Although lined with funeral pyres, the Ganges is the lifeblood of Varanasi, along with its silk industry, writes Anthony Dennis.
A JEEP with a corpse conspicuously wrapped in a brocade-like orange silk shroud and strapped to the roof is negotiating its way through the hectic early-morning streets of Varanasi. The male Hindu mourners squeezed inside the car are heading towards the Ganges. There, on the river's banks, the body of their loved one will be dipped in the sacred waters for the final purification and then publicly cremated on a pyre.
I've never been to a place so full of death and yet so full of life. Along the ghats – steep steps leading to the river's edge – cackles of laughter echo from crowds on the banks; a boisterous cricket game is in progress; a father is teaching his son to swim; a beach ball is nearby.
Saris, which unfurled can extend to eight metres, dry in rows along the ghats like crazily oversized beach towels; below them, in the age-old Indian way, laundry wallahs use stones to bash shirts that have been cleansed in the Ganges. Nearby, pilgrims and locals perform their ablutions in the shallows of the river.
In Varanasi, amid the perpetual smoky mist from burning funeral pyres that cloak this section of the Ganges, life and death literally hang from a thread; not only do many people come here to die, others come to buy the exquisite dyed silks for shrouds and, more commonly, saris.
The city's primary importance remains as a timeless pilgrimage destination for devout Hindus, who daily descend on Varanasi from all over India to variously bathe en masse in the Ganges, to cremate their dead, to marry on the banks of the river and to die in one of the city's hospices.
The singular act of just being here is said to absolve half of a Hindu's bad karma, while a dip in the putrid river will remove all sins.
This strange ancient city – as old as Jerusalem – with its long waterfront dotted with conical-shaped, ochre-coloured Shiva temples, simultaneously provokes a sense of unease and exhilaration.
"I always say to visitors that this is a city to be felt, not just seen," says our erudite guide, Dr Shailesh Tripathi. "You'll either love or hate Varanasi but you'll never forget it."
But many visitors, transfixed by the city's funereal spectacles, forget Varanasi's beauty.
The significance of textiles to the city's heritage is ineffable: it's even said that the body of Buddha was wrapped in a shroud made of silk from Varanasi (also known as Benares).
Varanasi silks, like the shroud atop the Jeep, are weaved in a network of dusty backstreets, where the telltale, urgent clack, clack, clack of looms reverberates. The work is performed by the city's Muslims, as has been the case for centuries, providing an important commercial link with the Hindu community.
Not only do local Muslims weave the silks, much of which ends up as saris or items for the home, such as lavish cushion covers, they also act as courteous, skilled and persuasive salesmen at showrooms scattered around the city. Tea or Coca-Cola is served as you inspect the silks laid out before you.
It's the sari that imbues India with so much of its extraordinary colour. As styles of traditional national dress go, perhaps only the Japanese kimono matches them for majesty. At Indian weddings, which famously last several days, different saris are worn for different ceremonies, a tradition that keeps the silk traders wealthy.
Some garments, the most prestigious emanating from Varanasi, are encrusted with gold and silver and can take between 15 days and six months to weave, depending on their intricacy. However, Indians are worried that this rich weaving tradition may die out. Today's generation is less inclined to slave all day and night over looms. The Indian government is even providing tax benefits to keep the industry alive.
The magnificent hotel in which we're staying – the elegant Nadesar Palace, a former 19th-century maharaja's palace – is part of a program run by Taj Hotels to encourage silk-weaving in the surrounding villages. The silk produced by villagers finds its way to the uniforms of the staff of Taj Hotels, including those at the Nadesar Palace, a sanctuary in this most intense of places.
Wherever we go in Varanasi, we're surrounded by sadhus, strange mystics often under the influence of hashish, who linger in the streets and on the ghats. The sadhus, who often bear extraordinary facial and body decorations, wear dyed robes nearly as vibrant as some of the saris we see. Their spartan lives are dedicated to achieving the fourth and final Hindu goal of life – moksha, or liberation – through the meditation and contemplation of Brahman, "the holy or sacred power that is the source and sustainer of the universe".
In Varanasi, there's always something to wrench you from your Western comfort zone, in the rather unlikely event that you find yourself straying back into it. As we drive along the roads that run through the middle of the Hindu University campus, a bicycle rickshaw blocks our path. A small body – perhaps that of an elderly woman – is strapped to a tray in a cheap white canvas shroud, the legs swaying from side to side from the movement of the rickshaw. Dr Tripathi explains that the body is being taken to the university for an autopsy.
Yet the most confronting and essential tour you can take in Varanasi is a slow row-boat ride along the Ganges, either at dawn or dusk, dropping tea light-style candles in the water as you proceed along the waterfront to the funeral pyres, where each day between 200 and 300 bodies are ritually cremated at two points along the river.
In the failing light of the day, the orange flames from the pyres, effectively representing a cremating corpse, stand out sharply through a fog of smoke. The bodies of pregnant women, children under 10 years of age and those killed by a cobra bite aren't allowed to be cremated. No photographs are allowed.
Blackened body parts that don't burn are flung into the river. Nearby, a man dangles a fishing line. Dogs fight near the cremation site, which is floodlit so the grim work, a 24-hour operation, can continue through the night.
As ashes are blown across the boat by a light breeze, I'm amazed, but not necessarily appalled, by what I'm seeing. This, after all, has been – and continues to be – the way of death in this fantastical place, for millennia.
On the gentle row back to the ghat from which we began our river trip, a large crowded wedding boat heads out on the river to the beat of drums and cymbals. Two young miserable-looking brides – resplendent in blood-red silk bridal saris – and their grooms are about to receive the blessing of Mother Ganga. In Varanasi, amid much death, life, in its myriad forms, rolls on relentlessly, like the sacred Ganges.
The writer was a guest of Taj Hotels and Singapore Airlines.
Three (other) things to do
1. Ganga Fire Arti One of Varanasi's most mesmerising spectacles occurs each evening at riverside Dashashwamedh Ghat. Crowds gather to watch young Brahmin priests, facing the river, perform prayer rituals with flames, conch shells, bells and drums. It might seem like a tourist trap but the intense 45-minute ritual is a genuinely devout homage to the sacred Mother Ganges. It's free; just find a place to sit, though expect to be pestered by children hawking tea candles to float down the river.
2. Kashi Vishwanath Temple Deep in the heart of the Old City, up a steep cow-filled laneway from the grim cremation site of Manikarnika Ghat on the Ganges is this important Shiva temple, one of India's most famous in the holiest of Hindu cities. The temple's landmark is its nearly 16-metre golden spire. Entry is often barred to tourists but just being near the temple and its pilgrims is a worthwhile experience.
3. Ganges spa treatment Don't worry, it's safe. At the Jiva Spa at the elegant Nadesar Palace, indulge in the signature "Abhisheka" treatment inspired by "time-honoured Indian purifying rituals". Purified water from the Ganges is poured onto the body. A concoction called "panchamrutha" is then applied to the body and after its therapeutic ingredients soak into the skin, it's rinsed with Ganges water. Soothing sandalwood paste is then applied, followed by another rinse and a massage.
Indian domestic airlines, such as Jet Airways (jetairways.com) fly to Varanasi from the capital cities. There are also frequent train services from cities such as Kolkata and Agra. Check the Indian Railways timetable for schedules: indianrail.gov.in. Singapore Airlines has connections from Australia to six destinations in India, including Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. Regional partner SilkAir has connections to a further four destinations, including Kochi and Hyderabad. 13 10 11 or see singaporeair.com; or silkair.com.
Nadesar Palace offers the finest accommodation in Varanasi, with spacious rooms. Although away from the bustle of the city, it isn't too far removed, with the Ganges a short taxi or auto-rickshaw ride away. Rooms start at about 15,500 rupees ($342) (low season). In the same compound as the Nadesar is the Gateway Hotel Ganges, a comfortable business hotel also managed by Taj, with rooms starting at about 3600 rupees (low season). +91 542 2503 001; tajhotels.com.
When to go
The most pleasant time to visit is in the cooler months, between October and February, but expect the city to be more crowded and hotel rates higher. Varanasi can be witheringly hot in the height of summer, with temperatures capable of reaching 50 degrees. However, if you're willing to confine your activities to the early morning and late afternoon, you'll find smaller crowds.