I arrive at the Ganges as the sun begins to cast its glow over the waking city. The river runs purple and its banks gleam a shimmering gold. All around is the sound of music, ringing bells and chanting as Varanasi comes alive in a mad frenzy of devotion. I watch a man walk into the river, arms outstretched, a look of ecstasy on his face as he calls out “Ganga”. I am overwhelmed by the intensity of emotion – this is no ordinary river.
I find a teastand and sit down, enjoying the sweet spicy brew. An old man sit next to me. “Did you know that this is the oldest city in the world? He asks. “It is the center of all knowledge and wisdom, he who searches for answers will find them here is Varanasi”. For thousands of years people have come to worship and offer their prayers to the river Goddess. A dip in the holy waters of Varanasi is said to wash away all sins.
The Old city is centered on the Ghats, the sixty three steps that lead down to the river and provide the focal point for locals and pilgrims alike. For many the day begins with a dip in the river. Children play, grown men play like children, laundry wallahs beat the dirt out of their clothes, buffaloes wallow. Holy men chant and pray.
I am staying in a faded pink palace on the riverfront. My room is in an octagonal tower with a thirty foot domed ceiling. The branches of a banyan tree drape across the roof and provide the home and playground for an extended family of cheeky monkeys. One of them has just stolen my cigarettes and is leering down at me with three of them hanging from its mouth. The building is old and decrepit yet retains its regal air and I feel like a Maharaja princess as I sit on my balcony , intoxicated by the sights and sounds.
Below I watch the buffalo languish in the water and a man lovingly wash each and everyone. After, they gracefully heave their huge bodies out of the water, one saunters up to an old lady washing her pots and pans, she chases him away with a big metal spoon. A withered old man slowly makes his way up the steps, in half an hour he has only managed about twenty. A woman dressed in a fluoro orange sari seems to glide up the steps , balancing a basket of dried cow pats on her head. An ash smeared holy man sits meditating by the river, his trident by his side. A small boy sees me and yells with delight, “one rupee, one rupee” as his hand is outstretched. I have now been spotted and a chorus of “Hello Madam” ensues from a group of men bathing in the shallows. The manager pays me a visit and warns me about sitting too close to the edge of the balcony, its walls are low and he tells me of a tourist who fell off. “Bad for business” I say and he replies “No Madam, bad for the girl, she was nice”
The old city is formed by a maze of alley ways, the atmosphere is distinctly medieval, especially in the evenings when the power fails and the only light comes from candles. The air is thick with the sweet, heady smell of incense and the slightly more aroma of cow manure. Huge, humped cows meander along, the streets are so narrow and the cows so big, at times you have to back up or squeeze into a doorway to let them pass.
Every few meters there is a shrine or temple and people pray with a passionate devotion. This is the holiest of all India’s cities and is very much the city of Shiva – India’s omnipotent all powerful and much loved God. As legend has it, when Shiva’s wife Parvatti died he built a fire by the banks of the Ganges in order to burn her body and Varanasi is deemed an auspicious place to die. To burn on the fires here is to be assured of a direct route to heaven. The burning ghats, with their huge funeral pyres are a compelling sight for the first time visitor , but to the people of Varanasi are just another part of the inevitable cycle of life and death. Mother Theresa’s Hospice sits directly behind the ghats, it is a place shrouded in death where people waiting to die collect donations in order to buy firewood, so that when their time comes they too may burn on the holy fires of Varanasi.
As darkness descends, the river fills with floating candles and flowers, offerings to the River Goddess. My heart and spirit have been captured by the “City of Light”. But when I see the children playing in the river, drinking the water and nearby the rotting flesh of a corpse I am reminded that there is a dark side to everything.