Cows and holy men: Varanasi

"You haven't been to India until you've been to Varanasi," a well-heeled woman told me last week. "After that, everything is India Lite."

Varanasi is India’s most holy city. Lord Shiva looked out from the highest peak in the Himalayas and chose this spot to be his. It’s the city of Shiva, the city of light, it’s where the sacred Ganges flows and the aged wait here to die in a place of holiness and purity.

“If you want to see the city, you have to see it with the heart and the eye,” says Anub, a local. “No-one is bigger than religion or belief.”

Six hours later: I’ve floated a tiny boat of flowers and a candle down the river, seen sadhus (religious men) stripped almost naked and plunging in the water, seen the flames of a distant cremation and watched as even Indians do a double take at the sight of a young, fair western boy dressed as a holy man in a dhoti (think Ghandi’s shawl) and dreadlocks.

Boatmen offer to row you out into the broad river for a few dollars, but tonight was a night of walking for me. Until I stopped for chai on the stairs and someone pointed out something beside my hand. A monster! I jumped, dropped my camera and cracked the protection cover. Lucky it wasn’t the lens. Hmm. Maybe I’ve photographed something I shouldn’t. This town’s all about karma, you know. and washing in the Ganges is supposed to be the cure. However, the water of the Ganges is a dull olive-green. And it doesn’t smell so good. I dabble my feet in it and sprinkle it over my hair, but as for leaping in, like the young boys this evening, maybe not.

Ganeesh, the blue boy-cum-elephant, is painted on the walls of the crumbling mansions that line the Ganges, alongside advertisements for restaurants, hotels and tea shops. The crowds gather at the main ghat (stairs that lead into the river) for evening puja, a celebration led by a chanter and supplicants dressed in robes the same vivid yellow as the marigolds they were scattering across the holy water.

The streets are intense. No cars or auto rickshaws are allowed a half-kilometre to the river, so great is the congestion. So pedal rickshaws compete for space with mopeds and motorbikes, bicycles, us pedestrians and the cows, which plod expressionlessly through the traffic, waiting their turn and negotiating the roundabouts with skill.

It is all winding down as I leave around 9.30pm but the party starts all over again tomorrow morning at 5am, in time for sunrise prayers...

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