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Death, Dirt And Cows In The Holy City Of Varanasi

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Three of us attempt to leave the guesthouse. In the narrow alley, a malevolent cow, silhouetted against light from a snack shop, blocks our path. A small door set into a wall opens and an old woman in a sari appears with a plank of wood, poking at the cow with it. As it retreats we follow, only for it to stop at the next junction of tiny laneways where it urinates energetically next to a motorbike.

There is a lot of splashing.

Another door opens and a woman tosses a bowl of liquid waste over her front step. More splashing. Then one of my friends loses his flip flop to something slimy and squishy. By now we all need to wash our feet. Indians, bicycles and honking motorcycles push by.

Dirty, chaotic, and yes a little stinky, the Holy City of Varanasi is a collision of purity, filth, desperation and transcendence, a distillation of everything that is India. I expected all of that, just not tripping over livestock in a thoroughfare three feet wide.

Varanasi of course is splashed by the great Indian river Ganga Ma, or "Mother Ganges", which flows in various states of pollution from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. The city of one million inhabitants also features what a Spanish lad refers to as 'people fires'. This is the non-stop disposal of corpses at Manikarnika, the main cremation ghat, which is the most auspicious place for a Hindu to become ashes.

Bodies are washed in the holy river, then wrapped in cloth and carried on bamboo poles to the burning platform where wood is carefully calibrated with the size of the body. Lumber is constantly being unloaded and stacked in enormous piles behind the ghat, which is frequented by tourists, dogs, chatty old men and plenty of buffaloes.

There's a small market, you can purchase food - the place has an air of smoky carnival. No photos are allowed, as the families get upset, although I'm told journalists can get permission. I suspect a wad of rupees pressed into the right hand will allow me to photograph anything. I see one of the outcasts who deal with the bodies hoick up something I realize is a spinal column so that the skull moves closer to the center of the flames.

No one seems at all bothered by this, except women in a hospice with cremation views who don't receive big enough donations and a sweaty junkie who is hassling tourists for 'wood money'.

This rather public exit is what Hindus do, and they've been doing it here for thousands of years. Whether it's because I've studied anatomy and spent a year cutting up a cadaver, or because I've seen this sort of thing at closer range in Kathmandu, I'm not bothered by it. The people are dead after all, if they were burning live specimens that would be a different matter. To be honest, the motorbikes in the tiny streets driven by honking idiots bother me much more.

The Old City is fascinating, busy, noisy, confusing -- I am lost constantly the first few days. Arrival is the most confronting part though. I am rescued at the train station from a nasty rickshaw driver who is kicking a puppy by two mathematics students and we deal with the chaos of the roads leading to the ancient metropolis together.

We are trying to find a guesthouse and end up going in the wrong direction. Except we don't know that. What we do know is that we are caught up in a street where every inch is filled with something that is moving - cows, rickshaws, motorbikes, carts, people with things on their heads, people carrying large objects with someone else, people buying things, haggling, pushing us out of the way, and we have no idea where we are. Dripping with sweat and coated with dust, I long to put my bag down, but there is no space. Eventually we find what the boys are looking for and collapse.

People here are by turns helpful, pushy, shovey, grabby and downright irritating. When it comes to selling you something you don't want, they could go for Gold at the Olympics. The good thing is, they ask but don't take. For a place filled with dark alleyways and corners, the Old City is remarkably safe. Just watch what you are stepping on.

After a day or two the grubbiness recedes and the beauty emerges: tiny shrines, ornate temples, offerings, sadhus (holy men) enlightening each other. On a sunset boat trip up the Ganges I see people washing, praying, buffaloes stabled on a houseboat, crumbling palaces and a puja (offering) where orange-clad figures swirl flames that leap out of the deep purple sky.

One night I go to see the main ganga aarti (river worship ceremony) at Dasaswamedh Ghat. That day I've been handled by bossy old women, molested by a small boy and nearly been run over about 20 times. I am not in the mood for Indian-style pushing and shoving, but that is what you get at a riverside puja. So I stand my ground.

The next man who shoves in front of me gets the elbow and a loud "Goonda!." I don't know much Hindi, but goonda means gangster, or hooligan and when I bark this at him he looks rather startled. And moves away. Hurray! I don't like barking at anyone, but this is a tiring city and I am cranky. Various small fat women grab my arm, and children poke me in the back, but I ignore them.

The puja involves chanting,incense and fire and is not only visually dramatic, but has the resonance of being authentic. This is not a show for tourists, Indian or Western. Which is not to say boat owners aren't making a bit of cash by offering better views on their vessels.

When I arrived, Varanasi reminded me of a filthy, disheveled Venice, but where Venice is like a living museum, Varanasi teems with life. Life manages death.

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