I’m not going to lie to you.
Varanasi, the holy ancient city of Benares, is grubby and rough. It’s muddy. It’s either oppressively humid or bitingly cold. It smells and the water at this point of the river Ganges is probably radioactive. It’s not uncommon to come across the body of a dog or some other animal, or worse, lying half concealed in the mud.
All night and all day bodies burn on funeral pyres along the riverside and the light is yellow under a fug of smoke and ash. It makes your nose run and your eyes water.
It’s a heaving, breathing mess of humanity. People come to Varanasi to die. They come to be reborn in the dirty waters of the mother Ganga.
It’s confronting. It’s frustrating. It’s mesmerising.
And I love it.
This was my second visit to Varanasi. My first was during the dead of winter and I arrived by boat, nearly stepping on the carcass of a dog as I stepped onto the banks of the river and in to the city formerly known as Benares.
Varanasi is a cacophony of sounds and colour. You can walk all the way along the ghats, past rows and rows of off-white shirts drying in the sun, dodging flower sellers, snake charmers and children flying kites and half naked holy men.
Or, if you’re like me, not dodging but rather tripping over the fishing wire of a little boy’s kite and tangling it miserably. Oops.
People of all ages come to Varanasi. For most, it’s the pilgrimage of a lifetime. In the mornings and early evenings they bathe, usually fully clothed, in the river. One of the oldest cities in the world, it’s a ritual that has been taking place here every day for countless years.
This time around, I hired a rowboat several times, viewing the city from the water at sunrise and again at dusk.
I’d already witnessed the nightly ganga aarti ceremony that takes place at Dasaswamedh Ghat on my first trip, so this time I stayed mostly away from the action and took photographs upriver.
The role that the Ganges plays in life in Varanasi is a little confusing.
It’s a holy river, and no meat, eggs or alcohol can be consumed on or around it. But at the same time, pilgrims throw their trash in it, defecate in it, bathe in it and if the bodies of their relatives don’t burn completely, throw what’s left in it.
One afternoon I took a boat onto the river and at one point, close to the banks, the air began to thicken with an unsettlingly familiar but unnameable stench that was somewhere between garbage, sewage and rotting meat.
I couldn’t quite work out what it was until the boatman pointed out a body, purple and stripped of skin in parts, swollen with river water and gasses.
Face down, it was bobbing up and down on the wake of other boats. I only glanced at it quickly before swallowing hard and looking away.
We gave it a wide berth.
Not much further upriver was a torso, in a similar condition but without the smell. The boatman nearly knocked it with his oar.
It wasn’t particularly pleasant and made even worse by seeing people swimming and laughing and joking in the same water not too far away.
But you know what?
That’s Varanasi. Life and death coexist here.
And that’s what I love about it. The smell, the dirt, the atmosphere creeps under your skin.
And in a place where death is on display for anyone to see, it’s the life along the river that is my lasting impression of the city. It’s chaotic, the ghats swarm with people.
Varanasi is a place where you can look death in the face and see life reflected back.