In my last blog I told you why coming to India is the ultimate way of getting out of one’s comfort zone and encourages Creative Stress. It feels like I arrived in India a month ago but in fact I’ve only been here less than a week. I just had to get off the plane at Delhi and sit in a cafe while waiting for a connecting flight to sense that I had landed on a different planet or shifted to an alternative dimension.

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This was the headline that jumped off the page of The Times of India. I mean, can you imagine reading a headline like that in Europe? How does somebody swallow that many nails – how does someone swallow a single nail – without serious consequences, by which I mean, fairly imminent death? Even if you were schizophrenic? Not to make light of a serious psychiatric condition, but did he think he was a lump of wood? Finger nails, OK, but 2-inch metal nails? The patient was said to have had a plasma-and-albumin imbalance, but presumably not an iron deficiency.

So here I am in Varanasi which is one of the oldest and holiest cities in India, on the banks of the revered Ganges and a place of joyous pilgrimage for Hindus. To take a dip in the river is to cleanse the soul. The cynical Western view would be to point out the irony of bathing in what is, in a material sense, and putting it mildly, some fairly unpure water. To reach its banks one needs to tread carefully, too, partly because of the sheer volume of humanity heading in the same direction and partly because the city’s pitted pavements bear plenty of evidence of its significant cow population.

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But Hindus rejoice just to be here and although I’m an atheist their faith fascinates me greatly, even if I could never share it. Their devotion and the mythical complexities of Hinduism are, in any case, another example of how coming to India feels like being plunged into a parallel universe. I mean, there are reckoned to be 330 million Hindu deities. 330 million! Who has counted them, I’d like to know? Wikipedia tells me: No one has a list of the 330 million goddesses and gods, but scholars state all deities are typically viewed in Hinduism as “emanations or manifestation of genderless principle called Brahman, representing the many facets of Ultimate Reality”. OK, fair enough.

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A waste collection boat at one of Varanasi’s ghats: the Ganges carries an especially colourful kind of waste.

I’ve seen this river in many spots, including the Himalayan foothills near Rishikesh where the water has a healthy shade of glacial blue. The burdens placed on Mother Ganges downstream include heavy metals from factories, added to by the ashes and, it must be said, sometimes only partially incinerated remains of human bodies. Because of its especially holy status, Varanasi’s burning ghats, where bodies are ceremoniously ignited on huge pyres of logs, add to this load. Although the river has the power to clean itself of such an organic deposit, it finds it harder to deal with those heavy metals. Including any undigested 2-inch nails.

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A burning ghat in Varanasi where more than 20 cremations might be taking place at any one time.

The soul of anyone so cremated is believed to be purified, first by actually leaving the body at this location and secondly by virtue of the cremation taking place on the river banks with the ashes deposited into the water. It’s a humbling spectacle.

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An enraptured lady watching the evening aarti ceremony of prayers to the Ganges from a boat.

I came here now to see a big festival, Dev Diwali, on the banks of the river, more expressions of devotion to the mighty Mother Ganges. I was so excited about it I smothered myself in foot cream thinking it was mosquito repellent. The mosquitoes will have nice soft feet at least.

For the festival, the ghats – the platforms and steps lining the river bank – are dazzlingly decorated with candles and lanterns, and there’ll be a lot of banging of drums, ringing of bells and chanting. I’ll be watching it from a boat, along with countless blissful pilgrims. You can’t really relax at an event like this. The boats will be barging each other in the same way as the traffic in the narrow streets, edging into the best vantage points. The noise will be cacophonous. I can’t wait!

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Yes, folks that’s me afloat on the Ganges, and yes, those three remaining brown hairs above my left ear have gone grey since I’ve been here.

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