A cold, pre-dawn train â€“ the Doon Express â€“ carries us from Gaya to the Cantonment Station in Varanasi, where we steel ourselves for the assault of humanity about which our guidebook and fellow travelers have warned us. Saddled with packs on chests and backs, Tay and I push onto the platform with the crowd, expecting an army of beggars, touts, con-artists, and pickpockets to mob these weighed-down foreigners and take them for all they are worth.
But though the crowd is enormous, we simply flow with it, up and over the tracks, down to the station, and, beneath our armor of unneeded anxiety, we are relieved as the rickshaw ride and rendezvous with our hotel-wallah outside the Godaulia gates goes as smoothly as it does. Bablu, a lean, shaggy-haired twenty-something in a loose purple shirt and jeans, finds us in the sunshine, standing outside the St. Thomas Church, a stained-cement speck of Christianity in this center of the Hindu universe.
Bablu leads us into the cool, narrow lanes of the Old City, where we walk quickly to keep him in site as he turns again and again, taking us deeper inside this impossible labyrinth of history. The rough stones under foot, the temples and shady stalls, the high walls that let in little light and trap so much dust, the excrement, flies, rubbish heaps, goats, children, and slow-weaving motorcycles. . .it is a lot to take in and, as I make my way, I am comforted by the Buddhist idea of reality as an illusion.
We are moving too quickly for the touts to attach themselves, likewise for the postcard-selling children, and hawkers of handicrafts, silk, and marijuana (â€œYou want hashish, my friend? I have ganja, very good! Bhang? You want bhang? I have super-duper!â€). Then, without realizing , the maze has taken us inside Ganpati Guesthouse [pictured above, from the river], a 100-year-old, marble-floor, multi-level building which, until its conversion to foreign tourism ten years ago, served as a hostel for widows who, Bablu tells us, still reside downstairs, waiting their turn on the funeral pyres just downstream.
And then we see the river, Mother Ganga, stretching directly from our balcony, just as she did in Rishikesh, three months ago, when she was swollen and brown with the monsoon. Now she is a deep, dull green, a slow expanse whose opposite sandy bank is as wide and flat and empty as the riverâ€™s surface. Directly below us are the famous ghats, dotted with dozens of nearly-naked brown bodies, shiny, soaped up, splashed with sacred water.
Varanasi! The city that Shiva built, the holiest of holies where the Ganges River, despite its massively polluted waters, bed, and banks, makes everything clean and pure again, not least of which the souls of those who come to die here. Where the hallowed flames that burned the body of Shivaâ€™s precious Parvati, 5,000 years ago, still burn nearly 300 bodies a day in a ceaseless stream of cremation.
It is midday, the November sun is strong, though pleasant, and we are tired and hungry, having risen at 3:30 a.m. and not eaten anything except a few peanuts. I am also ill, queasy after my adventures with the soiled, moving-target squat toilets on the train. Still, we linger in the open-air rooftop restaurant after running into two fellow yoginis from our retreat in Bodhgaya, a happy and unexpected reunion on the Asian tourist trail.
The Ganga lies below us, the clutter-boxed Old City behind us, the blue sky above and around us is tranquil and warm, the scene is more stunning then any of us had fathomed it would be. Tay and I drink one more cup of lemon-honey tea, then descend to our room, to bathe and rest before the sunset.