Naked but for his Country Cotton Y-fronts, an old man bends down at the river’s edge, murmurs his prayers and then takes out his dentures and proceeds to rinse them thoroughly in the holy waters of the Ganges.

Beside him, their sarees glued to their bodies, three women submerge themselves in the river, embracing Mother Ganga with open arms. Holding their noses they immerse themselves five times in quick succession.

A baby girl screams as her grandmother shaves her head with a rusty blade, offering the child’s first hair to the gods. A riverside barber, no clients yet, picks clean his teeth with a mangrove root.

The land of Varanasi, often referred to as Benares, has been the ultimate pilgrimage spot for Hindus for ages. Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world

Along the banks holy men perform their pujas, offering “prasad” to the scummy waters. Turds float by. Nearby, under a pipal tree, a goat bleat. Two dogs fight over a bone. Monkeys scavenge rice grains swept towards them by a toothless old woman with a broom. Vultures circle overhead. Mynah birds screech from the trees. Children play marbles.

A Hindu priest, Brahmin, next to Lord Shiva temple in river Ganges.A Hindu priest, Brahmin, next to Lord Shiva temple in river Ganges.

The head masseurs and boatmen tout for work. Cross legged on mats, professional renunciants dip fingers in brass pots and anoint the forehead of the bathers with vermilion and sandalwood paste.

While their mothers and sisters flog clean their clothes on slabs at the waterfront, boys using a large stone as wicket play cricket on the ghat. Above them the crumbling tiered 18th-century facades of former Hindi nobles and princes  are daubed with directions to hippy guesthouses, illegible graffiti, Omkara signs and Pepsi-Cola advertising motifs.

This is the ancient city of ‘burning and learning’.

Ash-smeared babas holding begging bowls and staffs watch from sun-dazed, glassy eyes. A train, longer than the bridge itself, clatters over the Dufferin bridge, bringing more pilgrims into Benares to wash away their accumulated sins at India’s most sacred spot on the world’s most sacred river.

A million Hindus a year come to Uttar Pradesh to purify themselves in the polluted waters flowing through Shiva the Destroyer’s city. To achieve ‘moshka’ or ‘mukti’ – salvation from the pain of existence and the anguish of continual rebirth and death. Die in Varanasi and your spirit will be united with the absolute, the Atman.

Eternal peace is guaranteed and enlightenment assured amid the noisy crowds, the dust, the incense, the clangorous rickshaw bells and the raw sewerage.

A view of the holy ghats of Varanasi.A view of the holy ghats of Varanasi.

Out on the river, avoiding the tangles of marigold petals, the lounging buffalos, the five rupee prayer leaves and the  takeaway food tin foil cups with grubby candle wicks pressed in butter oil, tourists are rowed in Thumbs Up endorsed boats to the cremation ghat, observing a respectful distance as they take photographs of the rituals.

Men split logs for funeral pyres. Their work never stops and is never forsaken. Downstream, a young priest offers camphor to the gods accompanied by the bedlam of double-sided drums, cymbals and the singing of devotional ‘bhajans’.

A yoga guru.A yoga guru.

Mark Twain described Varanasi as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. The holy city was the capital of the ancient ‘janapad’ (kingdom) of Kashi. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities, older than Athens, Jerusalem, Beijing and Byblos. The city of 10,000 temples has survived Thebes, Nineveh and Babylon.

Varanasi has been the centre of Sankritic study for over 2,500 years. The institute was founded in 1791. The novelist Prem Chand and poet Tulksi Das as well as the musician Ravi Shankar were all born in Varanasi. Music houses can be found in every narrow alleyway along with the silk houses.

There are seven major sacred cities in India – Benares, Puri, Mathura, Ayodhya, Dwarka, Haridwar and Kanchi.   Krishna was born in Mathura and Ram had his court at Ayodhya. Vishnu’s footprint is in Haridwar which was the hermitage seat of the sage Kapila. Puri, south of Bhubaneshwar, is famous for the Jagannath temple.

Many of the great spiritual teachers are associated with Benares. Buddha gave his first sermon nearby in the deer park at Sarnath. Parshvanatha, the first master of the jains, was born in the town in the 8th century. Varanasi is the embodiment of heaven on earth.

Eighty-five per cent of all Indians are Hindu. Every devout Hindu hopes to tread the hallowed ‘Pankoshi road’ at least once in their life and bathe in the same day in strict succession in the five ghats of Assi, Dashashwamedh, Adi Keshav (Varuna-sangam), Panchganga and, finally, the cremation ghat of Manikarnika. There are over 80 ghats, or embankment steps stretching four miles along the left bank of the Ganges.

Varanasi is a bridge or ‘tirtha’ between heaven and earth, a crossing point where gods visit this world and mortals travel to the next. Shiva brought his wife, Parvati, to the City of Light. The town derives its name from the combination of two rivers – the Varuna and Assi.

A man surrounded by vegetables and greens at his place at an Indian Bazaar.A man surrounded by vegetables and greens at his place at an Indian Bazaar.

The bodies arrive all day on bamboo stretchers and on top of taxi roofs. They are accompanied to their final resting places with the traditional mantra, ‘Ram, Ram, Satya He!’

Mourning is considered bad luck by the men who attend the funeral pyre. Women are forbidden.

The eldest son, head shaven, walks around the fire and sets it alight. It takes three hours to burn a body. Four hundred are cremated a day. The size and type of conflagration depends on your wealth. An average cremation cost 18,000 rupees.

Male corpses are swaddled in white, young women red and old people gold. There are prescribed burning areas for the police and army, business people and members of higher castes. Pregnant women, babies, children under 12 and victims of leprosy and smallpox are rowed into the river and thrown in with a stone tied to them. The river was stocked with turtles to feed on the human remains.  The guides boast that the water is clean because it flows swiftly. They say that wildlife thrives in the river. The Ganges has many dolphins, they say.

The place became the burning ghat because of its proximity to the sacred pools of Manikarni-kakhund dug by Vishnu with his discus. Shiva was so impressed by Benares that he dropped jewelled earrings into the river.

One person dies of diarrhoea every minute in the Ganetic area. Tapeworm, typhoid, cholera and viral hepatatis are rife. But still it is the place to seek salvation, to practise austerities and to taste immortality.

Pilgrims come to Benares to press their palms together and give the traditional Namaaskar greeting... to salute the divine in everything.

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