All human life - and death - is here

On the banks of the Ganges, the city of Varanasi offers sights, sounds and smells that Mark Stratton can hardly believe
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The Independent Travel

Hundreds of pilgrims were pouring down the slippery steps to the Ganges to bathe and offer invocations. Some had turmeric-stained faces, others were garlanded with marigolds. Saffron-robed ascetics drifted through the crowds, while Brahman priests anointed phallic linga, the symbol of Shiva, with lotus petals. This is the ancient city of Varanasi, and Mark Twain's observation that it was "older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and twice as old as all of them put together" still rings true.

Hundreds of pilgrims were pouring down the slippery steps to the Ganges to bathe and offer invocations. Some had turmeric-stained faces, others were garlanded with marigolds. Saffron-robed ascetics drifted through the crowds, while Brahman priests anointed phallic linga, the symbol of Shiva, with lotus petals. This is the ancient city of Varanasi, and Mark Twain's observation that it was "older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and twice as old as all of them put together" still rings true.

A city for 3,000 years, and mentioned in the great Sanskrit epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, Varanasi - or Kasi as it is locally known, or Benares as the Moguls called it, "the City of Light" - has for centuries been a place of pilgrimage. Founded on the Ganges' west bank, the city's position guaranteed its everlasting auspiciousness. For Hindus believe that the sacred "Mother Ganga" flows from the head of Shiva the destroyer: a Himalaya-dwelling god who is one of many manifestations of Brahma - Hinduism's all-pervading force. It is where 60,000 pilgrims come each day to wash away the sins of their souls. Where Buddha first taught 25 centuries ago. And where the devout come to die to achieve moksha: the release from a cycle of continuous reincarnation for which the reward is eternal paradise.

Addressing my own worldlier needs, I settled into a small hotel overlooking the Ganges above Meer ghat. From my balcony, at dawn and dusk, I'd sip spiced-cardamom tea and gaze along the continuous sweep of stepped bathing ghats which hugged the river as far as the eye could see. There are few more breathtaking views in India. The ghats - steps leading down to the river - are backed by an extraordinary waterfront: silk-merchant's havelis (mansions), faded palaces, sensuous mogul domes and minarets, and shikharas - the spires of Hindu temples.

Varanasi, however, offers other kinds of sights, which I'd read about in the Hindustan Times during the 10-hour rail journey eastwards from Delhi. "Ironically, the traffic, mess, congested lanes, garbage dumps, beggary, and filth, has failed to deter pilgrims from Varanasi," the article said. It went on to denounce the city authority's "intransigence", and quoted the state culture and tourism minister as saying that Varanasi would never be considered for World Heritage Site status - which it desperately requires - until the city cleaned up its act.

My guide, Dharmendra, lamented how so many factors, from the Kashmir conflict to a lack of quality hotels, were contributing to a paucity of overseas visitors. But what really rankled was the missed opportunities to obtain Unesco recognition. "These buildings are international property, but look around and you will see that some of them are simply crumbling away," he said.

Dharmendra, the president of the Varanasi guides' association, met me in the foggy dawn just before sunrise. We headed straight out on to the Ganges for Varanasi's must-see excursion, the morning ghats by rowing boat.

The rising sun illuminated the steps one by one. Sounds of chanting, childish laughter, clashing symbols, and the rhythmic slapping of clothes beaten by dhobis, filled the air. Morning puja (prayer) had begun. We drifted by a well-organised game of cricket, already in mid-innings by 5.50am. It's watched by sadhus, holy men with long matted hair who'd take time out from applauding well-timed cover-drives to extend outstretched hands for alms. Further on, a line of young couples received wedding blessings from Brahman priests.

A more sombre atmosphere prevails as we float northwards to Manikarnika ghat. Several pyres smoulder on the foreshore. "Some two to three hundred bodies will be cremated here each day," says Dharmendra, as another ceremony begins.

We disembark just beyond the ghat and call in to a small restaurant for breakfast. It's just 7am, yet I've already had a glut of experiences to last a lifetime. We then begin a whistlestop tour of some of Varanasi's thousand or so temples. Dharmendra was keen for me to see the inner-sanctum of a temple - usually off-limits to non-Hindus - so we hopped on to his moped and left the old quarter.

Sree Vishwanath is northern India's tallest temple: its lurid pink-and-white shikhara soars 252 feet like some sort of intergalactic cake decoration. The marble interior is icy-cool, with verses of scripture etched into the walls. On entry to the inner chamber, devotees jump to ring a bell to attract the attention of Shiva.

Later that evening, I follow the sounds of drifting music to Dasaswamedh ghat. Floating candles on rafts of lotus leaves on the Ganges light the way like cat's-eyes. The ghat is a thrilling spectacle. Betel-nut sellers, palm-readers, boatmen, and masseurs all tout noisily for business. I chat with several pilgrims who'd given up everything, including family, to walk here from Madras. Most of the gathered crowd are transfixed by an intoxicating performance of pure Bollywood proportions as six Brahman priests offer puja to the Ganges. To the thunderous accompaniment of tablas, they stand on stone plinths under fluorescent umbrellas, ringing handbells and creating fiery patterns in the velvety dark with blazing candelabras.

This was India at its paradoxical best. An imperfect city struggling to cope with the demands of a modern, growing population. Yet a place of myth and magic seducing the faithful with the promise of everlasting paradise.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com) flies direct from Heathrow to Delhi from £495 return. From there, take the Lichchavi Express, which offers air-conditioned sleeper-class accommodation.

Tickets and India Rail passes can be booked through the UK agent SD Enterprises (020-8903 3411; www.indiarail.co.uk), costing about £16.60 each way. Guerba (01373 826611; www.guerba.com) features Varanasi in its "North India Explored" 15-day escorted tour for £640 per person, based on two sharing, including b&b accommodation, transfers, guiding and entrance fees. The next departures from Delhi are on 3 and 17 April.

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