Is this India's Most Magical City?

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Jul 06, 2018

On the banks of a holy river in the Indian city of Varanasi, the theatre of humankind unfolds. Yogis meditate, sadhus pray, children swim and the devout wash their clothes along with their sins, while flames at the nearby burning ghats flare. Jennifer Byrne takes in the spectacle.

They say Varanasi is a magical place, where death and life entwine. I can confirm this. On my first night in the shining city, I’m going from a spectacular sunset ceremony on the banks of the sacred river Ganges, source of all life, to what looks like my certain death on the road. Squashed beneath a buzzing swarm of motorbikes.

“Remember the road rule: no rules,” whispers my guide, urging me forward into the mêlée of pilgrims, traders, holy men, cows – and killer scooters. “Are you mad?” I shout back. But I go… and miraculously they stop, just millimetres from taking me out at the knees.

So, yes, Varanasi is a magical place indeed. The oldest and holiest city in India, a perfect east-facing crescent bound at each end by Ganges tributaries the Varuna and the Assi. Though Varanasi has many names (the Hindus call it Kashi, meaning luminous; the British chose Benares), it is as you find it, a place of immense contradictions between faith and belief, ugliness and beauty and, of course, life and death.

The life is everywhere, teeming through the markets and streets and the 2000 ancient laneways where some three million live; a small city by Indian standards but vast in importance, deeply revered for its beauty and intense spirituality. The death is by fire at the famous burning ghats, where the bodies of loved ones are carried, bound in white cloth, shrouded in shimmering gold and set alight so they might be liberated, finally, from the many cycles of reincarnation. They will achieve moksha, salvation, to become one with God.

I’d always wanted to see, yet shied away from, Varanasi. A bit frightened, to be honest. Friends had described it as exceptional and life-changing but also overwhelming and I never felt quite ready for that particular challenge. But perspectives change. You lose loved ones of your own. So when travel company Abercrombie & Kent offered me a bespoke tour with a personal guide, I jumped at it. They were willing and I, at last, was ready.

I arrive at the peak of summer and, just as the guidebooks warned, it is searingly hot. It is also glorious. An immersion in faith and history, set to a Sensurround soundtrack of bells, chants, drums and, on the waterfront each sunset, the primal call of the conch shell echoing the sacred chant om.

By sheer luck, one of the great annual festivals, the Ganga Dussehra, falls smack in the middle of my stay, when the second-hottest June day in a decade (over 46°C) delivers the memory of a lifetime as I watch dusty pilgrims converge in multitudes to worship and swim in the sacred waters of what they call Ma Ganga, Mother Ganges. Not just a river but a goddess, Varanasi’s centre of everything.

It is Ma Ganga who makes the crops grow, who cleanses sin, who is the source and at the heart of all rituals. Locals wash in her waters; yogis and sadhus (holy men) meditate on her banks; children take swimming classes in her shallows. All salute her by scooping water into their cupped hands, which they then raise to the sun before returning the water to the river. An act of offering that’s both simple and profound.

To take it all in, I follow the advice of my guide, Shashank (pronounced as in The Shawshank Redemption, he says), and rent a wooden rowboat.

I push out from shore and just sit there, beneath a misty pearl sky, waiting for the sun to rise. It comes up a red ball but quickly turns gold and dances on the faces, the water, the windows of the buildings and temples. “Older than history... older even than legend,” as Mark Twain described Varanasi. Still shining.

You don’t need a guide to negotiate Varanasi but it sure helps if you want to get any kind of grip on the complexities of faith here. Varanasi is the cradle of Buddhism and I visit Sarnath, the very site where Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon some 25 centuries ago. It’s a holy city for Jains and Sikhs and the religious capital of Hinduism, with its millions of gods and numberless temples – none holier than the gold-domed Kashi Vishwanath Temple dedicated to the city’s presiding deity, Shiva, billed as “the destroyer” in the Hindu trinity, which includes Brahma and Vishnu. So to understand Varanasi, you need a sense of Shiva. I ask everyone I meet and here’s the picture that emerges.

Shiva was an easygoing and bohemian fellow, with a great tangle of hair topped by a crescent moon. He was what today we might call a dude: he smoked marijuana, rode a bull and wandered widely, sleeping in caves in the snowy Himalaya. But once he married Parvati, or Durga (she, too, has many names), she insisted they settle down in Kashi and he promised never to leave. The story gets a lot more complicated but his timeless presence in every stone of every temple is what feeds the Hindu belief that to come to Varanasi is a joyous duty and to die here is to free the soul.

But it takes fire. To achieve moksha, the body must be rushed through the oldest, narrowest lanes of the city and arrive, within 24 hours, at the cremation ghat Manikarnika, where pyres rage night and day, a sight both awful and awesome. Smoke billows and flames flare metres into the sky as crowds of mourners pick their way through dogs, cows and scurrying Dom, the lowest of the low in India’s caste system. Yet these designated Untouchables are the masters of Manikarnika.

The Dom sell the wood, stoke the fires and later sift through the ashes for bones, which they toss into the river (though the Ganges is a lot cleaner these days; the only floating body I see belongs to a pig). They keep valuables like jewellery – a mourner may not retrieve anything from the fire. I count 12 separate fires the night I go. It looks like Dante’s Inferno but is, I realise after a while, essentially a humming conveyor belt of the quick and the dead. 

The bodies are immersed in the Ganges – two are still drying on the steps – then sprinkled with sandalwood powder and butter oil. The chief mourner, wearing white, is usually a son or male relative (women are considered too delicate to witness the grim sights of Manikarnika). He stands slightly apart from his fellow mourners, who chat, even play cards, for the four or five hours that it takes for the body to be consumed.

When the deed is done and the body has burned, he tosses a pot of holy water over his shoulder and walks away. He may not look back.

I return the next day and ask two of the Dom, Shiva and Salu, about their work. They are black with smoke and old burns. Between them, they’ve spent 67 years at Manikarnika, though this is nothing, they say, pointing to the small fire behind them.

“We have been burning for 3500 years. We have the sacred flame, it never dies. And we keep doing it because it brings peace to people.” Not to mention fabulous wealth to their leader, who keeps the source fire burning in his hearth. He’s known as Dom Raja and, in a wonderful paradox, this man at the bottom of the caste system is one of Varanasi’s richest men, occupying a huge house on the waterfront with big stone lions on the terrace.

On the other hand, Varanasi’s highest-status individual, the Maharaja of Benares, now lives in faded glory, surrounded by moth-eaten sedan chairs, old swords and tiger pelts, at the sandstone Ramnagar Fort on the wrong side of the river. I, meanwhile, am staying at the Maharaja’s old summer house, Nadesar Palace, built in the late 18th century by the East India Company and now leased to the Taj group, which has renovated and invested big and transformed it into a green and stately pleasure dome to bewitch the senses.

Peacocks stroll, flutes play, meals are on a “What do you feel like tonight, Madam?” basis. It has just 10 suites; I occupy a Royal one with soaring ceilings and a vast four-poster bed and, after a week, I fear it will be hard to return to life without rose petals in my bathwater.

I tour the 16-hectare garden by horse-drawn coach while driver Naseem – succeeding both his father and grandfather in the job – points out orchards of guava, mango and citrus, groves of teak and cardamom and a greenhouse where the tigers used to live.

On my last morning in Varanasi, I’m tempted to stay in my verdant secret garden but I get up pre-dawn and head back to the river. I buy a couple of the little votive boats filled with marigold flowers, light the candles and launch them in memory of loved ones lost. I pay my respects to Ma Ganga. I smile into the sun and feel grateful to have come. 

SEE ALSO: The Fascinating Beauty of India’s Jaisalmer Fort