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Varanasi - part 2

19/3/06, 2000 hours

It was an even earlier start this morning, as Esther and Mathieus, my new Dutch friends, had arranged a boat for the hideous time of 0530. We navagated our way through the lanes by torchlight, and were met by the young man who would row us. We headed nothwards in the chill morning air, travelling as far as Gay Ghat as the sky got ever lighter, and the city woke up. Some brave souls were already in the water, washing the grime and their sins away in one fell swoop. One man waved and shouted to us, telling us that he washes in the Ganga every morning. The river was calm - very different to monsoon time when, according to the boatman, it takes three men to row the boat.

Sunrise over the Ganges, Varanasi Man performing puja at sunrise in the Ganges, Varanasi Reflections of boats and ghats in the Ganges, Varanasi

At 0610, almost on the dot, the sun put in an appearance; a spark of light on the horizon that grew into a luminous orange ball. More people were at the water's edge now, some performing puja (religous rites) and loudly chanting mantras to welcome the sun. Many of the ghats are painted in bright colours - mint green, sky blue, brick red - and the rising sun warmed the tones and made them and their relfections glow. The water was busy with boats full of tourists, including one jam-packed with Thai monks in their distinctive saffron robes. Our boatman tried to talk us into a second hour, but we were hungry by then, and rather cold too, so we declined and headed back to the hotel for breakfast.

After I'd eaten I headed north again, this time on foot, keen to experience as much of this amazing city as I can. I passed Scindia Ghat with its leaning temple, partly submerged in the river for the last century and a half. Men noisily washed clothes in the dirty water, spreding them out to dry afterwards, and goats gambolled on the steps as I passed. I saw an old woman carefully forming cow shit into round patties, singing to herself as she worked. A proud father introduced his two young boys, and asked me to photograph them, inviting me to his house for fruit afterwards (I declined). Other children begged me to take their pictures, excited to see their faces on the small screen of my camera.

I continued past the end of the ghats onto the dried-mud banks all the way to Malaviya Bridge, a double-decker affair taking trains and road traffic across the water. Under the bridge boats were being loading with wooden logs, travelling upstream once full to the burning ghats, where they get through a lot of wood each day. I carefully dodged the piles of poo, and the squatting men creating fresh ones, and returned to the ghats, walking along the upper level for some way before deciding to head into the maize of narrow streets, away from the river. I felt a little nervous at first, as I stood out more here than on the ghats, where everyone is busy doing some thing or another. Before long I was paying more attention to my surroundings than to the people, and enjoying my exploration.

Young girls by the Ganges, Varanasi Woman making cowpat pies by the Ganges, Varanasi Proud father and sons by the Ganges, Varanasi

Scattered liberally around are lingas, murals of Hanuman decked with garlands of flowers, orange-painted statues of Ganesh; religion is never far away in Varanasi. One street was obviously the market, lined by cross-legged women surrounded with fruit and vegetable. Little shops - rooms with one side open to the street - sold sundry items, or offered haircuts and shaves. Ornate doorways offered glimpses through to courtyards, or sometimes temples, and I couldn't resist peeking inside. After a time wandering through the streets I recognised a familiar sign, and surprised myself by finding my way back to the hotel.

Mural of Hanuman, Varanasi Small shop, Varanasi Woman selling vegetables, Varanasi

I bumped into Esther and Mathieus, and together we set off south, to a cafe that had been recommended to us for a spot of lunch. We took a different route back, disorientated for a while in the lanes. We passed through the Muslim quarter, identifiable by the distinctive dress of the inhabitants, and the beautiful architecture. One section contained a number of barking dogs, and monkeys baring their teeth from the rooftops, which made us a little nervous. After some time we found our way back to the river, and sat in a shady spot on the steps. A newly married couple passed us led by friends, their clothes tied together, and she with a shawl covering her face. A young postcard seller explained to us that, after the ceremony in the temple, the wedding party comes the the river where the Brahmin preist makes puja to bring them luck.

We went then to the burning ghat, where the Dutch couple had been the previous day, getting into an argument when the touts that prey on tourists tried to extort money from them. They'd been with an employee from the hotel, who had explained the procedure to them, and they passed on the details to me as we viewed the goings-on from the second-floor viewing platform. It was a busy day, as a number of bodies were already burning on each of the platforms. The higher castes are cremated on higher platforms; even - or perhaps especially - in death the strict pecking order is adhered to. The bodies are carried in by families, swathed in glittering gold material, and dipped in the purifying waters of the Ganges before being unwrapped (like a particularly gruesome present), and placed on a pyre of wood. More wood is placed on top, and then fire is brought from the Everlasting Flame, and the corpse is set alight - they caught quickly. I wondered what happens in the rainy season, when the massive piles of wood my surely get wet, and the ghats themselves may well be under water.

It was fascinating to watch the untouchable guardians at work, poking the bodies further into the fire with long, bamboo poles. Once the fire is burnt out, any remaining parts are thrown into the holy Ganga, and the area raked over, and restacked for the next customer. Cows wandered unhindered around the site, and goats and dogs too, which surprised me. We left the ghat, stopping to lend moral support to a Japanese girl who was being ganged up on by five of the touts, and returned to the hotel. I felt slightly nauseated, and lit some incense in my room - I had bought it as the smoke from the ghat had pervaded my room the previous night, and I wanted a sweeter scent to fall asleep to tonight.

An hour later I climbed the stairs to the roof to watch the sunset, astounded by the quantity of kites dancing in the sky, flown by men and boys from rooftops all over the city. It had been another great day.

Kites flown from the rooftops of Varanasi, India


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