An hour before Surya the sun god stirred over the eastern bank of the River Ganges, the thin, lattice-like alleys of Varanasi appeared grey and lifeless.
A cow snuffled around the edge of a small refuse heap ignoring the sudden intrusion of temple bells. The smell of incense blended with the wonderful cooking aromas of spices and dhosas, with the scent of cow dung underfoot and with the unpleasant, unmistakable smell of death.
On Sonapurna Road, a silent file of Hindu faithful began to swell to a river of hundreds and then thousands on their daily pilgrimage to the terraced steps of the western riverbank known as the Burning Ghats.
On an average day, up to 60,000 people from the city, the region and from across India converge on this five-kilometre piece of the River of Heaven like theatrical extras in a scene that has played here every day for more than 2,500 years.
By blistered foot, buffalo cart, bus, car, aeroplane, even by limousine, the faithful still stream into this holiest of holy cities to cleanse themselves in the sacred, muddy waters because here on centre stage, life and death share equal billing.
To meet the sun from Mother Ganges’ bosom of salvation, to meditate, to pray and bathe in her purifying waters, the pilgrimage poured past mediaeval apartments, pink-turreted temples and riverside palaces built by princes for themselves and their families to die in as they began to glow in the soft, slanting sunlight.
Cremation on a funeral pyre at the ghats before consignment to the river results in a state of moksha for the departed and a welcome escape, Hindus believe, from the continual, tiresome cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
Formerly known as Benares, Varanasi is a sort of lobby between earth and heaven where goddesses and gods can slip down to the material world, passing believers on their flight up to the hereafter on the wisps of smoke that rise from almost continuous funeral pyres.
A bustling metropolis of 1.8 million people in southeastern Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, Varanasi is the oldest living city on earth. As Mark Twain observed a century ago, it is “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”.
On the riverbank a chorus of chants gradually swelled into a cacophony of street vendors, rickshaw bells, taxi horns, tinkling finger cymbals, singing priests, screeching monkeys, mynah birds, jackdaws and ever-dominant cicadas.
And then the tour buses arrived, greeted by regiments of hawkers offering anything from postcards to drinking water to little palm-frond boats filled with golden marigolds and candles for the faithful or for anyone else to launch by the thousands into the sacred river.
Above the mass of bobbing heads a body wrapped in silk rode atop a battered old car toward an appointment with a funeral pyre. For this believer today, Sonapurna Road was the road to moksha.
All around was a powerful energy, but no sense of urgency. In a nation addicted to soothsayers, astrologers and fortune-tellers the faces surrounding me revealed serenity and the precious anticipation of the true gambler that salvation would come with the next roll of the dice.
Boatmen shouted their prices and guided would-be passengers toward the broad rowboats for a water-borne view of the extraordinary scene unfolding in the river and on the steps and terraces above.
Overhead, pigeons, mynahs, parrakeets and vultures strafed, screeched, circled and defecated. In the river was a forest of bodies belly-deep in the khaki water, arms outstretched in puja toward the rising sun, men clad in little more than loincloths, women more modestly in sodden saris, all bathing, washing, chanting, praying, brushing their teeth and drinking in the waters apparently immune to the flourishing bacteria.
Tiny palm-frond boats filled with fresh flowers and flickering candles bobbed between broken bits of bright green water hyacinth in a sodden palette of primary colours as the timeless Ganges slid past carrying the inspirations of the gods, the aspirations of a billion people and all manner of cargo including the drowned remains of three chooks, a dog, numerous Coke cans, two cows and a male corpse facedown. For the uninitiated, the effect was startling and confronting.
By now the rowboats loaded down with voyeuristic tourists were virtually bow to stern, so close to the worshippers that they could almost touch them. The pilgrims didn’t seem to notice.
They did notice a boatload of Japanese tourists when two of them dressed in loose-fitting caftans leapt into the water hip-deep and gesticulated toward the sun, generating more camera flashes from their colleagues than a White House press conference.
Near them, an old man waist deep brushed his teeth with an index finger; another stood motionless singing gently in the morning haze. Small boys leapt irreverently into the water shrieking with delight while women in brilliantly coloured saris waded into the swirling water to bathe, to pray and to execute more secular duties like the daily laundry.
Barbers on the steps offered shaves and haircuts, beggars with palms upturned to heaven politely waited for an offering and everywhere was the sound of singing, chanting, brass chimes, tabla drums, barking dogs and shrieking monkeys.
Above on the upper terraces, older members of the high Brahmin caste performed religious rites. Beside them, a young girl clutching a computer magazine gazed expressionlessly at the chaos below.
Oddly, the City of Light was anything but a depressing place; in a way it seemed to encapsulate the essence of India; a timeless, breathtaking diorama of death, life, destitution, elation and almost implausible optimism that challenges all the sensory functions at once.
Just back from the teeming Ghats, the cobbled lanes of Varanasi had come to life. A small girl in a crisply ironed uniform hurried along a narrow alley on her way to school, sidestepping a cow and an old man as he woke from under a blanket on a concrete slab blinking in the sudden brightness.
Through a slim doorway opposite, I spotted a teenage schoolboy hard at work at a computer in a room barely large enough to accommodate them both, the glow of the screen illuminating a bright face alive with all the energy, innocence and optimism of the young.
Apparently oblivious to the pandemonium down the lane, Nirvana was probably the last thing on his mind.
Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited)