Floating down the Ganges River at sunrise, I looked over at the calm of the uninhabited side of the river, with the city of Varanasi awaking behind me. There was an eerie stillness to the cool February morning, broken only by the hum of boat motors and birds.
Turning my attention to the ghats, it was clear the city had awoken. In some places, families were burning the bodies of their loved ones, creating a smoky, melancholic atmosphere. Down river were hundreds of people washing in the holy waters and releasing prayer candles, doing so with absolute focus and passion.
In the glow of the rising sun, red-robed students ran up the steps to their first class of the day. I could hear the school bell ringing as the sun warmed my back in the gently rocking boat.
Beyond the ghats, the city was now alive with preparations for the evening prayer ceremony. Hundreds of flower garlands were being strung by women sitting on the roadside. An aroma of incense and spice hung in the air outside the houses I passed. The façade of the world-famous Blue Lassi Shop was rustic to say the least – a small canopy-covered alcove with a cushioned bench and the ‘chef’ sitting in the doorway – but as I sat eating my fruity yoghurt drink out of a ceramic pot, looking at the photos pinned to the walls by decades of tourists, I felt absolutely at peace.
Walking barefoot along the river’s edge, the heat of the sun radiated from the stone beneath me. There was a sense of people on their way. No one sat for long in the rising heat. Some were returning from their morning swim, others had come to the river to launder clothes.
Hundreds of boats tied to one another on the river side created a pontoon of sorts. People clambered over, selling flower garlands, chai and prayer candles. Up on the platforms, vibrantly-dressed Hindu priests performed the evening prayer ceremony. Thousands of people squeezed onto the ghats, chanting and bringing offerings to the platforms. The aura of incense warmed the cooling air. With this mesmerising image behind me, I watched my prayer candle float into the darkness of the Ganges.