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The Sacred Ghats of Varanasi
Life and Death along the River Ganges

I am trapped. Ahead of me in the narrow alley looms a stocky Indian bull, his pointed horns blocking my path down to the river. In the darkness behind me a mongrel dog bares his teeth and growls, irritated at being awakened as I creep past at 4:30 a.m. on my way to the banks of the Ganges River.

The bull eyes me warily. The dog advances from the rear. With no bullfighting experience and a strong aversion to rabies, I wrap my camera-bag strap around my wrist, and prepare for whichever animal charges first.

Indian saddhu at Ganges River, Varanasi - © Eric Lindberg PhotographyLuck, or perhaps Ganesh, the Hindu god of good fortune, must be watching over me. As I search hopelessly for an escape route, a wooden door swings open, and a large man bursts out and roars at the barking dog in a blast of foreign words. As the beast slinks away, the man turns to me, smiles, and with a distinct British accent, says, “I am thinking his bark was worse than his bite.” With that, he ducks back into his doorway and is gone. Shaken, I inch warily past the bull and continue toward the river.

Like many visitors to northern India, I am on my way to the famous ghats of Varanasi, nearly four miles of stone terraces and steps lining the banks of the Ganges River. One of the world’s oldest cities, Varanasi is the holiest of India’s seven most significant pilgrimage sites. Here, along the great curve in the river, are palaces built by Indian princes, and temples and shrines dedicated to a pantheon of Hindu gods.

Each morning at sunrise the ghats fill with pilgrims from across India. They come to bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges to cleanse the soul and remove sins.

This morning loudspeakers jarred me awake before dawn, broadcasting devotional singing from the Golden Temple adjacent to my guest house. Pulling on my clothes, I stumbled through the chilly back alleys to the banks of the holy Ganges.

Arriving in the pre-dawn darkness along the river, I am met by the gentle hum of chanting from hundreds of Hindu devotees who have come to immerse themselves in the river. As I walk amid the curling smoke of funeral pyres, the tinkle of finger cymbals, and singing of Hindu priests, the black eastern sky lightens to violet. The prayers rise in pitch as the sun’s first rays spill across the river and wash the temple turrets and pilgrim’s faces in warm rose hues. I feel like an intruder, yet no one seems to mind my presence. Taking a deep breath, I plunge into the crowd.

As if on signal, brown bodies duck waist deep into the swirling green water as small palm frond boats filled with orange marigolds drift downstream. Chants float through the fragile light and seem to hover above the sparkling river mists. A collective sigh rises. Wave after wave of devotees wade into the river, merging with the flow and praying toward the rising sun. Mesmerized, I lose track of time.

Bathing in Ganges River, Varanasi - © Eric Lindberg PhotographyAs I walk along the ghats, women clad in dazzling saris bathe discreetly, while robust young men do yoga exercises. Beneath bamboo umbrellas, Brahmin priests dab the foreheads of bathers with red pigment. Indian holy men, or Saddhus, some clad in orange or saffron robes, others wearing only brief loincloths, wander the ghats. One with gentle eyes and a long white beard balances a child on his knee, while several more squat at his feet. Another sits in full lotus position and stares into the far distance, worlds removed from the scene unfolding before him. I feel like an infidel among the faithful.

My senses kick into overload as the morning progresses. Soft morning mists rise above the temple spires as the first golden light of dawn strikes the rooftops, sending monkeys screeching and scampering overhead. Strange dialects bounce from temple walls. And wherever I go, India’s aromas assault me; frying food, wood smoke, rotting fruit, cow dung, and untold tropical scents combine in an unforgettable tang.

I walk upriver to smoky Manikarnika ghat, where bodies are placed on log pyres and cremated. It’s a somber, gray place, with none of the festivity of other ghats. Cringing at the thought of inhaling smoke from those fires, I find a terrace upwind to sit and look as four bodies burn.

To die in Varanasi is assurance of achieving moksha, or spiritual release from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Many orthodox Hindus come here to pass their final days. Below me at water’s edge, two dogs fight over a remnant of burnt bone in the ashes. Having seen enough, I move on.

Bathing in Ganges River, Varanasi - © Eric Lindberg PhotographyAs the sun climbs overhead, I hire a boat and guide to row along the riverbank. Gliding past the ghats, keeping a respectful distance from devotees, I watch as streams of pilgrims emerge from the shadows and spill into the morning light. A nearby splash betrays a freshwater porpoise breaking the surface. Colors ripple across the water like an impressionist painting.

But there’s more to Varanasi than the ghats. Leaving the Ganges, I disappear into the old city, a winding maze of narrow streets directly above the river. Too cramped for anything but people and cows, it’s a lively place to roam.

Weathered houses with wood shutters rise on either side, casting shade over the cobbled lanes. Neighbors gather to talk, while vendors selling bananas, cashews, and curry spices shoo away wandering cows. Pilgrims hasten to the river.

As the day ends, I find a small courtyard restaurant down a side lane. Halfway through a spicy platter of curried vegetables and unleavened bread called chapati, I look up as four men stride past my table carrying a stretcher with a small body wrapped in filmy white cotton. “This man is being burned tomorrow,” my waiter explains. Death is all around me, yet no one else seems concerned.

My appetite gone, I watch the men walk into a small temple at the back of the courtyard. Bells ring, and a Brahmin priest appears from a side door and begins a complex ritual with candles, incense, oil, and chanting.

In my room after dinner, I lie back and listen to the sounds of beating drums and clashing cymbals drifting through my window from the Golden Temple. Away from the crowds, my mind races through a jumble of disturbing mental pictures. Holy men smiling while corpses burn. The elderly calmly waiting to die. Marigolds and ashes mingling in the river to form garish streaks of orange and gray floating toward the sea. Images that defy comprehension.

Few places can match Varanasi’s capacity for hurling the traveler from the commonplace to the extraordinary. Today was no exception.