After a week in stoner-heaven Rishikesh, I take a 16 hour overnight train and arrive in Varanasi in the late afternoon. Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and a deeply important spiritual place in the Hindu religion. It is a place to wash away your past sins, for re-birth, and an auspicious place to die.
Along the banks of the Ganges, you find “ghats” or steps and platforms down to the river. Each serves a different purpose. For example, the South Indians colonise one of the ghats, filling it with a riot of colourful pilgrims washing themselves in the holy waters. You can find two “burning ghats” where Hindu families bring their deceased loved ones, men wrapped in white, women wrapped in red like brides, and cremate the bodies on piles of wood on the river. I walk past the two burning ghats unintentionally – the heat, the wood, the smoke and the immediacy of it all was consuming.
My guesthouse is just a few twisty alleys away from one of the main ghats, Dasaswamedh Ghat, where each evening an elaborate ceremony takes place with incense, fire and music to mark the end of the day. The first morning I am here I walk down to it past the vegetable vendors with plump eggplants, cauliflower, tomatoes and so much more spread out on blankets on the road. At the top of the steps there is a sad-eyed cow the colour of butter, lying in a pile of rubbish, dying. People have covered her with blankets and laid flowers around her, as a kindness. She is still there when I get back later in the afternoon with more blankets, more flowers, but has disappeared by the evening.
I wander through the streets of the old town – it looks ancient, although the city has been destroyed so many times the buildings are only a couple of centuries old. There are temples around almost every corner, some of them surrounded by hordes of police holding large batons and guns.
But it is walking along the ghats, and floating past them in the dawn light in a rowboat, that feels the most special. The morning light is foggy and blurry, the floating candles in flower cups emerge from the water darkness like pinpricks of magic. Women chant in circles on the shore around arrangements of petals and powders. I sit and watch them, keeping one eye on the naughty monkeys running amok further up the steps.
Three days is not anywhere near long enough to get to know this place – there is layer upon layer to learn and experience. But it is sure to stick in my memory, along with the eyes of that poor cow.