With its winding, cow-filled alleys and ashen atmosphere blotched with rich colour, Varanasi – India’s spiritual capital – is an adventure for the senses. Here people come from all over the country to this holiest of cities to burn their dead, as they believe death here can bring everlasting salvation.
If you’ve ever been here, you’ll know it’s a place not easily forgotten. There’s something so unique about Varanasi – one of the oldest cities on earth. An air of mystery pervades the place, as the city has depth which runs far beneath the grime that lines its alleys, terraces and riverbanks.
Wandering through the narrow lanes, wedging my way past colourful cows, I walked into a cricket game of boys barely ten years old. I used to fancy myself as a bit of a bowler, so I was easily conned into having a bowl. After whipping one in mercilessly at the stumps, I was belted fair across the alley.
Luckily, more cows arrived to disrupt the game, so I made my sheepish exit towards the waterfront, where I was talked into having a massage. Now I don’t like people massaging me and to this day this is the only one I’ve had, although I didn’t regret it. Indians have a powerfully persuasive manner about them (perhaps a survival technique), as well as a way with their hands.
The next morning I went on the Ganges at sunrise to see the sacred burning of dead bodies. There was something oddly surreal about the sun rising behind silhouettes of the living, while dark shapes of the dead floated slowly past our boat. On shore, holy men in orange lined the ghats, while men and women washed in the sacred, dirty water.
The next day I wandered through what seemed like a labyrinth of lanes, before I came across a palm reader. By now I could feel myself opening up, as I was convinced there was something special about Varanasi, so I went in (also something I never do). The man offered me a service and after I showed some doubt, he bade me farewell.
Intrigued, I sought to find him the next day, and it was only after much exploration of the city that I did. I don’t remember him saying anything particularly striking about myself, but I remember his room, his clothes, the many books that lay about him and his air of indifference at me being there. Evidently he had something more important going on. For this was Varanasi, India’s salvation for the dead.