Varanasi, or its ancient name Benares, is India’s holiest city. As we step off the train we are caught in a melee of pilgrims, families, sadhus and a thousand other people from all walks of life. We are hustled through the station and into the 45 degree heat of the day by our sweet-talking rickshaw driver.
Varanasi is Mecca for Hindus, and unlike the millions of Indians who wish to draw their final breath here, the last time I was here I did think I was doing to die, having been so sick with gastroenteritis. But that was 12 years ago. Now I am here in a new phase of my life with my favourite travel companion, Paloma.
My recollections of this ancient city are still some of my favourite travel memories, as Ben and I were on our first adventure together and so in love. Could a city as ancient as this have changed much in this tiny drop of time?
Our rickshaw driver Ranjit thinks he knows the hotel I’ve been describing to him, one right on the ghats, the steps, which look over the Ganga and are alive with ritual and daily life.
My old diaries are buried somewhere in my collection of things too deep to unearth. But I think I remember where our sweet octagonal room was in the hotel high above the river. Ranjit leads me through many winding alleyways to many out-of-the-way hotels, claiming they have a view of the river. Well, yes, through the bathroom window. Meanwhile, Lisa waits in the rickshaw sweating and entertaining the kids while I play the scout. After too long I put my foot down and demand to be taken to the hotel we asked to go to an hour before. It’s a carnival of errors from here on in. Now grumpy, he drops us off on the side of the road with the kids and all our luggage. We have to take a bicycle rickshaw into the heart of the old city as the laneways are big enough only for two rows of pilgrims to pass one another. ‘You are like sister to me, not tourist…this is my life’s work, my karma…’ are his parting words before asking for more rupees than initially agreed on.
We load ourselves with guilt onto a bicycle rickshaw. Our cyclist, an old man, is already sweating heavily in the mid-morning sun. He pulls the four of us and our luggage through the masses of people. Out of thin air another man appears then, literally hanging onto the bike and running along side us yelling that he has the best hotel on the ghats. He is reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s character in ‘Midnight Cowboy’. We later find out he is a heroin addict like so many other young guys here. Foolishly, I let him lead me through the labyrinthine old city to yet another awful hole in the wall hotel with no view. Concerned I will never see Lisa and the kids again I ask him to navigate our way back, more rupees are handed over, again with a line about his spiritual mission to help others. In a place so full of spirituality and all about escaping the material world there seems to be a frightful lot of wheeling and dealing and money being exchanged…
I give up on finding a hotel and we make ourselves at home in the beautiful Brown Bread Bakery. The kids run wild jumping on all the pretty embroidered cushions and Lisa and I sip on ice cold fruit juices and recline against the painted walls.
The Sunrise Guest House is as cheap as you can get, so cheap in fact that we can have separate rooms, all for under $14 a night combined. Paloma and I take the smaller room with a little enclosed sunroom looking onto the swirling river and the dusky sand-land on the other side of the Ganga. Far in the distance we watch a convoy of black buffalo being led to the shore for a drink. In the midday heat there is not a soul out on the water. We lie under the ceiling fan draped in a wet sheet and fall into a dreamless sleep.
Every evening on the main Ghat, a puja, a religious ritual, is performed to Ma Ganga and the goddess Durga. Each sunset hundreds flock to sit on the red sandstone steps to watch and listen to the vespers, entranced by the beauty these age-old rituals symbolise.
During the night I am awoken, drenched in sweat and have to soak our bed sheet in water again and again, cocooning us from the intense heat. Paloma and I wake up at 6am and are called to the river by the sounds of the pilgrims singing outside our window as they make their way down the wide, worn steps to perform the morning ablutions in the filthy, yet holy waters. It seems confusing that on one hand the river is considered sacred, but on the other hand so many people are willing to throw their rubbish into it. But I read a heartening article in the local paper about a women’s group protesting the government’s lack of action and have created a ‘Clean Up the Ganges Varanasi Campaign’
Barindra, a boatman, beckons us to his pretty wooden paddleboat. I know I should wait for Lisa and Otis but the morning light is magic and Paloma and I set out through the floating rubbish and swimming pilgrims to the center of the river. Another boatman rows to our side, his boat laden with flower garlands and palm leaf pressed bowls full of roses, marigolds and sweets to offer into the river. We purchase two and make up our own ritual sending prayers to Ben in Afghanistan and our families at home. The pretty offerings sail away on the eddies and flow of the river. Women in saris line the Ghats, standing in the river up to their waists, colour swirls in the reflections. Boys swim and splash each other with huge empty water drums tied to their back with rope, floatie style. Sadhus in that alluring saffron drape themselves around the ghats. Action is everywhere. Varanasi teems with life, and death, always.
Lisa and Otis emerge and we have another boat ride and Barindra shows us his houseboat and his other rowboats. He is from a long line of Banaras Boatmen and his sons are in training already. Paloma and Otie love rocking the boat, there is no way to keep them still, they adore the ride.
In search of breakfast I slip down the shit-caked steps with Paloma on my back in the ergo…ouch…and arrive at The Ganpatti Guest House. It is the haven we have been looking for. Realising early on that our Sunrise Lodge is was but a desperate option and not so sunny, we move out. Instead, at Ganpatti, lush green foliage canopies a beautiful cool courtyard set inside traditional Havelli walls of this red sandstone guesthouse. Every doorway is painted and hung with sparkling Indian embroideries. The rooms have ice-cold air-con and a fountain bubbles enticingly in the courtyard. No rooms are free until the next day so we put our names down and finally settle into our new home. The kids are in raptures as the owners have a son and all his toys are there for the taking. Clothes are ripped off, fountains are splashed in and bodies are painted.
After the heat of the midday subsides we slither into the alleys to explore, getting jostled and pushed, constantly amazed at the number of people passing through this small city daily. We get lost and found; more treasures and trinkets are haggled over to take home with us. Cows poo is everywhere and great plumes of flies buzz around our heads. Lisa takes a series of photos of sleeping men and the children take up the cry ‘He’s not dead, he’s sleeping!’ We are always laughing. Lisa has a way with people and stallholders, waiters and strangers are in fits of laughter when she’s around, claiming her as the newest member of their family.
When we return to our boatman, he takes us to Kali Ghat, the main burning ghat where 200 plus people are cremated each day. Surrounding this ghat are crumbling hospices where hundreds come to die while we sleep. Barindra pushes our boat to the ‘front row’ the flames warm our faces as six fires burn at different stages up the hill. Cows wander among the layers of rubbish, ash, corpses, rotting flower garlands and old wood. Who knows how many thousands of trees are needed each year to burn the people desperate to leave the cycle of life that only death in Varanasi can bring? A charming man steps onto our boat, Barindra looks away as he waxes lyrical about the wood, bodies and how much this all costs, for our own good karma can we spare a few hundred of rupees? Well since everyone is asking for our money, why not!
As I retell my experience of Varanasi to Lisa, Otie overhears me mentioning something about a burning leg flying up out of the fire. ‘Why does the dead leg fly up, what are there sparkles?’ Here our children are getting an up-close and vibrant view of life and death. Another body draped in shining silver fabrics is heaved up and onto the ready pyre. We all stare transfixed by the beauty of this spectacle only a place like India shares so openly.
Barindra rows us from the pyre, the tiny lights of the puja candles on the water merge with the reflections of the flames and the stars in the night sky.