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As soon as left the cool of the air-conditioned train we knew we were in the India that everybody talks about. Immediately before us was a chaos of people, all clamouring to sell their services and, in the absence of response from us, bargaining themselves down. We struck a deal with a rickshaw driver and he speeded us away, afraid of losing his prized customers.

Traffic was a westerner’s nightmare – rules there may have been, but no one was paying the slightest bit of attention to them. A gaggle of bicycles, motorbikes, rickshaws, cars and buses all vied for the road, success dictated by the loudest horn. We were looking at the result of some mad horn escalation war that had bicycles with not one or two, but four bells – attached to the wheels so they could be run continuously and simultaneously. We tightly gripped the sides of our rickshaw as our driver whipped us the wrong way around a roundabout, extracting a barrage of blasts that somehow managed to overwhelm the background cacophony.

Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and is located on the left back of the sacred river Ganges. For time immemorial it has been the holy river of Hindis and by the thousands they come each day to bathe and float away the ashes of their loved ones. The city side of the Ganges is lined with ghats, steep steps that were originally for mooring boats but are now also used for bathing or cremating.

It took us a day to get in tune with the city. Touting is something that we have become used to, but the sheer scale and relentlessness of it by the central ghats wore us down. However, we soon realised that the touting here was more good-natured than in other tourist locations, and most of the time a simple “No” sufficed . A shift in our attitudes was necessary, and we came to realise that the hawkers were not harassing us, they were just selling in the way that was natural for them. We were no longer in the West and it was our responsibility to come round to their way of thinking, not visa versa.

We spent an extremely relaxing three days here, doing little else other than soaking in the atmosphere. Once we had acclimatized to the city we found it to be very peaceful and we started to regret pre-booking our departure tickets. The city hummed with life - chaotic, noisy, smelly, polluted, yet it felt somehow right and natural – the way a city should be without the structure of highly enforced restrictions. The experience of Varanasi is not something that can be easily conveyed.

A boat ride along the ghats at sunrise is something that every tourist does here, and we were no exception. As our boat silently made its way past the city we got to see life starting its day. At first just a few people bathed or washed their clothes but as the sun peeked in, they were joined by more and more until a market like atmosphere replaced the first light’s quiet solitude.

“Dead Body” our boatman interrupted our silent thoughts

We looked where his oar was nudging a wrapped package bobbing gently in the water. In a surreal moment we realised that, yes, it was a dead body, swathed in a cloth that had lost its colour to the pollution of the water. We had heard that dead bodies where cast off to drift in the Ganges, but we had thought it occasional and were surprised and a little shocked with this brush with death. We later learned that the practice had become so problematic that a breed of flesh eating snapping turtle had been introduced downstream to eliminate the health hazard. This was an ultimately doomed effort by the authorities as nothing could hope to live long in the Ganges.

The burning ghats, where Hindus cremate their dead, were a sombre site. A holy and eternal fire burns here and is used as the source for all funeral pyres. We were told that it had been burning continuously for over two thousand years, however one soon begins to distrust everything one is told in India. The pyres are stoked until blisteringly host with holy woods like mango or sandalwood, in the case of the high castes.

The cremating of the dead is an all male affair and is done simply without a great deal ceremony or obvious emotion. We were free to watch but requested not to take any photographs, out of respect for the bereaved. I felt ashamed as I saw tourists boating into the burning ghats to snap their all-important photographs before making good their escape. Sometimes I despair at our behaviour when we are guests in other people’s countries.

On the day we left we had difficulty getting a rickshaw to the train station, unusual because normally there would be so many that instead of bargaining with them we could Dutch auction our business. We eventually got one, but at an exorbitant price ($1). We were later to learn that this was because the Hindu VHP movement had called a bandh (strike). Apparently they wanted to build a Hindu temple on the site of a Muslim mosque that had burnt down in suspicious circumstances in 1992. Some centuries ago the site had originally been a Hindu temple but the Muslims had replaced it with a mosque, as was their practice at the time. Sometimes I just despair at people.

Pictures - click to enlarge
wahing in early morning light Varanasi - India Travelogues
picture of our guesthouse overlooking the ghats Varanasi - India Travelogues
Morning wash in the sacred Ganges

Our Guesthouse, on the Ganges

Photograph of a crematorium Varanasi - India Travelogues
Picture of a ghat Varanasi - India Travelogues
A Ghat

Picture of people bathing in the Ganges Varanasi - India Travelogues
Photograph of bathing in the ganges Varanasi - India Travelogues
White folks do it too

Is the water safe?
Picture of our boatman Varanasi - India Travelogues
Photograph of the ghats Varanasi - India Travelogues
Our boatman The Ghat busy - but not in full swing