In an antique train overcrowded with weary passengers we arrive at Mughal Sarai Railway Station in Varanasi. The world outside the barred window of the train throbs with passengers and porters with suitcases piled on their heads. Women in flowing saris follow casually along the platform as vendors race towards the train to sell warm snacks and sickly sweet cardamom-spiced tea in earthenware cups.

As soon as we step onto the train platform a gigantic mass of humanity simply swallows us up in its wake and takes us up the stairs, through the station, and into a noisy crowd of rickshaw-pullers, hotel touts and postcard selling children. The morning air is scented with a rich bouquet of incense and spices mingled with sandalwood and marigold flowers.

If you had to choose one city to represent everything that is truly Indian, you would probably choose Varanasi. However, Varanasi is not a tourist haven in terms of specific sights. It is more of an experience that shakes your whole entity, your state of mind, and all of your senses. It seems that on the banks of this sacred river anything is possible. The sacred and everyday life merges easily in Varanasi. Devout Hindus consider Varanasi to be a unique meeting place between heaven and earth where gods and goddesses can descend to this world and mortals can be transferred directly to the after-life.

We walk along the banks of the river Ganges as the sun rises like a halo above the city, illuminating the countless temples that form the west bank’s skyline. The arrival of the golden dawn brings thousands of worshippers through the shroud of mist and down the long flights of stone steps called ghats, which reach like roots into the river.

A very active boat culture exists all along the ghats and embarking on a trip at dawn is a wonderfully atmospheric way to see Varanasi. We find a skinny man in a loin cloth who offers to take us across the Ganges for a small sum. As the sky grows lighter and the mist begins to dispel, our boatman takes up his oars and we pull away from the shore, across the surface of the dark and mysterious waters. The chant of early morning prayers, punctuated by ringing bells and the loud snap and bang of morning laundry being thwacked on rocks echoes across the river. Thousands of people stand in the water, facing east across the river, praying and pouring water out of urns held up to the sunrise, heralding the gift of a new day.

Luke Storms, "The Boatman," Varnasi, India, 2006
Luke Storms, The Boatman, Varnasi, India, 2006

As our boat approaches the somber Marnikarnika burning ghat, we put away our cameras since photography is prohibited. Contradictory to the West, life and death coexist harmoniously in Varanasi. Living and dying are both celebrated. The boat drifts by a cluster of foreigners who stare transfixed in morbid fascination as thick grey smoke billows up from several sandalwood pyres while bodies of relatives are brought in on stretchers, entirely wrapped in red and gold fabrics and covered in marigolds. First the relatives wash the body in the Ganges to purify it and then the body is placed on top of an orderly pile of logs by men in white loincloths called doms who are from a special untouchable caste. Next the doms neatly stack more logs on top of the body before lighting the pyre. It doesn’t take long for the fire to catch, and at any one time you can see two or three bodies burning steadily in the river breeze. Later, the ashes will be scattered onto the waters of the Ganges.

A typical body takes three to four hours to burn and often there is usually a large bone left over like the hips or lower back. The unburned bones are simply thrown into the river as well as the ashes after they are sifted by a man called the Watchman for gold and silver, which he keeps. The boatman also informs us that “not everyone is able to die in Varanasi because the sandalwood needed to burn the bodies is very expensive.”

After the joyous, yet solemn process of salvation for the dead, a fascinating place to visit is the old city of Varanasi which is located just behind the main ghats. Winding your way through the deep narrow and ancient alleys that are seething with life is a deeply exhilarating experience. Most of the streets are no wider than eight feet and although they cannot accommodate cars or rickshaws large numbers of aimlessly wandering holy cows are free to roam the streets. There are a hundreds of unique and colourful shops to explore in this bustling marketplace. Down one lane you can find naan bread that has been freshly baked over a fire and rich Indian sweetmeats for sale while in another twisting lane, vendors are selling silver bracelets and earrings, sitars or other Indian musical instruments and brightly painted puppets or wooden toys. There is a magical quality present in these ancient alley ways that is strangely seductive and as old as faith itself.

In the evening the Ganges is ritually put to sleep at dusk. This involves various ceremonies that take place along the ghats. As the river rippled past, we released our offerings to Mother Ganges; a floating candle made from one dry leaf with a few marigold petals on it along with a wick in a dab of butter-oil. The candles are placed in the river where they are taken across the shimmering surface of the Ganges by its gentle current.

Looking out across the Ganges, there are thousands of these floating candles, flickering like constellations on the water. It occurs to me how easy it is to feel connected to the divine in this spiritual atmosphere that has sustained India and her people through the centuries. ♦

Current Magazine, June 28-July 11, 2009. V.9, Issue 6. Photos: Luke Storms