Our destination is Varanasi, one of Hinduism's most holy sites. Here where the city lies beside the Ganges, the Holy Mother, pilgrims come to wash away their sins or are brought to be cremated and have their ashes cast into the murky slow moving waters. We are greeted outside the train station by the usual autorickshaw sharks. When they speak they show their sharpened teeth, red with blood or is it just paan juice? We reach the narrow streets of the old town by the river and start looking for a room. It takes us two hours and a kilometre or two before we find a decent available room. The hotel staff are friendly and courteous, the room is home to a clutch of mosquitoes. We awake each morning kippered by our mosquito coils. It turns out we have chosen the same hotel that John's sister stayed in about 15 years earlier. It has two extra storeys these days.
Along one length of the river are a series of stone ghats, steps, for bathing. At a couple of spots there are burning ghats - platforms where cremations take place. Across on the eastern bank there is surprisingly no building - the city only spreads along one bank. On the far side is sandy earth and then trees. We walk the length of the ghats daily and watch the comings and goings. It is fairly peaceful compared to the dirty, polluted and traffic-packed streets of the city. The river is low at this time of year - at monsoon it is not always possible to walk the whole length.
One day we sit and watch three cremations take place, all at various stages. Groups of men huddle around the pyres which are built up from a huge supply of wood stacked at the back of the ghat. There are large scales - the wood is paid for by weight and then carried to the river bank and stacked carefully into a platform for the body to be lain upon. There are no women present. The body, lying wrapped in cloth on a bamboo stretcher is first dipped into the river. Then a young man, (the eldest son?),strips to his underpants and washes himself in the waters. He then wraps himself in clean white cloth. He has a clean-shaven head - with a small tuft left at the back. When the pyre is ready and wood shavings scattered, a sheaf of straw is lit. The young man rotates the flame over the head of the body and then circles the pyre several times before lighting the pyre. Slowly the body is consumed in the flames. The men stand around and watch. One of the young men is too upset to stay and watch and is led away by a friend. Amongst all the ritual this is the only overt display of grief we witness. The ceremony seems very natural, quite simple and normal.
At other ghats there are pilgrims stripped down and thigh-deep in the river cleansing themselves of sins. The locals who also come down to wash are distinguishable by their use of soap. Despite the warnings about the cleanliness of the water (it's estimated about 400 million people live by the river and its tributaries - imagine what goes into it) we even see a man brushing his teeth in the water. And despite the site being sacred, there is a fair amount of ordinary life going on here - water buffalo are brought down to wallow and be cleaned, boys are flying kites (some so far away that I cannot even see them - only the taut line held by the boy, possibly a modern form of the mythical Indian Rope Trick), women and men doing vast amounts of laundry, men urinating up the stone steps, young men playing cricket. There are chai and chaat (snack) stalls. Small girls are selling jewellery and postcards to the tourists. Goats sunbathe. Sadhus clean their toenails. Dogs sleep. And in some spots boatmen offer to row you up and down the river.
Today we see a man coming from the ghats with a pair of brown underpants on his head. He'd obviously just been down for a wash and the underpants are drying off and keeping his head cool at the same time. Only an Indian man could carry this off.
Amongst the young men offering boatrides and "hash" (or is it "ash" for that authentic sadhu look?) we come across Lucky and Happy - at least that's who they say they are. For the sake of authenticity we become Ivan and Bjork from Iceland. Apart from a rhyming double act (eg. "No money no honey" and "No chicken no curry") they also offer to show John their silk saree shop. Evidently their sales training has not included Targetting Your Potential Market. John declines on sartorial grounds. Without missing a beat, and as we are passing a man making dung cakes on the ghats beside us, Happy declares "And this is my Cow Shit Company." "How much for a cake then?" "Ten rupees. We can ship them. Would you like a thousand?" This young man will go far.
Before we leave to head up to Nepal we meet up with Greg, an American we last saw in Buenos Aires in 2003. It's a real pleasure to meet up like this again. He persuades us to rise early and watch the sun come up above the Ganges. This is the time when people come to make their 'puja' or bathe or swim. And then it becomes so obvious why the city only lines one bank of the river, as the sun creeps up over the land opposite.