Arriving in Varanasi was way less crazy than we imagined it would be.
From the train station, a long but cheap rickshaw ride could only take us so far. Once we reached the tight maze of alleys we strapped our bags on our backs and make our way to the river….
No one asks us for anything. No one asks to do anything for us. No one really acknowledges us at all. This wasn’t what we’d expected for one of the busiest places in India, well marked on the tourist trail.
Soon enough we stumble down to the river. There are few people around but plenty of cows. Our hotel, the charmingly named Palace on River, is just a few steps away.
It is 3pm and we have found our way to The Blue Lassi Shop. It isn’t quite as life-changing as the Sathi Lassi in Bundi but, still, it becomes our daily refuge. A sense of utter calm fills you as you take hold of the round clay pot with two hands and smell the distinct tang of a beautifully churned curd, a sweetness lingering on the tip of your tongue.
The shop is in an unforgettable location: on the way down to Manikarnika Ghat, the 24 hour cremation steps.
Whilst we enjoy those first lassis we witness four bodies go down in procession, accompanied by rushing bodies chanting. We decide that the first day after a long train ride is not the day to follow them and see for ourselves.
We slowly make our way back through the alleys, dodging cows and their excrement, seeking the Ganga Aarti ghats. As it is early we take our place on the steps and watch the preparations for the nightly ceremony.
The steps looking down to the platforms and the gently-flowing river become full quickly, noise building the anticipation. It’s hard to describe that first show, honouring the holy river Ganges. The hum of chanting bodies all around us, the light, the fire and the twinkling river. It is the twirling plumes of incense that stick in my mind. The magnitude of it, that it happens every day as the sun sets, is hard to grasp.
We wander into the crazy and only get 10 feet before stopping to take 100 photos. Travelling with a photographer sure gives you plenty of time to stop and take it all in.
We see a boat full of technical camera equipment, manned by some lounging locals. We strike up a conversation, intrigued, and they mention the name ‘Morgan’ and agree when I ask if they mean ‘Freeman’. I laugh and tell them that it looks more like National Geographic and they agree again. I laugh once more and we move further along downriver.
We almost reach the burning ghats but Dave doesn’t put his camera equipment away fast enough. We get a verbal beating from an old, grubby man in robes. He follows us all the way back upriver, angrily insisting we make donations. People start to stare and the smoke and ash swill around us, getting in eyes.
We make our way to The Blue Lassi – the chocolate version is delicious.
We get lost in the alleys, dodging bikes and bodies and shit and meet adorable kids who want their photo taken, just for the sake of it. This occurs often on our street wanders.
Soon enough we are back at Manikarnika and we find a nearby chai wallah close by. He offers us a seat and we sit, tiny paper cup of chai in hand, to take it all in.
Bodies make their way down to the holy river atop their loved ones and are bathed amongst the coals and trash and buffalo.
The buffalo bathe too, at the edge of the water so they can feast on the flowers that moments before decorated the dead. There are at least 15 of them. Two try and mate amongst the pyres.
Two skinny dogs pull a dead baby monkey from the river and play with it, unsure whether it will make a good meal.
All the while we observe and ponder and sip our chai as plumes of smoke drift ceaselessly into the hazy blue sky.
It’s very different to how we saw it in Pashputinath in Kathmandu. Few women are around. In fact I don’t remember seeing any, apart from tourists. Apparently they have been known to throw themselves upon their husbands flames and everyone knows they make too much noise.
It’s also even more public; the pyres are close together rather than separated so that each family can take part in the whole process.
It takes around 2 and a 1/2 hours to burn an average-sized body. Varanasi sees up to 200 cremations a day. It’s easy to believe.
As we walk through the twisting narrow alleys we spot a film crew and oggle their gear. Oli and Dave are ushered along but, before I am, I glimpse none other than Morgan Freeman.
When we pass by the camera boats we tell him that we now believe them and one guy lets us know that Morgan is now having lunch. So, of course, we head to the very same restaurant.
We sit above him taking hilarious candid shots over the balcony and also eat the best thali we’ve had in India.
The Nat Geo crew and Morgan drink 65 cokes between them and Freeman lets the restaurant manager nab the selfie.
Our second Ganga Aarti we head into the river with a kind, lazy-eyed man named Vinod. Seeing the show from the other side is amazing; a mirror to the night before but different, special in its own way.
We are surrounded by people but everyone is hushed and focused on the smoke and fire.
After, Vinod takes us up river and points out the different palaces built beside the Ganges. We forget all the names but remember that all were maharajas from the different Indian states and that the giant foundations are what keep the ghats and the city safe from the river come monsoon season.
He points out the flood line; it’s shocking to see how much is swallowed up by the rains. It must be a completely different place then.
We walk up river the next day, following the boat’s route the night before to photograph the beautiful, imposing palaces.
We find the laundry ghats and sit for over an hour where, on that specific morning, the washers are hard at work washing yards and yards of white sheets and towels. They are laid out to dry in neat rows along the dusty steps.
This appeared to be the dirtiest part of the river yet the washers still diligently covered everything with soap and smacked it all against the stones protruding from the river.
There are some things we will never understand.
We meet a large extended family from West Bengal, washing and offering puja. They are happy for us to sit comfortably with them and observe. We take lots of photos with the stunning saried ladies and moustachioed men.
Tonight Vinod help us find a place among the babas, front and center to the ceremony. The baba watching over our step is very sweet and gives us a good price.
Having seen the Ganga Aarti once from behind, with the crowds and the touts, and then from the rocking river makes seeing it up close all the more special. To look straight down the line of seven priests and see them mirror each other’s effortless movements, their incense and smoke mixing in a fog above them; it is magic.
I leave the guys to go and get some henna from the lady who sells jewellery on the steps. She insists I come to her home as her younger sister is so much better at it than her. The promise of chai lures me in.
She takes my hand warmly and leads me through the back streets where I would have got completely lost by myself. With her I am oriented by her pointing out the various temples and shrines and naming them.
Her house is a large room, painted blue, and home to her, her mother, sister, daughter and her brother, along with his new wife. It is cosy and the bollywood tunes are blaring on the little TV.
Her cute 17 year-old sister Roli does my henna as we chat and drink chai; she tells me she had slept in late that day missing college and her mom was mad at her.
Varanasi is one of the busiest, dirtiest, most confusing and difficult places you will visit in India. It is also beautiful, mesmirising and full of life, as well as death. At the end of each and every chaotic day I wrote in my journal to decompress. These are the stories from that time; little snapshots of the crazy and the calm and everything in between, including the connections we made that threaded it all together.