Cruising the Varanasi shoreline at dawn, I restrain panic. Water is sloshing underneath the timber haphazardly lining the base of the boat and I fret that this is in no way the relaxing sunrise trip along the Ganges I envisaged. Behind me, my guide and driver sit unperturbed, as though they sail in a glorious feat of sound engineering. I breathe deeply and take their lead; but India is pushing my perceived comfort levels over the abyss.
I focus my gaze to what’s beyond the rickety wooden tub. And what’s beyond, is unlike anything I’ve seen before. As we pass each ghat (the entry points to the river from the shore) the steps are cluttered with people descending to the murky water of the Ganges for the bathing rituals ubiquitous to life in Varanasi. Men dip in and swim, wash themselves and drink the water. But it’s the women I see that mesmerise. They bathe at the riverbank fully clothed, their bejewelled saris gently glistening in the pink hues of the emerging day. The complete normalcy of their routine brings a profound sense of grace and calm to proceedings and their tranquil movements are a welcome sight for my nerves. I feel my inner worry soothe as we chug along the river.
Up ahead, the main burning ghat Manikarnika slowly reveals itself amidst the haze. Like a model foreign visitor, I’d read up on this, the revered heart of Varanasi; but written words are no preparation for the overwhelming sanctity of death and ceremony on display here. Even at this yawning hour, smoke billows from the fire that remains lit for the hundreds of corpses that arrive daily from the streets above. I’m entranced by the hive of activity as pyres of wood are constructed from the logs stacked around the ghat, each piece weighed before use; there is an art to using just the right amount. The boat comes to a halt, the water inside settles and we are still, observing the heavy silence that lulls in the air, the crackling of Manikarnika’s fires vaguely audible.
It’s then that I see it, a solemn corpse wrapped in white cloth laid out on a bamboo stretcher next to the fire. I don’t know if I should maintain my gaze. Surely we’re intruding on a deeply private moment, not one that a stranger like myself should be looking at. My guide comes to sit next to me and I cling to the splintered side of the boat as it sways with his travel. Death is a celebration here he tells me. And so in stillness we watch.
When it’s over, the driver attempts to start the engine, its effortful splutters and drones disrupting the quiet, before finally we move away. Arriving back on shore, I’m relieved to be safe and dry. I was in no real peril of course, only from my own apprehension.
Varanasi is not a place for comfort, but that’s exactly its allure.