all the while holding Ellie’s hand. At one point, when he squeezed her hand tighter than was necessary, Ellie sensed things with Madhuri had worsened and Rahul’s family were asking him to hurry.
On the fringes of India’s holiest city, the driver slowed to navigate the narrow, bustling, dirty, broken streets. None of Ellie’s previous travels could have prepared her for the stench and dire poverty that was all around her. She rolled her window down and immediately regretted that she had, but the whispers of her heart told her that she was exactly where she was supposed to be.
Ellie wondered if her journey to Varanasi was only about supporting her friend Rahul or if Varanasi had called her to come because she was ready for more lessons about life. Was it possible that the collision of Rahul and Ellie’s lives, from the very beginning, was always for a reason both could only ever imagine, but never truly know for certain? And, was Ellie’s coming to Varanasi always written in her DNA? She had so many thoughts rushing through her mind, and then she reminded herself to turn her mind off and let her heart lead the way.
Hotel staff met Ellie and Rahul by the river, taking their bags and helping them onto the hotel’s private bajara (a classical, handcrafted, wooden boat). It took them twenty minutes along the world’s most polluted river to reach BrijRama Palace. Along the way, they passed by the floating carcass of a dead cow; rotting flower garlands, all manner of plastic waste and small candles flickering in tinfoil trays. Ellie heard of others who travelled the Ganges and were horrified to see floating human body parts. It seemed a contradiction that Varanasi was considered one of the most spiritual places on earth, and a pilgrimage for so many travellers from around the world. As much as what Ellie was seeing, was foreign and confronting to her, she noticed how Rahul paid it little attention. She began thinking that Rahul wasn’t seeing the river with his eyes, he was seeing it through his heart.
The river was busy with boats. On both sides of their boat and at the front and back of them, other bajara, either full of tourists or families were scattering ashes. Then there were the touts, in the smaller boats, trying to sell those on the bigger boats flower garlands, scented candles and trinkets to throw in the river to honour the dead.
Just as Ellie was about to ask Rahul about the plumes of black smoke billowing into the sky from the riverbank, Rahul’s phone rang.
Ellie busied herself taking photographs of the seagulls. There were thousands of them, all chasing after the boats, flying low, and then ascending to greater heights. It was like watching Rahul’s story about moksha come to life right before her eyes. Was it possible that the seagulls were really collecting the souls of the deceased as their ashes were being scattered on the Ganges? And, did they ascend to a higher vibration carrying these souls to deliver them into their next life? Of course, Ellie would never know the answer to her questions, but she loved that her heart was open to the possibility of it being true.
Sitting on the back of the boat, she was reminded of what Andrew Huntly had told her in Paris when she desperately sought an answer from him to her question as to whether the birds in Michael’s painting were doves or seagulls? He told her, “Ellie, the birds can be whatever brings you the most peace, my dear.”
Feeling her heart beat fast and a smile the size she could hardly manage, she decided Rahul’s story of moksha would bring her the most peace whenever she thought about Michael. She would never doubt that he spoke to her through seagulls, just long enough until he as sure she was ready to spread her wings and fly solo.
They were getting closer to Darbhanga Ghat where Ellie and Rahul would leave the boat. Now off his phone, Rahul stood beside Ellie and pointed to some things that he thought Ellie would be interested in. Pointing to the side of the river where the Ghats were, he told Ellie, “There are eighty-four Ghats along the banks of the Ganges that come under Varanasi territory and they all face east towards the rising sun.”
Ellie put her arm through his arm.
He continued, “They were originally built as an access point to the river for pilgrims to take a holy dip and to perform sacred rites and religious ceremonies.”
He pointed to the place where Ellie had seen the plumes of black smoke rising in the sky, telling her, “That’s Manikarnika Ghat where Madhuri will be cremated. It’s Varanasi’s main cremation site.” He continued, “Varanasi is one of the most sacred pilgrimages for all Hindus … but also for all religions and cultures from around the world who are seeking to purify their souls and for those in search of answers about the reality of death and what happens after death, and simply to grieve a loved one.” He took a breath, and looked directly at Ellie, before adding, “I hope you’ll feel Varanasi’s healing energy, Madame Ellie.”
She wished he would stop calling her Madame Ellie, but this wasn’t the time to tell him.
The boat finally arrived at their Ghat, located directly below Ellie’s hotel. Hotel staff escorted them off the boat and carried their suitcases up the steep steps to a lift at the lower reaches of the hotel. Ellie hugged Rahul, waving after him as he rushed to Madhuri’s house. Before he turned into a side street, out of sight, he called back over his shoulder, “I’ll phone you later Ellie. Enjoy your hotel.”
Inside, waiting to be checked in at reception, Ellie read a promotion flyer describing BrijRama Palace as the oldest building in Varanasi. Fascinated, she read on … It was built by Shridhara Narayana Munshi’, the then minister for the estate of Nagpur, in 1812. Then, in 1915, the Brahmin King of Darbhanga (Bihar ̶ ‘Rameshwar Singh Bahadur’ ̶ acquired the palace and so the Ghat became known as, Darbhanga Ghat. The hotel lay in decay for some time before an impressive restoration took place, over some eighteen years, bringing it back to its former grandeur days, displaying architecture and internal design influenced by the former ruling dynasty of the Marathas …
The flyer also explained that the elevator Ellie rode to reach the hotel’s reception was installed in 1918. It was built to enable the Darbanga king to climb to the second floor of his palace from the steep steps of the Darbhanga Ghat. Apparently, it was the first elevator to ever be installed ̶ in all of India.
Once Ellie completed check-in, the reception staff, noting her keen interest in the palace, drew her attention to the betel leaf runner that ran along the roof corners of the walls. They told her it was the signature pattern of the dynasty of the Marathas and she could find it throughout the hotel, and especially in her suite. On the way to her room, Ellie thought the hotel’s sandstone walls and pillars, covered with Maratha art, simply heightened the palaces already elaborate architectural-style and old-world charm. It was her first trip to India, and as polluted as Varanasi might have been, this hotel fast diverted Ellie’s attention away from Varanasi’s filth.
Ellie unpacked before returning to reception where she was directed outside to the hotel’s terrace for afternoon tea. From a small table, she could see up and down the river for as far as the eye could see. Her vantage point, up high, gave her an eagle’s eye view over all the boats on the river. She sipped her warm tea, eyeing the seagulls as they chased after the boats. Other guests joined her. They chatted. They were from all walks of life and from all corners of the world. Ellie couldn’t help wondering if they were mesmerized by the view, or if they were trying to make sense of the seagulls flying low on the Ganges like she was ...
JULIE'S VARANASI GALLERY
IN INDIA JULIE LOVES
Snapshots to hold memories of India, and particularly Varanasi, safely in my heart forever. Editing has erased the unpalatable. Filters have softened what was harsh. Natural light has highlighted what is beautiful. I was meant to come. I'm proud of my journey through grief. This culture has taught me much about letting a loved one go so my life isn't diminished and that I don't hold the soul of another back on their natural progression forward. I'm so grateful I allowed meaningful coincidences to resonate in me, and because I did, I let the word moksha lead me through grief and eventually to Varanasi. Without moksha, there would be no ‘Seagulls on the Ganges.’ or, my extraordinary journey to India.