If you had to choose one city to represent everything that is really Indian, you would probably choose Varanasi. This means it is a fascinating place; it also means it's almost impossible to describe on paper.
The first area of Varanasi is the main business district, known as the Cantonment area. Almost every city has a Cantonment area; this was the Raj-era term for the administrative and military area of a city, and most cities retain the Cantonment name for the central part. Varanasi's core is also its least interesting area, so let's dispense with it quickly; if you want a train ticket or a bank, go to the Cantonment, otherwise you're better off hanging out in the two other main areas of town.
Varanasi is built along the west bank of the Ganges, which, in an attempt to avoid the hills to the east in Bihar, turns north towards the Ghaghara River; this means that the river flows north at Varanasi, against all intuition, and Varanasi is perched on the west bank, facing into the sunrise. All along this bank is the second area of town, a long line of ghats1 stretching for some six or seven kilometres between the famous Benares Hindu University in the south and the large railway bridge in the north. Inland from the ghats, to the west, is the third area, the old town, where things start to get really interesting. It's the ghats and the old town that make Varanasi what it is.
Finding a Hotel
Arriving in Varanasi after a long train journey, your first experience is one of total confusion and disorientation. It is a guarantee that your rickshaw driver will totally ignore your instructions to take you to the hotel you've told him, and will instead stop outside a hotel which gives him a healthy commission; we just sat there and refused to budge until he started his motor up again and took us where we wanted to go.
This infuriated the hotel owner who pretended to take our snub as a comment on his hotel ('Rooms very nice sir, just five minutes' walk to the river, very clean') but I'm not going to fall for a rickshaw driver's trick this far into my Indian experience... so eventually we found ourselves dropped somewhere else entirely, though exactly where, we couldn't work out; the rickshaw driver told us he couldn't drive right down to the ghats (a lie, I later found out, as rickshaws ran over my toes right at the top of the steps) so we were left to fend for ourselves. It took us a long time to find what we wanted, but it was well worth the effort.
The guest house I chose, Ajay's Guest House overlooking Rana ghat, was right on the river, and from its roof I got a bird's eye view of the banks of the Ganges (Chris and Martina chose a slightly more luxurious hotel away from the river). What surprised me most was how one-sided Varanasi is; the east bank of the river is totally untouched by buildings, and the few shacks built by the water's edge are temporary to say the least. The river is perhaps 200m wide in this, the pre-monsoon season, but there's a very wide silt strip on the east bank that gets totally flooded in the monsoon, more than doubling the width of the river. It's no wonder the east bank is unpopulated if every year you lose your house, but it still surprised me that even on the permanent part of the eastern bank, where scrubby trees line the horizon, there were no houses at all. I would soon discover why Varanasi is perched on just one bank of the river...
Ghats are central to life in India. As part of their religion Hindus wash regularly – the Indian version of 'cleanliness is next to godliness' – and the ghats are the place to wash bodies, clothes, crockery and anything else that gets dirty. But as I discovered in Hampi during the tika-scrubbing of Holi, the ghats are not just communal baths, they're the Indian equivalent of the local pub. Watching ghats through the day is instructive; they start to liven up before the sun rises, when those with early starts mingle with the particularly pious in a morning scrub to wake up the senses and rub off the smell of another hot, sweaty tropical night. The busiest time is after sunrise when everyone turns up for their morning ablutions and absolutions; kids frolic in the river, playing games with the tourist boats while their mothers start on the clothes washing and old men ponder how long it will be before they'll be floating down the river permanently.
This is the essence of India. While the kids splash more water out of the Ganges than the monsoon puts in, a solitary man prays towards the sun, chanting Hindu prayers and scooping water up in his cupped hands, pouring the holy river out in a parabola in front of him and repeating the slow movement five or six times before he slowly turns round, holding his hands together in prayer and immersing himself fully, all the while continuing his prayers, barely audible in their monotonic whisper. Suddenly his prayer is finished, and it is as if for the first time he notices the cacophony around him, the beginning of a whole new day in India.
While the old man prays the women are bathing at another end of the ghat; in some ghats the division of men and women is so obvious it hurts the morning-sensitive eyes. One end of the ghat is covered in brown bodies, scantily clad in tightly tucked cloths tied round the midriff and leaping around like lizards on a hot tile floor, and at the other end is the shock of colourful sarees and dresses that Indian women have made their own. The reason for the division is the patriarchal society; men can strip down to briefs that would make tourists on a Thai beach do a double take, but the women have to bathe in full attire, showing nothing more than a bit of ankle and a strip round the waist. I watched women having full soapy baths without removing a stitch, the expert slipping of soap under the layers a result of ritual and acceptance of the status quo. I can't imagine having a bath with my clothes on, and I doubt Indian men can either, but they make their women put up with it; it's an indication of the strength of the female spirit in India that, even during the morning wash, the women manage to retain their radiance and beauty to the shame of the dawdling and gangly men. It's also a poignant reminder that the men don't deserve their chauvinist domination.
After the morning rush hour the ghats calm down, for the sun has come up over the horizon and is starting to make sure that everyone knows it's summer. The stone steps begin to heat up, the hotel rooms overlooking the river flood with sunlight, forcing the occupants to get up and open their windows, and the boats start to return their sightseeing punters back to shore. The men and some of the women disappear off to their jobs in town, and the remaining women settle down to another day of cooking, cleaning, washing, looking after the kids and catching up with the gossip from next door. People still come and wash at the ghats, and pilgrims still turn up to bathe in the healing waters of the Ganges, but until the sun has crossed the sky the biggest activity on the ghats involves catching and conning tourists, and the burning of bodies at the two burning ghats.
Come late evening the men start to drift back towards the river, now shaded from the sun by the buildings at the edge of the old city. Sitting on the steps with their portable stoves and socks stuffed with cheap tea leaves, the chai vendors make a killing as men come back from work and tarry a while before the evening meal, which is being slaved over by a hard-worked wife somewhere in the bowels of the city. At this time many people take another dip to remove the scum layer gained in the searing heat of the day, the kids jumping around as if to prove that even a long, hot day in the dusty atmosphere of the city streets isn't enough to dent their enthusiasm for life.
Finally, as the sun goes down, the ghats have their last wind, and people come out to stroll along the promenade, to catch up on any gossip they may have missed, to have another wash and just to sit and watch the world go by. Darkness falls, the lights come on, and slowly people drift off to bed – a lot of them sleeping on the ghats themselves – before Varanasi finally falls silent, if you ignore the thousands of noisily territorial dogs that plague urban India.
The Burning Ghats
Each ghat has its function beyond being a social centre. There are over one hundred ghats in Varanasi, and while some of them are crumbling and obviously not much use beyond being somewhere convenient to take a crap, most have a specific function. Five of the ghats – Asi, Dasaswamedh, Barnasangam, Panchganga and Maikarnika – are the special ghats where Hindu pilgrims must bathe each day, in that order; other ghats are where the Muslims hang out with their little skull caps; others are used by the dhobi-wallahs to thrash the clothes they've got to wash, made easier by the flat rocks positioned at regular intervals just in the water; yet another is for Jain worshippers, while the ascetics hang out at the Dandi ghat, no doubt discussing how long it is since they had a good meal; the Mir ghat leads to a temple for Nepalese worshippers; and others have special powers, such as the Somewar ghat which is particularly good at healing diseases. In much the same way as some prefer the Dog and Duck over the Queen's Head, everyone in Varanasi has their local ghat, though seeing as alcohol is banned in the central town, they have to make do with a sip of the Ganges2.
Easily the most infamous ghats are Jalsain and Harishchandra, at least as far as westerners are concerned, for these are the burning ghats where cremations take place. Varanasi isn't just a city with lots of ghats and temples, it's a seriously holy place, so holy in fact that dying and having your body dumped in the Ganges here is so auspicious that it's a guaranteed way of getting to heaven. This strikes me as one of the more bizarre aspects of Hinduism; if you can get to heaven simply by dying in Varanasi and making the correct arrangements, then why care about karma and caste and working hard all your life, why not just enjoy life and make sure you die in Varanasi?
But not everybody can afford to die in Varanasi. The wood for the cremation costs money, quite a lot of it, and I was told that if someone dies in the street, the authorities wait until people have thrown enough money onto the body before they burn it; on the other hand, I was also told that there's a dump truck that goes around collecting dead bodies, but whatever the truth, the sleeping beggars probably get a swift kick in the ribs every now and then, just to make sure they're still with us.
I was rather paranoid about approaching the burning ghats, not so much because of the many travellers' tales I'd heard about cons, hassles and rip-offs there, but because I felt it was none of my business. What would you think if, just as you were standing in the graveyard watching your dearly beloved being lowered into the frozen winter soil, a bunch of yelping tourists came up and started taking pictures, saying things like, 'That's sick, man, check out that guy's burning hair!' and 'Shit, this place stinks worse than a fuckin' butcher's shop!' I didn't want to get involved.
But it's impossible to avoid the whole scene, and despite my misgivings, I wasn't going to miss out on seeing such a strange sight. Jalsain is the main burning ghat3, and as the bodies are brought in by relatives on stretchers, entirely covered in garish red and gold fabrics, the clockwork efficiency of the system seems at odds with the importance of the occasion, for being cremated and scattered in the Ganges is the Hindu equivalent of being buried in Westminster Abbey. After the relatives wash the body in the Ganges for the last time, simply by dipping the covered body in the river, it is placed on top of an orderly pile of logs by the workers (untouchables, the lowest caste of all) who neatly stack more logs on top before lighting the pyre. It doesn't take long for the fire to catch, and at any one time you can see two or three bodies burning steadily in the river breeze, giving off a smell that's disturbingly reminiscent of a barbecue.
A typical body takes three to four hours to burn, but there's always something left; for a woman it's the hips, and for a man the lower back (don't ask me why), and these are just chucked into the river for the dogs to fight over. Meanwhile the ashes are sifted by a man called the Watchman for gold and silver, which he gets to keep, and then they're scattered on the water (or, rather, shovelled in for the river to wash away later, as there's so much ash). The whole process is surprisingly efficient and hygienic; after all, cremation is the cleanest way to dispose of a body.
But there's a bit of Indian logic that makes all this cleanliness irrelevant. Not everyone is burned at the ghats, oh no. Holy cows, children less than twelve years old and pregnant women are not burned because they are already considered pure (in the latter case it's the baby who is pure) and the whole point of the fire is to cleanse the soul on its way to heaven, so cremation isn't needed; also, lepers and people suffering from other diseases ('People with poisons in their body' was how one chap referred to it) are not burned, so along with the cows, children and pregnant women they're tied to a rock, rowed out into the middle of the river and dumped overboard.
That sounds just fine, but Indian ropes being Indian ropes, these bodies soon find their way to the surface, and due to the gentleness of the current in the non-monsoon Ganges, they can hang around for quite some time before the birds and dogs finally get to them. During this time they tend to drift over to the east bank, which probably explains why there isn't a great deal of housing there, daily dead body delivery not being up there in the estate agent's list of desirable attributes. Taking a boat on the river, a delightful experience especially at sunrise, is a wonderful and cheap way to enjoy the ghat area, but if you're squeamish then you may be put off your breakfast by the floating bodies with their gaping skulls picked almost clean by the birds, and the faintly familiar rib cages stacked on the east bank.
It doesn't seem to bother the locals, though. Despite the regular parade of dead humans and bloated cows floating past, everyone still bathes and drinks at their local ghat. On top of the obvious health issues raised by bathing with the dead, there are plenty of other hygienic faux pas, such as the man bathing ten feet from another man who's pissing in the river, all of which is enough to make you more wary of the Ganges than you are about strangers calling you 'friend' and salesmen who offer you their 'best price'. This is a shame, because the Ganges in Varanasi isn't the mud-slicked quagmire you might expect from a river that has had to struggle its way through thousands of miles of Indians using it as a moving rubbish-dump-cum-sewer4; in fact it's a pleasant deep blue, and it's only on closer inspection you see all the rubbish collected on the banks and the human detritus piled up on the eastern side.
Ram Nagar Fort
Closer inspection was what I had in mind on my penultimate day in Varanasi. I've wanted to take a walk along the Ganges for some time, and not just because the Ganges is so famous; it's surprisingly elusive for such a long river, and most of the well-known cities in India have nothing to do with it. Delhi and Agra are on the Yamuna River, Calcutta is on the Hooghly, Chennai and Mumbai are miles south of the Gangetic plains, and places like Darjeeling and Kashmir are a long way from the slow march of Mother Ganga. But it's the Ganges that everyone associates with India, and I wanted to check it out.
Setting out from my hotel, I walked south down the west bank to the rickety pontoon bridge that spans the Ganges during the dry season. One glance and you can see why it isn't used in the monsoon; it's got enough holes and leaks to make it a scary proposition even if the Ganges dries up. On the other side of the bridge, over on the east bank, is the Ram Nagar Fort, and being a sucker for forts, I made straight for it as the sun began to get serious.
Inside the fort – where incidentally Queen Elizabeth stayed on her visit in 1958, when I assume the place had rather more class than it does now – is a rather sad museum containing little of merit beyond an exquisite collection of intricate ivory carvings. As I breezed past the moth-eaten clothes and decrepit dust buckets that are all that remain of the Maharaja of Benares' transport department, I fell into conversation with a well-spoken man called Ram who hailed from Andhra Pradesh. With his shaved head (apart from a tuft at the back) and tika mark he was obviously a Hindu, and he began to explain why he was in Varanasi.
'I have just committed the bones of my mother to the Ganges,' he said. 'That is why I have my head shaved; the eldest son has it done as a mark of respect.'
I offered my condolences, and asked him if being buried in the Ganges meant his mother was now in heaven.
'Yes,' he replied. 'If a person's bones are buried in the Ganges at Varanasi or Allahabad5 then, as long as the bones remain in the river, that person will be in heaven. And with bones, they do not float, so he or she will remain in heaven forever.
'Many American Hindus come here to be cremated,' he added. 'I suppose they can easily afford the wood, but I do wonder why so many western tourists come to Varanasi. What is the attraction for them? They are not Hindus, so it can't be for the pilgrimage.'
I didn't tell him that it was probably the sick attraction of watching people like his mother burn, and instead waffled on about the amazing streets of the old city, the serenity of the Ganges and the multitude of cheap hotels. The only drawback was the heat, I said, which is why the number of tourists is far less in the summer.
'It was 49 degrees here yesterday,' said Ram, surprising me considerably as I'd managed to cope pretty well; I initially thought he meant 39 degrees, but later I was to read about a heat wave cruising northern India, pushing the temperatures into the high forties. 'It is very hot, but it gets hotter in Andhra Pradesh, up into the fifties. Rajasthan will be hot; it is interesting that you are going there now. What is your reaction to the nuclear tests there?'
He was referring to the underground nuclear tests that the Indian government have just carried out in the Thar Desert north of Pokaran, a move which has earned the country trade sanctions and widespread criticism but which makes the point that India is prepared to defend itself against its arch-enemy, Pakistan. I told him I thought it was crazy that such a poor country should spend money on nuclear testing, but Ram's reaction was unexpected.
'India is not a poor country,' he said, 'but the Indians are a poor people. We have much corruption and terrorism here, and places like Kashmir are particularly dangerous.'
I replied that I had found people in the south to be marginally friendlier and less likely to rip you off than in the north, but he wasn't so sure, despite my comment being a backhanded compliment to his people.
'In the south they will argue with you,' he said, 'but in the north they will just cut your throat. Be careful.'
I thanked him for his advice and we parted; and having wandered around the fort to my satisfaction, I decided to walk right across town, but this time on the east bank. I wanted to see how a city could just stop at a river and not spring up on the other side, and what I saw confirmed my earlier theory.
East Bank of the Ganges
The east bank of the Ganges is a false one; dry, cracked mud stretches for a couple of hundred metres back from the water's edge, until it reaches a gradual rise where the vegetation can survive the monsoon without being washed out. I spent the first part of my walk in this scrubland of trees, grass and severe heat, a beautiful environment that is a total anathema to anything living.
The sun beat down on my bush hat, pushing sweat out through my clothes, down the back of my daypack and into my eyes, and it wasn't long before I wistfully thought of Noel Coward and his uncanny accuracy. I enjoyed it though, not having had a good dry scrub walk since Australia, and when I spotted the plume of blue smoke from the main burning ghat in the distance on the other side of the Ganges, I headed towards the water to get a view of the city on the opposite bank.
Crossing the mud flats to the sand banks, I nearly stumbled into a huge sand mine, filled with trucks and men digging deep into the sand. I couldn't help wondering how this might affect all those pious Hindus up in heaven who'd died in the monsoon and whose bones had settled in the flood plain; one assumes the workmen would chuck any bones they found into the river, but imagine how annoyed you'd be if you were suddenly plucked from paradise because someone found your femur some thirty feet down. Is nothing sacred here?
It seems not. I soon reached the east bank, which slides into the murky water without ceremony or embankment, and the first thing I noticed was the smell, the familiar stench of rotting garbage and sewage, but this time with an added twinge, a sour odour of burned meat; the burning ghats were in full swing, and the wind wasn't doing me any favours. I remembered a body that I'd seen from a morning boat trip on the river a couple of days before – an upper half of the torso only, body still swathed and the face nothing but a cleaned skull, not hollow but not covered in flesh either – and prepared myself for the worst. I wasn't to be disappointed.
In all I came across six or seven rotting humans washed up on the shore; the uncertainty comes from my lack of expertise in biology, as one of them could have been anything. Some were simply bones, picked clean by the local dogs (who were particularly vicious and territorial, nearly attacking me as I wandered along); others were bloated like kangaroos by the side of the Australian highway, splitting open at the seams like some failed experiment in deep sea diving; one looked like a chicken wrapped in silk, floating in the tide, until I realised it must have been a baby; another one lay askew without a head, its skull six feet away catching the lapping waves and echoing the sound of the surf through its left eye; I found myself utterly detached, the reporter doing his job, and took a few photos in much the same way that a pathologist would do. After seeing someone dying in front of my very eyes on the Nepalese highway, dead bodies are nothing to me.
Just downstream from the most disgusting corpse – all I could think of was Lennon's line 'Yellow matter custard/Dripping from a dead dog's eye' – was a young man having a wash; he even drank the water, obviously enjoying the coolness of Mother Ganga on his skin. This I found more disturbing than the rictus grins behind me, and as I wandered further north towards the railway bridge, I encountered a number of other people in the water. One pair of stalwarts were dragging a huge net along the current, giving new meaning to the phrase 'fishers of men'; three others were peeling the hide off a stunningly rotten and pungent cow that had been floating in the river for far too long and which I'd passed on the morning boat trip two days before; women crouched in huts and brewed tea; and despite this human presence, I came across yet more decaying unfortunates who were not only no longer in heaven, they were almost certainly in hell.
Unlike the dogs, the people on the east bank, though few in number, were markedly friendlier than the inhabitants of the city. I suppose when you're surrounded by dead rich people who have been washed up from heaven, you lose a lot of your bigotries; every day you're reminded that we are all dust in the end, whatever our status in life. Every one of them said hello, and lots of them tried to start a conversation in Hindi (though with little success); in the city all I ever got was the usual chanting of 'Hello friend, you want cold drink/cigarettes/hotel/massage (delete as applicable)?' 'Hello friend' is an especially irritating phrase; 'Hello mister' is simply inane and faintly amusing, and the normal 'Hello sir' the Indians use is polite and fine by me, but 'Hello friend'?
This is a country where they leave their friends bobbing on the east bank for the dogs and maggots, for goodness sake. No thanks, friend.
The Old City
Yes, the ghats are quite stunning, and make for some interesting walks. But behind every great man is a great woman, and behind the craziness of the ghats is the even more intense insanity of the old city. Like all cities that grow up steadily and totally unplanned, the old city is chaos, but it's a different sort of chaos from the more normal traffic and population clash of India's cities; in the old city of Varanasi the streets are seldom wider than eight feet, so there are no cars or rickshaws, and there aren't so many people. It sounds like heaven.
But of course it's not. You can take the cars off the streets but you can't do anything about the cows, and with Varanasi being such a holy city, it's packed with wandering bovines. Cows, being docile beasts and fairly slow-moving, are not much of a problem as you can slide past them pretty easily, but 'slide' is the operative word; where there are cows there is cow shit, and if you take the number of cows in Varanasi and think how many pats they drop in your average day, you can understand why the streets of Varanasi are coated in the stuff. It helps to keep the dust down, but it means you have to keep your head down when you're walking, especially at night.
As well as the cows, there are millions of dogs, loads of goats, plenty of rats and countless other examples of Noah's work kicking around the backstreets, but the animals aren't the main obstacles when you run the old city gauntlet. Shop owners entice you into their tiny hovels with a 'Hello, you want something?'; sadhus stutter past in dulled saffron robes, some floating on bhang and some just floating naturally; push bikes click along the cobbles as the riders get off to push them, and there's even the odd motorcycle brave enough to slosh through the shit, even though it's probably quicker to walk; hashish sellers saunter up with their mantra of 'Good hash, Manali hash, best quality, cheap price,' and when you ignore them, a hopeful 'Maybe later, sir? I see you tomorrow?'; and always there are sights to grab the eyes, things that make all the slip-sliding worthwhile.
That is, there are if you can work out how to find them. It took me a while to find out that the worst possible way of exploring the old city is to try to use a map; some places in this world are impossible to depict on paper, and Varanasi is one of them, up there with Caen (where we would always get lost on family holidays) and the jungle paths of Taman Negara. In fact the best thing to do in Varanasi is to ditch the map in the cow dung and fish out a compass; the Ganges is always east and the Cantonment is always west, so if you get really stuck you can always head for them. I spent hours wandering round the streets, discovering beautiful mosques such as the Great Mosque of Aurangzeb, Hindu temples galore, kids playing marbles in the street, urchins showering under broken pipes in the gutter, women making offerings in tiny Siva shrines, beggars napping in the shade offered by the thin streets... the whole of Indian culture lives in the streets of the old city.
At night the place is transformed, and not just because nobody can tell what they are treading in. Frequent power cuts notwithstanding, the ill-lit arteries of the heart of the city provide you with plenty to see: peering in through a half-closed door you can see a father teaching his son the tools of his pan-making trade, the child's eyes wide with wonder in the flickering candle light; smoke billows out of a dull red glow where large pots of milk boil and men manufacture trays of sweets, silhouetted demons sweating in a man-made inferno; a man stands in front of a statue of Ganesh, the stonework almost invisible under the thick layers of red paint smeared on it, chanting a mantra and holding smouldering incense sticks in his outstretched hands; on the steps around a chai shop men sit and chat away, their sticky glasses filled with sickly tea and their plates smeared with the remains of yet another dangerous-looking Indian snack; a shop-keeper squints through his half-moon glasses at his books by the light of a kerosene lamp, adding up figures in his head and writing down totals and stock levels with an old pen; and all the time the atmosphere of Varanasi, an indefinable feeling that permeates these ancient lanes, makes it all seem worthwhile and strangely seductive, despite the obvious squalor, smell and suffering. I challenge anybody to come to Varanasi and not be moved.
(Indeed Chris, who is on his first visit to India in the capable hands of his friend, Martina, herself visiting India for her third time and Varanasi for the second, was totally bowled over by the place. He'd loved Darjeeling and had found Delhi pretty crazy, but Varanasi really did it for him. He'll be back, no doubt about it; one month in India is never enough.)
As for what I actually did in Varanasi, well that's the funny thing. I did almost nothing, at least as far as traditional tourism goes. Varanasi is not a tourist haven in terms of specific sights, it's a tourist haven in terms of sitting and watching, and I did a lot of that. After I bade farewell to Chris and Martina, who only had time for a few days in the city, I managed to change rooms to a stunning balcony location overlooking the ghats. From my basic but clean room (two mattresses on the floor, fan, light bulb and shelves) I could look out of a window each way onto the ghats, and my door opened out onto a semi-circular balcony from which I could see pretty much everything. I tried in vain to keep the local monkeys out of my bed6, I spent whole days writing on my balcony and taking showers every two hours, I wandered up and down the ghats staring at the scenes before me, and I visited temples, mosques, forts and all the other buildings that appealed.
As if it were possible, one particular night managed to sum up Varanasi, even if it could have happened anywhere. Chris and I were sitting on the guest house roof watching the Ganges ripple past the ghats, and before we knew what was happening we heard a banging and a crashing from downstairs, and a large group of people stomped up the stairs to invade the roof. There were a few westerners and the rest were Indian, and as we sat there agog, they proceeded to practise their art, that of juggling fire. In the deep blue of night, the pale three-quarter moon rising over the river in front of us, we saw a lanky Frenchman juggling burning clubs; an Indian expert spinning a six-foot-pole with both ends lit, describing neon circles in the air; and an Australian girl creating Lissajoux patterns round her head and body with burning kerosene pads attached to the ends of two chains, one held in each hand. It was a meeting of cultures via the universal language of the circus, and the Indians and westerners chatted about tricks they'd learned, how much they had to practise and where they were next meeting up for a show.
It seemed as if the circus down in the streets below had come up to the rooftop for the night. I sat amazed as the Varanasi sky burned around me, and in the morning realised that if I had to pick one place in India to recommend to people to visit, this would be it.
1 Ghats are stone steps leading down into a river or lake; they're also bloody slippery, so it wasn't a huge surprise when I saw a little boy slip over just below my hotel balcony and crack the back of his head open. The Western Ghats, with a capital G, are the hills in southern India, but ghats with no capitalisation are everywhere in India. Varanasi is probably the most famous ghat city in the country, though.
2 Though some would suggest that the Ganges has more of a kick than alcohol – it certainly has more living matter in it than real ale.
3 Harishchandra is smaller, but it does have an electric crematorium and a resident sadhu whose penance (for goodness only knows what) is to eat bits of flesh as they roll out of the toaster. This behaviour is accepted here; the lowest of the low jobs is to deal with cremations, so the sadhu has effectively lowered himself as low as he can, like all good penitents. It makes a change from standing on your head for 12 years or going on hunger strike, or indeed any of the other sadhu penances out there.
4 And you can see why they do use it. On the train through Bihar, one of India's poorest and most densely populated states, I saw children bathing in pools so stagnant that I had to look twice to determine whether or not it was water. People have to wash, and if there's a river there, they're going to use it. It sure beats bathing in stagnant pools.
5 Allahabad is about 100km west of Varanasi, where the Ganges meets the Yamuna.
6 Noticing in the process that monkeys sit exactly like Indians, crouched down on flat feet (something westerners would also do if we used squat toilets). Luckily the monkeys ended up being interesting conversationalists, even if a little too temperamental and over keen to bare their teeth and lunge, so there was no repeat of Gunung Rinjani's unpleasantness.