Varanasi

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.

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.

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).

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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