Sue Perkins on the Ganges


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 A mind-expanding journey down India’s holy river took the TV presenter from raw grief to a higher spiritual plane

“Don’t look!” the shout would go up. It was nearly always too late. In the holy city of Varanasi, on the shores of the Ganges, I saw things I’ll never be able to unsee. Before I move to an example, a warning: those of you who are eating breakfast might want to skip a few paragraphs.

It was while filming at the burning ghat, Varanasi’s riverside funeral pyre, that I discovered the human central nervous system doesn’t burn completely. The heat of the pyre isn’t intense enough; the nervous system merely shrivels into a ball of elastic black ribbons, which, after it has cooled, is pounced on by stray dogs.

In the middle of a piece to camera, trying to make sense of the madness around me, my attention was caught by a hound biting into one of these nerve balls. A preternatural stink filled the air. An argument started behind me. People were screaming and pushing one another. The dog gulped down the last of its rancid dinner. Acrid smoke from the pyre started blowing into my face and lips.

Then I heard a shout: “Isn’t that Mel from Bake Off?”

I was about as far from a fondant fancy as it’s possible to get, and I was Mel from Bake Off — with human ash on her face and human grit in her mouth. Make a showstopper out of that.

I was there filming my new show, The Ganges, for the BBC, following the river through India from source to mouth, and, as you may have guessed, it was rather full-on.

The ghats of Varanasi
The ghats of Varanasi

was never a natural adventurer. I’d never gone backpacking or camping, never taken the road less travelled or roughed it in any way. I didn’t go abroad until I was 14, and that was to Torremolinos to see my grandparents, who’d retired there. When I left home and started venturing out on my own, I chose France or Italy or New York: comfortable, well-organised, easy places.

When I made my first travel programme a few years ago, about the Mekong River, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City with a suitcase so unfeasibly large, it didn’t have four wheels but six. The crew just stared at me. I was so inexperienced, I packed everything I could think of — waders, goggles, night lights, penknives, snacks (lots of snacks). All of it useless and inappropriate, as it turned out. I’ve since learnt to get by with just a battered old rucksack — and the smaller my luggage, the better the traveller I became.

For Hindus, Varanasi is the most auspicious place in the world to die: millions come here in their final days, to breathe their last. Most western tourists take a boat trip past the smouldering bodies, maybe see a few temples, then they’re off to the next thing on the coach tour. It’s death tourism, forming part of a conveyor belt of “Indian” experiences. It’s a shame, because Varanasi is so much more than a drive-by crematorium.

Sue and her new crew
Sue and her new crew

I stayed in the city for two whole weeks, an approach I’m not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend. It’s rewarding, but incredibly intense. Varanasi is the ultimate paradox; death is all around you, but there is nowhere on earth more alive. It teems. I saw a naked sadhu exfoliating his skin with a bag of human ash. I saw people cleaning their teeth by a sewage outlet. I saw a dentist fitting dentures in a gutter while, mere feet away, a bald cat gave birth to a litter of kittens. There are bulls literally in china shops. Then, in the midst of it all, a body is carried past, shrouded in golden silks, on the way to the waterfront. The strange thing is, none of it feels shocking or disturbing. It simply feels like part of the process. Life and death, side by side.

A conventional holiday it isn’t. Holidays are often about insulating yourself from the darker sides of your life, from your true feelings, from the baggage of work or bad relationships. You go away to forget. Well, you can’t forget anything in Varanasi. It makes you confront every aspect of your life in the most visceral of ways. People can be squeamish about India: “Oh, they do things weirdly there.” But surely the point of travel is to question our own lives, rather than judge others. Surely the point is to return thinking: “Don’t we do things weirdly here?”

In Varanasi, they carry their dead relatives to the water and grieve while they watch them turn to ash. Here, we put our loved one in a casket and put a curtain between us and the cremation experience. We are one step removed from the process of loss. Is that better?

The power of faith in Varanasi is all-consuming and overrides everything. Ecological studies have shown that, at points, the Ganges is basically an open sewer, yet people still come to bathe in it. I met a local professor who could tell me the exact faecal coliform bacteria count of the water (you don’t want to know), but swims in it each and every day. This is because Mother Ganga exists in two forms to Hindus: as a physical river and as a goddess, a spiritual force that can wash away sin. One is filthy, one is a purifier. It’s a fool’s errand for a non-believer to try to make sense of it all. You simply look on with wonderment.

My Ganges voyage began 700 miles upstream, above another of Hinduism’s holiest towns, Gangotri. Sadly, I remember very little about it. I was high in the Himalayas, 14,000ft above sea level. I couldn’t breathe. I kept vomiting. My nose bled. Halfway up, we lost our soundman to altitude sickness.

Sue puts her feet up in the Sundarbans
Sue puts her feet up in the Sundarbans

Somehow, after a two-day trek, some of it on my hands and knees, I made it to Gomukh, the source of the Ganges and the starting point of our show. Once I caught sight of the glacier, the exhaustion and intense emotion created a heightened spiritual state. I became incredibly aware of the vastness of the landscape and began to understand why a pilgrim would want make an extreme journey like this.

My father died last year, and it wasn’t until I was up there, in such a remote, holy place, that I felt I could finally start to grieve. The effort to reach it was brutal, but the reward was a sort of epiphany.

I was allowed to go back down to civilisation on the back of a donkey, thank goodness. I only wish I could have been a couple of stone lighter for the poor beast. As we dropped down to the valley, the stark blue and white of the mountains gave way to a lush green. When a striking red acer came into view, the first pop of real colour I had seen in days, I burst into tears. After such a tough journey, it felt like a gift, and I cried like a baby.

Pilgrims’ way: Sadhus trek to the source of the Ganges at Gomukh
Pilgrims’ way: Sadhus trek to the source of the Ganges at Gomukh

Back in town, it was spa time, Gangotri style. This involved stripping off in my makeshift concrete room, where it was -10C. Then a man arrived with a bucket of extremely hot water. I’d throw it over myself with a scream, feel a brief burst of warmth, then rush to dry myself before the cold came biting in again.

I loved my stay in Gangotri. The villagers were tremendously welcoming, bar one woman who, when we went to her house to do some prearranged filming, literally beat us away with a stick. It turned out that after our producer, Fred, had visited her, one of her cows had died. She was convinced we had brought a curse with us. I can’t say I blame her. I wouldn’t want me in my house, either.

Our journey’s end saw us hit the beach at a place called Sagar Island. Not that this was a location for sunbathing or quiet contemplation. We were there for the Gangasagar Mela, the annual pilgrimage to the point where the Ganges meets the Bay of Bengal. It’s the second largest human gathering in the world (behind the Kumbh Mela), so we were sharing the waters with a mere 2½m people.

We had planned on an early night, ready to film in the morning, but it was all kicking off outside. Loudhailers were wailing, thick smoke was billowing through the window and my room was jumping with cockroaches.

“Is anyone else having trouble sleeping?”

Holy water: Sue at Sagar Island
Holy water: Sue at Sagar Island

We all headed out into the darkness. It looked like the world was on fire. Stoned, naked babas were hitting people over the head with peacock feathers. A busload of squealing women who’d driven from Gujarat, 1,400 miles away, were cooking local dishes on a pile of lit twigs and sharing them out with strangers. Then there was the singing. The endless, endless singing.

At about five in the morning, the most auspicious time to bathe, a brilliant ball of light emerged from the horizon to share the sky with a perfect full moon. The hairs on my neck stood up. I’m not a religious person, but the feeling of kinship was intense: all of us there together, with our own beliefs, worries and problems, all communing with the landscape and putting our feet in the water, seeing a bright new day begin. I was grinning like an idiot.

Since I’ve come home from India, I’ve felt stronger and more integrated as a person. I’ve been a lot more active, too — they’re great doers, Indians, and that’s rubbed off on me. A big theme of our trip was death and rebirth, and, while I wouldn’t go as far as saying I’ve been reborn, I’d definitely accumulated a lot of psychological dead skin, which India scuffed off. I think I’m just a little bit more grown-up now. And I’m grateful to India for that.

Sue makes new friends in the village of Deura
Sue makes new friends in the village of Deura

love India with a passion. I hate it, too: I’m bloody terrified it’s going to eat me alive — the mania of it, the size of it, the heat of it. And despite being there for months, and making a whole TV series about the country, I’ve let go of the idea of trying to sum it up in a snappy sentence or two. I haven’t “nailed” India. How could you?

For all the challenges, it’s a tremendously worthwhile journey and an extraordinary country. Make the trip.

Here’s a handy packing list for the rucksack. Flight socks, naturally. Hand sanitiser, of course. I always take a bar of Castile soap. Open-toed shoes aren’t a good idea, as a large chunk of the population don’t have access to sanitation. Sure, take a notebook and camera — in every inch of India there is something incongruous, dazzling, painful or weird going on that you won’t want to forget. But, most important, keep your mind and your heart open as wide as possible — and let India swallow you up.

The Ganges with Sue Perkins starts on BBC1 on  October 19 at 9 pm


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