According to the locals, dawn arrives here at 6am and lest you forget that the Hindu temple bells and the Muslim Muezzins wake you at 5.45. You are never anything but very close to religion in this country.

Someone forgot to tell the sun however who shook off her sleep dust at 6.15.

I’m up so early this morning as I want to experience at least one dawn in Varanasi and I did not sleep at all well last night. I guess with the sights of yesterday it does not take an eminent psychologist to discover why.

The weather seems to have cleared although as with most winter mornings in Varanasi a layer of mist hangs over the river. I wish I could say that the dawn was a magical smorgasbord of deep reds gradually lightening to become day revealing the mellow colours of the Ghats. But I can’t. The mist is thick and pervasive so a smudgy grey to a not so smudgy grey is a more accurate description. I don’t care, I love this time of the morning.

The view from my “private” balcony.

From my high vantage point I can see the dawn world coming and going. Even before the sun rises a number of men are taking their holy dip in the mother river. They stand waist deep in the water, dip their bodies repeatedly into the water with only 9 million times the amount of fecal matter than is considered safe with a flailing “swimming not drowning” double overarm stroke.

Other men in posher clothes are rowed out in small boats a few metres out before dropping offerings in shallow paper bowls gently into the river. They float away in a completely different direct to which imagined the flow to be. I later find that I have assumed completely the wrong flow direction.

All aboard for puja!

Tourist boats both western and Indian steam by with flash guns popping. It’s one of the quintessential things to do in Varanasi even though you won’t see much and your photos will look like someone opened the back of the camera without rolling back the film. How can I tell if it’s a western tourist boat or Indian? There’re very similar but one has three times the number of people in it.

To my right smoke still rises from the ashes of Manikarnika Ghat and all around is the sound of India in the mornings: The hawk and I don’t mean the bird. Indian men don’t just clear their throats, they pull up their tonsils for a good old brushing (or so it sounds). It starts with a forced cough or twelve followed by that rasping in the upper throat that words cannot replicate followed by the inevitable kersplatt as said clearance finds the floor.

Today I want to walk the entire length of the Ghats from north to south. As I am part way down from the north I have to head up a little before spinning round. At this time the only movement is people going about their normal morning business of dunking yourself in a holy river.

Boy with carp.

On the way I see a lad tying a carp to a rock then setting the fish in the water to keep it fresh. Fish suitably restrained he then goes back to his fishing with a simple line and hook. He hurls the bait out a short way and sticks the line down to the Ghat with a piece of moistened bread as a bite detector. He then assumes the squat and waits.

I wait also in eager anticipation but no new bites so I move on. So fish do live in this murky brown water. Carp clearly thrive in shitty water, probably why they taste so crap. My guess is that his fish will not end up in his belly but on a market slab.

One of the “Dhobi” wash ghats are up this end and I pass by. The “Dhobi Wallahs” are all men and they vigorously rubbing a soap bar up and down into dirty clothes, sheets and blankets then beating seven shades out of them with vicious overhead swings onto a flat stone before rinsing them in the caramel coloured Ganges.

A quick but thorough wring with wiry hands, another dunk in the brown stuff, a final wring and voila! Just as dirty as when it started. I jest unfairly, washing clothes in the mother Ganga is considered to deep clean clothes both physically and spiritually.

Varanasi with the mist slowly clearing.

The Ghats slope quite steeply into the river and the buildings that back onto them are very high sided. The best way of seeing them is by boat in the middle of the river but the mist and low cloud is still around so I take a chance on later.

At the top near a large bridge over the river it’s time to turn around as I have run out of ghats. Rather than walk back over the same ground I head up into Chowk in the hope of finding some chai where the glasses have not been freshly “purified” in the river. I’m getting the hang of navigating now and before long I find my chai and as my guts have given me the green light I eat another Indian breakfast from the street. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s getting warm, the weather is definitely breaking. As I head back down towards the river the clouds part biblically (wrong book!) and out comes the sun along with one of the things that the Varanasi Ghats are world famous for, vibrant and exciting colours.

Time for a boat. No matter where you are on the river you simply have to stand still for more than 2 seconds to hear the words “boat sir”? It’s one in a thousand for this chap as this time it’s yes. We quickly do a deal over the price R150, and off we set.

The guides are right. To see the best of the Ghats you need to be in a boat. Varanasi is staggering. Pastel colours conspire with the overwhelming shapes within the sheer cliff of buildings to create a sort of recognisable order out of what you know is complete, unplanned chaos.

From the water you can see the faces of those deep in meditation and hear the gentle incantations that accompany the “holy dip”. You do get carried away with the camera however, I must have taken about 200 shots.

My young boatman is Sun Dried or that’s how I heard it and he is working hard for a tip. He declares himself thirsty and takes a sip from the river which I repeat has nine million times the amount of fecal matter that is considered safe. He tells me that he has “A strong stomach” and that if I did the same I would “Not die, very very sick”. Yeah right I would also need to be completely off my head.

Most of what he is telling me I have read or know already but he does solve the mystery of why so many clearly not dead, not sick people are having their heads shaved. Apparently they are from the south and they have travelled to Varanasi to scatter the ashes of their loved ones but as is the tradition both men and women have their heads shaved before doing so. He says the south with a visible sneer.

Other snippets include that Saddhus (holy men), children, pregnant women and cows that die are not burned. They are shrouded, weighted down and tipped into the middle of the river. Beejeezers, it defies description. If in the morning you have the 3 “S’s” in the morning, shower shave and ****, where do you think it goes? There are 20 million who live in Varanasi and around. Where do their “S’s” go? You guessed it. Everywhere you look you see people washing their mouths out or even sipping from the river.

Sun Dried’s description of why children are not cremated is very poignant. They have no memories so do not have to be released from them in order to go to heaven.

We are too close to the bank to gauge the grandeur of Varanasi through a camera lens so I ask sun dried to move into the middle of the river. I like this young lad, his English only requires minor “tuning in” to and we are engaging well which is something I am usually scolded for when travelling as a couple.

I ask him if he has ever been to a big city. He replies “only once, in a dream”. He adds, “I have been in many places in the world, only once”.

The far bank of the Ganges at this time of year is a large slow bulge of sand. We set down there so I can walk and take “poto’s”. The English “ph” creates difficulties in a language that has no equivalent sound. This sand runs the length of the slow curve of the river and must be about 300 to 400 metres deep before failing at a tree line. It is the first time since I have been here that this bank has been even visible at all. Sun Dried informs me that in monsoon time the river covers the entire bank and swallows the ghats whole which might explain why they are so steeply raked.

The sand bank on the far shore.

Sun Dried announces that it is my turn to row and his turn to be the tourist. I remind him that it is his job to row me but what the hell. The boat could probably accommodate ten persons (30 if their Indian) and is made I guess from Banyan wood which is very heavy. The oars are simple bamboo poles with planks roped to the ends and they are heavy too. The rowlocks are just 2 loops of twine. The boat is therefore like a dead weight in the water and my estimation of Sun Dried’s strength and ability rises as I thrash about slowly describing a circle.

Busy going absolutely nowhere.

Despite blotting his copy book a little by hard selling for an evening boat trip to see the celebrations I have enjoyed my time with Sun Dried and tip him R50. Very unlike me!

Dropped back to where we started I head south to see the rest of the Ghats. There are over 80 in total, another of Sun Dried’s snippets. The weather really has turned. It’s sunny and the warmth is hugely welcome after a couple of days of cool.

Varanasi is hugely photogenic and a perfect place to just sit and watch although doing so you become a magnet for touts wanting you to take a boat trip, have a massage or visit “my” shop. The touts in Varanasi are painted to be among the most persistent anywhere in India. Maybe I am visiting on a touts bank holiday but to me they are mild compared to Agra and positively pleasant compared to the aggressive gem shop touts found in Jaipur. I have written about touts before and won’t repeat myself but with a little eye contact, a smile, handshake and a polite refusal they soon get the message. India is a nation that revolves around respect.

Lord knows how many photos of a receding Varanasi later I reach the most southerly ghat and in front in the distance is the fort at Ramanager, one of the sights I had pencilled in. What it is with me and forts and I don’t quite know. Allow me little showing off but I have seen what must be the top three forts in all of India but still my brain overrules my legs and I continue southwards. I discover later that the fort is 10km away from Varanasi. No wonder I ended up so shattered.

The way, close to the river passes through herd upon herd of big black water buffalo and their handlers. I have never been comfortable with these beasts since I read that several thousand people get trampled to death by buffalo every year. It seems that these normally docile creatures can transform to a Charolais on acid if it feels it’s young are being threatened.

A village halfway to the bridge over to the fort shows the evidence of the recent day’s rain. The main street is reduced to a khaki quagmire where vehicles vie for the shallow spots and pedestrians pick around the stones and hummocks at the edges. I wonder that if this is what it’s like after less then 36 hours light rain what is it like during the monsoon?

At the edge of this village a group of young guys are playing cricket with a plank for a bat and stumps drawn in chalk on a brick column. As I pass the bowler successfully bowls his tennis ball into the niddle chalk stump. Loud protestations ensue “your out” “I’m not” I guess in Hindi. I raise my arm with outstretched finger as an umpire and they all break into huge, beaming smiles. The batter gives up the bat without a squeak.

Ramanaga fort is or was the ancestral home of the Maharajas of Benares. The British in their “we’ll include you but dominate you” style made deals with Majarahas all over the sub continent to cede power in exchange for retaining the title and perhaps more importantly, the trappings of extreme wealth. It’s good to be the king. This of course all ended with an independent India with even the titles being swept away by the early 1970’s.

Pontoon bridge over to Ramanager Fort

The fort is over the other side of the Ganges and spanning the river is a rickety pontoon bridge that anything up to motorbikes can use. To the right of this is a “new” bridge under construction. As with all things in India “new” things can look very old indeed and this “new” bridge is no exception. It looks so old that one of the “new” columns has slipped it’s anchors and is gradually teetering over into the water.

A future genius?

Near the start of the bridge is little more than a building site and I notice a young lad avidly inspecting a number of rocks that he has selected from the site. He has a battered and dirty tupperware box container that is full of stones in different shapes and colours. He turns his new choices this way and that, putting each one down in turn before thoroughly inspecting the next.

After a few seconds he makes his choice of two of the stones and carries each in turn over to where I am standing where he has already placed an old tin full of sand. I have been there all along but so involved is he in his own world he only notices me when I crouch to take a photo. I have no idea what he is doing, he could be slightly simple, he could grow up and change the world by inventing a way of generating cheap energy from dirt but that’s one of the things I love about India, you see similar, puzzling things all of the time.

Fishing for metal with magnets on string.

Half way across the bridge a couple of young guys are fishing for scrap metal with a row of ring magnets tied to a length of rope. They are sitting in the flimsiest boat you can imagine. It looks like it has been made from sticks and old advertising hoardings.

The fort is regrettably another crumbling old royal home into which has been incorporated a museum which showcases faded symbols and demonstrations of just how wide the wealth gap this country was during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The museum features a small selection from the Maharaja’s car collection. The old boy had a thing or two for American cars with a Cadillac and a high winged Plymouth slowing crumbling to dust. Both were in right hand drive which have must cost a fortune in it’s day. It’s good to be the King.

Ramanager Fort

Earlier examples of transport are sedan chairs and ceremonial palanquins in elaborately carved ivory or encrusted with semi precious jewels. I am sure that these would have looked grand indeed before the ravages of neglect and time overtook them.

Of real interest though is the huge early weapon collection. It’s a boy thing! The collection fills four of the halls. I have seen very similar displays in other fort museums. I guess that it’s so good to be the king you make bloody well sure it stays that way. One showcase has possibly 40 huge swords arranged within it. Helpfully the middle sword had been labelled in English. “A type of Sword” it read. Thanks!

I am now knackered and my legs have sent an absolute veto to my brain so I pay an auto rickshaw driver to take me back to the edge of the old city where I can drop down to the river and home.

The evenings in Varanasi are equally special with celebrations of the mother river taking place in various ghats in particular the loud but serene and beautiful Ganga Seva Nhidi at Dashaswamedh Ghat. I know that will mean nothing to you but it would take another long post to describe it. Suffice to say that watching a group of guys in fine garb pay homage to the river by the light of flames has a dreamy ethereal quality. I will try and post some images.

Varanasi is indeed all they say about it. It is quite unlike anywhere I have been in India before. Spirituality pervades this place. You can see it, smell it and feel it. The only place I have ever been in the world than can replicate this is Jerusalem. If Jerusalem is the epicentre of the religions of Abraham then Varanasi and the river that runs through it is at the beating heart and soul of Hinduism. It is a full frontal assault on your senses and the alien nature of what surrounds you here demands your absolute attention and stretches your understanding to it’s limit.

I think I could be coming back one day.

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