A Varanasi Wake Up Call - a dawn journey through one of India's holiest cities
Varanasi is not a place for a lie in. We are woken at dawn by the sound of a monkey attempting to bite his way through the window into our room. His yellow fangs screech down the glass like an over zealous window cleaner, his eyes fixed on the packet of digestive biscuits on the table. I knock the window and try to scare him off, but he's not having it. He barely even flinches. Not something you often see, but in Varanasi strange and slightly unnerving sights is what it's all about. We close the curtains on our uninvited guest and get dressed.
The Ganges lies calm and still just before dawn, the faint orange hue of a wakening sky delicately reflected on its surface. We hire a boat and skipper and cast off. The calm is quickly broken by the sound of a thousand Hindu pilgrims making their way to the river bank. Elderly men and women hobble slowly down slick, stone steps while hoards of rowdy children speed past ahead of their mothers, all jostling for a place. We cruise past silently and take in the spectacle, this bizarre scene a cross between a place of worship and a giant outdoor bathroom. The river is revered and loved, but also well used. Some clean their teeth with old plastic bags, admirably trying to floss with them too, others shampoo their hair or shave. But many simply stand waist deep and stock still, their faces turned upward to the rising sun in prayer, seemingly oblivious to the chaos.
The river is the reason many Indians come to Varanasi in the first place and this scene is a daily occurrence. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges will absolve you of sin and, if you are lucky enough to die here and your ashes given over to the river, your soul will be released from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Varanasi for many is essentially the last stop on a very long tour. We move slowly along the river and catch our first glimpse of one of the funeral ghats, sites next to the river where cremations take place from dawn to dusk. Keeping a respectful distance we see and smell the smoke rising from the burning pyres. Brahmin priests clad in pristine white robes recite ancient verse while mourners stand solemnly nearby. Stacks of fire wood are piled high in anticipation of a busy day. Already a small queue has formed towards the back of the site and bodies covered in bright cloth lay waiting on the steps.
The river is revered and loved, but also well used. Some clean their teeth with old plastic bags, admirably trying to floss with them too, others shampoo their hair or shave. But many simply stand waist deep and stock still, their faces turned upward to the rising sun in prayer, seemingly oblivious to the chaos.
We notice a group of children playing and swimming just offshore - they laugh and splash around and a small boy from the group emerges out of the murky water. He trudges up the beach, pulls off his t-shirt and holds it up high to dry next to one of the burning pyres. Maybe he realises what is burning, maybe he doesn't, but that one scene so perfectly sums up the visceral mix of life and death that is so plain to see at every turn here. Death isn't hidden away from view dealt with by funeral homes and hospitals and spoken of in hushed tones. One of the greatest taboos is very much a part of the every day here, but not in a sombre way. There are funerals and upsetting scenes of mourners saying goodbye to loved ones. But because of the great belief in the power of the Ganges, these goodbyes are tinged with hope for the souls of the recently departed.
Reaching the end of our agreed time with our skipper, we pay and disembark onto one of the quieter stretches of river bank. We wander lazily up through one of the narrow ancient alleyways and emerge into a raucous festival taking place on the street. Carriages covered in bright flowers and fairy lights pass by, each one carrying a small child dressed as a Hindu god. One in particular catches our eye. Lord Hanuman, often referred to as the monkey god, peers down at us from his seat, his face half boy and half monkey. Another monkey. And all of this before we've even had breakfast.