Dawn at the ghatsMorning worship

The following is an extract from the travel book A River of Life: Travels through Modern India.

Kashi, Anandavana, Kashika, Avimukta: the city of Varanasi has many names, as many faces, as many facets of beauty.

I am up and out early, before dawn, staking my claim to a quiet spot on the ghats. A spectacle is in the offing, and I am there to see it. What spectacle? It could have been the day dawning, though isn't, however splendid such a sight may be: the sun edging up over the jagged line of trees on the far bank of the Ganges, its soft cool light pearling the surface of the slow-flowing, deep green waters. What I have come to see, what scores of others have come to see, is the Hindu faithful, gathered where the water laps at the last steps of the ghats, taking their ritual daily baths in these sacred waters. The women do it modestly, hitching up their saris, wading in knee-deep then scooping up water in their free hands and dribbling it over their faces, arms, down the fronts of their dresses; for the young men, it is a chance to celebrate their youth, showing off their vigour by diving in, splashing, cavorting; the older men bathe with more dignity, the very old even with frailty. Disparate people, hundreds and even thousands of lives, united by faith.

As the sun shakes off the gauzy tatters of cloud and shines through more strongly, so the numbers of bathers swell, along with the flow of human traffic along the ghats. A saddhu is seated a few yards away from me, lotus-legged on his leopard skin rug, staff and brass water pot in front of him, his face expressionless as he thinks deep deep thoughts, or perhaps - more likely - thinks nothing at all, at peace with the world.

I get up and walk along the riverside, from one ghat to the next. I cross Rama Ghat, Mir Ghat, come to Manikarnika Ghat, where a cremation has just taken place. It is said that to die in Varanasi is to achieve instant moksha, enlightenment, and hence release from the cycle of death and rebirth. The aged flock here for that very reason, and death is one of the city's major industries. Down by the waterside a man is sprinkling ashes from an urn into the Ganges. There is a bather a few yards away, unconcerned by the man's actions and the ring of ashes inching its way towards him. What is that to him? The ashes cannot sully him. According to Hindu faith, the Ganges is a river which remains forever pure; according to science, it is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, due in large measure to the gallons of sewage and industrial waste poured into it daily and the partially-cremated bodies sent floating downriver, although even science has to admit that the river has exceptional self-healing powers, its waters reoxygenating with remarkable rapidity.

"Very sad," comes a stern voice from beside and a little behind me. A man stands at my shoulder, one step above me, looking further down the ghat, to where the embers of a funeral pyre are still smouldering, sending a blue haze snaking languidly into the Indian dawn. "But no tears," he says, "no mourning. It is bad luck to mourn."

I have been found out by an importunist (my own word for India's persistent class of salemen). I have been bothered by them all the way along the waterfront, mostly boat wallahs. This particular importunist is of a more agreeable kind, not pushy, with no wares to sell, just a service. He possesses endless information. And he parts with it freely.

"And you notice," he continues, trailing after me as I take a step away from him, "there are no women. They are banned. Sati," he says, saying it knowingly, asking me if I know what that is and then telling me anyway: the custom of a wife throwing herself on the burning body of her husband. It is a custom that goes back centuries, even millennia - back to the so-called Golden Age of India, in the small centuries AD - and has from time to time been abused, as penny-pinching in-laws, concerned at the future cost of a widow's upkeep, forcibly throw her onto the flames of her burning husband.

My guide continues with his monologue. "You know of the Doms?" he asks, and signals with a broad sweep of one arm, inviting my eye further along the ghat, towards a scattering of people on the level above us, scrawny dirty men in dhotis and soot-blacked vests loitering around stacks of sandalwood. A few more are chopping up blocks of wood in a small recess at the base of a rather nondescript temple, while yet more are tending the smouldering coals, raking them over, preparing for a fresh fire and corpse. In all, about a dozen men. "These are the Doms," he tells me, telling me they are "very low", by which he means they are Untouchables, or Dalits as they are now officially known, meaning oppressed. The Doms, however, are something quite different from the usual Untouchables. Despite the low social standing that is inevitable considering their line of work, they have undoubted power, which my guide is keen to point out. "They very important," he tells me. "They in charge of this - cremations. All who cremate here must go to them, pay whatever they ask. Last Maharajah, they ask for his palace. He have to pay."

My guide continues giving me the ins and outs of Hindu funerary custom. His movements are so animated and his tone so thoughtful and intense that I cannot tear myself away from him. I know I will pay for it later - fifteen minutes later in fact, when he finally runs dry of things to say, senses I am itching to get away, and at last makes a plea for baksheesh, gently and with a suggestion of shame. For once, I don't begrudge the payment. If only all importunists were as polite and unassuming.

Read on...

Read the next article about the ghats at Varanasi.

There are over a hundred of them in all, steep water frontages platformed and stepped (the word means literally "landing"), stretching all the way from Raj Ghat in the north to Asi Ghat to the south, a total of three miles of river frontage. They are a microcosm of India. Every aspect of life can be found here.

Available for purchase now

Sheldon's account of his overland travels around India, A River of Life, is available for purchase now. Buy the e-book from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk, or the paperback from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk (also available in other countries, search Amazon for more information).

The first instalment, A River of Life, Book 1: Travels in the North, is available separately (e-book format only) via Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com. The second instalment, A River of Life, Book 2: A Tour of the South, is available via Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.


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