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India: Varanasi

The incredible ghats of Varanasi
The incredible ghats of Varanasi

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.

A temple sliding into the Ganges
The Varanasi spirit: build a temple, let it slide into the Ganges, build another

Finding a Hotel

Ajay's Guest House
Ajay's Guest House

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.

Locals bathing in the Ganges
Locals bathing in the Ganges

The Ghats

Varanasi's dhobi ghats
The dhobi-wallahs at work drying the city's clothes on the river banks

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.

People washing themselves by a temple on the Ganges
Morning ablutions on the Ganges
The ghats at dusk
The ghats at dusk
A man rowing a boat on the Ganges at dawn
Taking a dawn boat trip is a wonderfully atmospheric way to see Varanasi
The Varanasi ghats
The ghats from my second hotel room

The Burning Ghats

Martina shopping for perfume
Martina shopping for perfume in town

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.

Shop shelves
Varanasi shop shelves
Monkeys on a balcony
Monkeys on my balcony
Cow dung drying in the sun
Cow dung makes an excellent fuel, once it's dried hard in the sun
A collapsing ghat by the Ganges
A ghat collapsing into the river
A man washing water buffalo in the Ganges
Washing the water buffalo

Ram Nagar Fort

Ram Nagar Fort
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.

A pretty path along the east bank of the Ganges
A pretty path along the east bank of the Ganges
The east bank of the Ganges from the railway bridge
The uninhabited east bank of the Ganges from the railway bridge
The railway bridge over the Ganges
The railway bridge over the Ganges

East Bank of the Ganges

A dead body floating in the Ganges
If you take a boat trip on the Ganges at Varanasi, you will inevitably come across floating dead bodies

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.

A putrefying body on the east bank of the Ganges
A putrefying body washed up on the east bank of the Ganges
A skeleton at Varanasi
A skeleton on the east bank, washed up and picked clean by the dogs
A dead baby
Even the bodies of babies wash up onto the uninhabited east bank
Bathing a herd of water buffalo in the Ganges
Bathing a herd of water buffalo

The Old City

Minarets on the Great Mosque of Aurangzeb
Minarets on the Great Mosque of Aurangzeb

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.

Varanasi railway bridge
Crossing the railway bridge
Varanasi city roofs
The view over the city roofs from the Great Mosque of Aurangzeb
The bed of the Ganges in the dry season
The bed of the Ganges in the dry season is just flaking mud
A sunken temple by the Ganges
A sunken temple by the river
Mark in the scrub on the eastern banks of the Ganges
Exploring the scrub on the eastern banks of the Ganges

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.