Every day starts before dawn in this holiest of cities. Boatloads of pilgrims are rowed down the Mother Ganges, this river is liquid god.
As has become my habit here, I’m sitting at my open window, watching the morning below, drinking coffee.
The old man who lives at the bottom of the guest house steps is in his usual perch, watching the morning. His wife, as every morning, waters their one plant, lights incense and claspes her hands in prayer. When it cools this afternoon, and the shade finds the crumbling stone rooftop, she’ll chase the monkeys away with a stick and a yell.
Down a few more stairs sits the shaven headed old lady who shares her crumbling room with a puppy litter. She will moan and hold her hands out when you pass, her right hand going to her mouth and back. A few more steps down are a group of pilgrims, now finished chanting and the ladies, dressed in saris of every colour are circling a sapling.
A bell is ringing, and another. Come down a few steps and the boys who are usually kite flying are involved in a game of cricket, the side of a sinking temple is stumps. A goat wanders past. At the river’s edge, men are bathing, women are sweeping, boats are tied up and saris lay spread on the cement to dry in the hot dusty air.
A group of people, wet from bathing in the river are being led in chants by a white clothed man. These are the relatives of the recently dead, and the ashes of their loved one have just been thrown to the Mother Ganga. Over 300 bodies a day are cremated here on the river’s bank. To die in Varanasi, this holiest of cities, is to be released from the endless cycle of birth and death.
This is the oldest living city on the planet, and for Hindus, the holiest place on earth.
If I concentrate I can hear the clay cups smashing as they’re thrown on the ground at the chai stall below. Cow and calf amble by, ears and tails swishing. The rooftop above the chai stall is empty of kite flyers today, the lack of breeze must have dictated the cricket game.
The chai stall is only 100 metres from my door downstairs but inbetween here and there I will be asked for money, offered necklaces, souveniers, flowers and hear “Yes Madam, boat?” “Yes Madam, where do you go?”, and my favourite, “Yes, Madam, I am here”. At the chai stall I will be welcomed with a smile, offered a plastic stool, and passed hot sweet tea in a clay cup to drink.
Behind the river, this oldest holiest city is a twisting turning maze of alleys. Spend an afternoon getting lost, and find yourself in the sounds and smells and cups of chai you will share with people along the way….