The Unmagic of the BBC

Varanasi on the Ganges River is one of the oldest cities in the world and considered by many to be the spiritual center of India. Archaeologists date its origin to over three thousand years ago and Siddhartha formulated the tenets of Buddhism upstream at Sarnath in a sermon entitled ‘Turning the Wheel of Law’ in 528BC. Mark Twain visited the storied city and 1897 and famously said, “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

I visited the ghats in 1995.

The fiery funerary rituals offered a spectacle unknown to the West, but occidentals can not accept the beauty of the Orient without seeing fakirs behind the miracles.

Today a BBC reporter wrote that the sunset tradition of sadhus standing on plinths was enchanting, but added that he later learned that the supposed ancient rites were the invention of a hotel owner to spice up the evening on the Ganges.

According to his article he stated that ‘a couple of days later I was sitting in the BBC studio in Delhi with a young Indian journalist who had come in to comment on the election campaign. He heard my report in his headphones.

“You were in Varanasi?” he asked.


“And you recorded something at the ceremony they have on the river bank there.”

“That’s right.”

“In a boat?”

“Yes. It was wonderful.”

“You know the whole thing was invented by the manager of a luxury hotel in Varanasi about 20 years ago. He was trying to drum up the number of tourists coming to town.”

“I see. Right.”

Journalists get lied to so often that they generally end up fairly cynical, or perhaps to put it more kindly, sceptical. And let me say straightaway that I am not accepting the journalist’s account without question.

Even if I went back to Varanasi and investigated the matter I have no doubt that some people would insist the ceremony has been going on for centuries.

That’s the way with these things. But still it was a bit of a shocker. Perhaps you can never quite go far enough in questioning why things are happening – what purpose they really serve.

I emailed my boss.

“About that ceremony,” I said. “You might well have been right.”

I told him what the journalist in the studio had said.

“Ah yes,” he replied. “The invention of tradition. Happens everywhere.”

The article ended there, but not all magic in life has to have an origin.

On my travels throughout Asia in the 90s I carried a worldband radio. At night I would listen to the BBC braodcast from London on the other side of the world. The World Service was a century old tradition for expatriates living abroad and now the Cameron government has been neutering the radio shows.

They will not be able to demystify India or Varanasi.

It is as old as time itself.

Same as radio waves traveling to the stars.

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