“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
It is barely 6am and I am dragged willingly onto a beat-up green boat and rowed into the middle of the River Ganges. We leave behind the rainbow city, which stands grandly above the shores – timeless in aspect and spirit. The ghats are sparse with early risers taking their holy dip in the river. This is the land of pilgrimage, the city of salvation and death, and the circle of life blossoms before my eyes. Smoke rises from the burning ghats, where Hindus cremate their dead, while one hundred metres downstream people are washing their sheets and lathering themselves in soap.
The air is thick and the water stale and stagnant, but it is still one of the most beautiful mornings I have ever seen. Birds fly above our heads as we sail across the waters to the empty banks at the other side. I’m joined on-board by a young family and a few solo men, who strip down to their y-fronts and dive into the water. They pray without acknowledging one another, a private moment of faith on a trip that may have cost them their life savings.
Every Hindu wants to go to Varanasi, the holiest place in the world and the home of the river which upon death can offer salvation. Their pilgrimage is holy and in some ways mine is too, for I returned to this city on my last few days in India to find the Varanasi I had left my heart in some years before, to realise why I had found so much peace in the world’s most chaotic city.
Of course at this hour it is anything but chaotic. The sky is golden and the ghats are all but empty. As I walked from my hotel to the Dashawamedh Ghat, I saw babas sleeping in doorways and heard the clattering of glass cups as the city’s first chai shops opened their doors. A street barber pulls back the cotton cloth from his mirror which sits on a peeling red painted wall, dusts off his chair and awaits his first customer. The constant chanting – which never really begins or ends in this city – gradually intensifies as the sun lifts from the smog. ‘Aums’ sing through the air, babas apply their make-up and light up the day’s first charros pipe. I grab a chai and sit back on one of the prayer platforms, cherishing the views over Benares at this magical hour.
I remember the first time I ever saw an image of Varanasi, or Benares as it’s known locally. It was on the back page of a copy of a travel magazine I had picked up. Although in black and white and shot back in the 1920’s, I felt electrified by the city. The huge imposing buildings leading down to the banks of the river. The pilgrims wore long saris, dipping into the waters and straggling barefoot back to the shores. I had never been to India at the time but that image evoked a feeling in me, only intensifying my obsession with visiting the Motherland. A few years later, I walked those steps for the first time and found little had changed from that picture taken over 80 years ago. Unlike much of India which is developing and expanding at a rapid pace, Varanasi has become timeless – a capsule of faith and the core of humanity. It seemed to me then that every inch of life existed on those ghats, a display of India’s beauty within a mile radius.
Now it is my second time in the city and my last few days of this trip to India. Even after months in this country, I somehow couldn’t leave without returning to Varanasi. After trekking through the Himalayas, meeting camel herders on the dunes of Rajasthan and travelling through the lush green south, it is still Varanasi which I truly believe to be the beating heart of this country; a country with a thousand personalities, languages and religions. It all seems to come together in harmony on these ghats.
Hours later and I sit in a backstreet restaurant devouring a masala dosa as a cow sticks her head in one of the shops windows. It is good luck for the owner. He paints her head with an orange bindi before shooing her away.
The streets have begun to fill with life. Orange cloaked pilgrims wander past bicycles and the odd motorbike which brings Varanasi into the twenty-first century. The narrow corridors of this city are constantly absorbing, from the forgotten lassi stalls to each unique baba at his resting place. Wander upstream and bed sheets and rugs are washed by hand, beaten on rocks and dried along the steps. Wander a little further and children fly kites while hopping between boats, and local artists display their work to passers by.
The narrow markets glitter with fake gold and cheap saris, but lead to hidden lassi shops where I order a clay pot of the Indian yogurt staple laced with bananas and pomegranate. A funeral march sprints past, carrying a stretcher covered with orange marigolds and a parade of bell ringers. Death follows the paths of these streets to the Manikarnika Ghat, where the body will be burnt on piles of wood. Around 80 people per day are cremated on this and the city’s other burning ghats, each soul breaking the cycle of rebirth and suffering. The Ganges, however, has found little salvation at the hands of the dead, its waters becoming more and more polluted each year.
As evening comes, the Dashashwamedh Ghat holds a nightly puja, a spectacle many pilgrims and tourists come to witness. Priests wave incense sticks and burn candles as the sun sets and the night is welcomed. The cycle begins again, of night and day, light and dark, life and death. It would continue long after I boarded the Chauri Chaura Express a few days later, headed North towards Nepal and clean mountain air. But as before I took a piece of Varanasi home with me – its spirit, its perseverance, its unpredictability. To know that few things are certain, except perhaps the rising and setting of the sun, and the cycle of life and death…
And the magic that a little city in the heart of India can bring to every traveller’s life.