Dancing on the Ganges
The streets of the holy city twist and loop an collide into each other like the golden coils of a jalebi sweet. Walking them is a dance, turning shoulders, hopping over piles of dung and garbage, jumping aside to let a motorbike rumble through or to give way to a man with a yoke of birdcages, a woman balancing a milk jug on her head, or a sadhu doing his mad Shiva jig. These are streets you roam at a pace dictated by cows. The only people who walk quickly are the corpse bearers, chanting their call-and-response as they carry the dead, shrouded in gold and orange, down to the burning ghat.
But the Varanasi streets are cool, so narrow that the rows of houses, shops and temples defend the ancient pavement stones from the white heat of the Indian sun. When the rare brave shaft shines its way into this maze, it assaults the senses, raising a stench from the gutters and beads of sweat from my skin. Momentarily blinded, my pupils adjust to scan the ornate balconies draped with a rainbow of drying sari silk above my head.
Back at street level, a glossy smear of sunset red paint coats a thigh high temple; inside it, oil lamps flicker and fresh wreaths of marigold, jasmine and roses caress a Shiva lingam. I dance my way past shops selling orange, red and gold offerings, past men who spend their lives cross legged in cubby holes folding paan leaves, past silk merchants, sweet shops, and children playing in front of their homes.
In this incarnation, we spend only three days here, too quickly gone up in smoke from a chillum with Shiva’s face glowing through the carved pink stone. Sun rises and sets on the river, as we row past ghats – each one with its own purpose and character – and dip our mortal limbs in its waters.
Drinking endless lassis to stay cool, and stopping to sample sweets and small meals from the street vendors, we saturate our days with Banaras’s multi-sensory elixir.
At a nighttime fire puja at Dashashwamedh Ghat, men swing blazing oil lamps in a synchronised spectacle of devotion. One night, we entertain the stoned local youths with impromptu ‘baba yoga’ session on the concrete platforms at Meer Ghat. In the afternoon heat, droop eyed cows and lean wild dogs wander among the ashes that smoulder and reveal shrivelled feet and greasy skulls at Manikarnika, the burning ghat. A lone young monk paces his rooftop at sunrise; another blows a conch at sunset to end his puja in the upper window of a Mughal palace-cum-luxury hotel.
And everywhere, people immerse their bodies, clothes and babies in the Ganges, raising and lowering brass jugs, fresh blossoms and flickering lamps to take their place in this 6000 year old dance.