Varanasi

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This train feels less hospitable than the last, and someone warns me to watch my bags. There seem a lot more twitching stares than smiles, and I start to see thieves everywhere. In fact, there are almost certainly nothing of the kind. Although my Bihari companions speak less English than those on my last train journey, they make sure I know when I am about to reach my destination, and bid farewell with handshakes and laughter.

Boarding an auto-rickshaw at Mughalsarai I pass into a man-made twilight, and my throat soon aches. I fear I have entered a polluted underworld, and might not return to see the sky above. Yet finally, as we approach Varanasi, the gloom scatters to reveal the Ganges at glorious sun fall.

As the crow flies – if indeed a crow can navigate such vapours – my guesthouse is not far now. As the tuktuk trundles, however, my driver must first navigate the vehicular vortex of Varanasi’s winding streets. Eventually he leaves me to complete the journey on foot. It is only on foot that one may navigate the labyrinth of the ancient city.

I thought I knew where I was. But I don’t.

I veer left, and like a shopping trolley with a damaged wheel find myself turning in circles I did not want to make. The alleys of Varanasi are not for the claustrophobic, and certainly not at night, as shadows lengthen. Yet it only takes one wave from a shopkeeper in a dimly lit store, or for a child in uniform to stride confidently by with a welcoming smile, to reassure me I am still in the world of kinship and fellow feeling.

At last I glimpse the river – the only sure means here of orientation without a compass – but to my horror I emerge well north of my destination. I am at Manikarnika Ghat, the main burning ghat of Varanasi, where the eternal fires of Shiva consume the bodies of the Hindu faithful. But before I can beat a hasty retreat a pyre-man – called a dom – approaches, and rather than reproach me for showing up unannounced with lumbering backpack and embarrassed smile, he kindly guides me past the pyre to the riverside, where I now see the familiar outline of my guesthouse, scarcely five minutes walk away.

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Varanasi is India at its most personal. Why should it not be so? This place was not built for tourist eyes, although the city and its people have accommodated us generously (perhaps more than we deserve, as we stand and observe its ancient rituals like visitors from Mars). I always feel a mild uneasiness here, yet settling into my guesthouse with its view of the river at night – pyres ever glowing in the distance – I sigh with satisfaction to have finally returned, as I promised myself nine years earlier.

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There are few sights so beautiful as the Ganges at sunrise, as hundreds come to pray, and to bathe in its holy waters. Alas, almost a decade after my first visit, the air remains acrid, and the river – however holy – remains septic in places, despite efforts to reverse the desolation. Wealthy families may be able to afford full cremations for their loved ones, but many bodies are slipped into the river, either partially burned or not at all. For some, this is an honour, as infants, pregnant women, sadhus and those killed by snakebite are not required to be cleansed by fire. More problematically, the river also serves as a dumping ground for household waste and industrial chemicals, for household and guesthouse laundry, and for personal bathing, as well as sacred ablutions. The river also, despite all these toxic intrusions, remains home to fish, and the increasingly rare Gangeatic dolphin (proof of life of which I have yet to see).

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Still, there is nothing quite like a walk along the Ganges, and over the next three days I spend as much time as possible simply wandering from Rani Ghat to Assi Ghat and back again until exhausted. This is no solitary pursuit, of course, and there I join pilgrims, travellers, sadhus, babas, beggars, mourners, touts, louts and tricksters. More often that not, the lines between us blur.

Leaving the riverside hustle for an afternoon, I take a tour of Varansi’s scattered temples, and the idyllic Benares Hindu University – which seems risen from another world, one of manicured lawns and order come from chaos – as well as the crumbling residence of the Maharaja of Varanasi, the Ramnagar Fort. I then head to Sarnath, where Buddha delivered his first sermon. Like Bodh Gaya a place of pilgrimage and retreat Sarnath operates at an altogether different pace to Varanasi, and is all the more beguiling for it. Like Jerusalem, here is a corner of the globe where great faiths intersect, yet with much less obvious friction.

Approaching the end of my time in Varanasi, I greet the day at 4am with a simple row along the Ganges to Assi Ghat with friends from the guesthouse, then back again as the city wakes to repeat a cycle of life and death and ritual unbroken for millennia. With one foot in the past and another in the future, I eat lunch in a restaurant beloved by travellers, the Dosa Café. Following delicious masala dosa, I indulge in the chef’s famously experimental chocolate truffle idli with vanilla ice cream. Almost certainly not something available in Varanasi for unbroken millennia past, and yet – given the city’s infinite capacity for maintaining a balance between continuity and change – almost certain to be available to enjoy in that remarkable place for unbroken millennia still to come.

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