“Are you alone?”

“Huh?”

“Are you travelling alone?”

“Yes.”

“Would you mind moving to the seat next to the emergency exit? We need someone to sit there, just in case. Airline regulations.”

Just in case?

I looked around with bloodshot eyes, still in a daze. It was the morning after the World Cup final, and the final whistle still rang in my years. I shifted uneasily. It was six in the morning and I hadn't slept for a second the previous night. Outside the window, restless grey clouds hung low. The red, blue, yellow lights on the drenched runway — extra bright in the uneasy darkness of the small hours.

It was a small plane. One of those inherently unsafe-looking ones with two seats on either side of the aisle and an unceasing, migraine-inducing noise from the engine. I wish I had an aspirin, but it was too late for all that. A squished chewing gum was all I had.

It was also a plane full of old people. Back at the terminal, I was taken aback by the sheer number of folks seemingly older than 80 years of age waiting to board, asking each other if they wanted to take the last seat on the bus, themselves barely able to stand. Then perhaps, I shouldn’t have been.

An early morning direct flight to Varanasi on a weekday — I wondered if any of them had a one-way ticket.

I wasn't convinced of my own motivations for being there at that point, to be honest. Something about needing to get out, going to a beach town, plans gradually falling apart, this week being the only window of opportunity for travel, panic setting in, booking the tickets at midnight the night before. The plan was to be somewhere, anywhere, far away from the familiar.

I closed my eyes for a second as the plane took off. They burned sharply. I looked outside as we rose above the confused shapes of the clouds. It was a beautiful morning from up here. Shades of gold, pink and blue. The timelessness of the ground below. And as the plane shifted slightly to right, it felt like we were flying into the sun.

***

The sensory barrage of the new had pushed the headache and the general sense of crumbling to the background. I had spent the previous two hours at the airport waiting in a stupor for a friend to arrive from a different city, while a policeman drove around a remote-controlled bomb disposal vehicle with a casual manner I hadn’t seen since my days at the college hostel.

Now, sitting in a cab, we heard the driver talk about how it hasn’t rained yet this year or how the prime minister had left the city only yesterday. The familiar air of an unfamiliar place filled my lungs. The eyes alert to every ever-changing colour, every shifting shadow. We were told the cab would only take us up to a certain spot in the city, beyond which we would have to walk. A running theme in the city, we’d soon discover.

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Unless you have been to one of the “holy cities” of India, it’s hard to prepare oneself for the initial shock of being on foot in the heart of the city. It’s like being in a real-life version of Where's Wally? Only more chaotic and disorienting.

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The sea of people. The heat and the humidity. The kaleidoscope of colours and shapes. The honking and the forever shouting. The smell of street food, sweat, flowers, garbage, incense sticks and fresh cow dung. Temples everywhere.

Take a long breath in. Breathe out.

***

The place we decided to stay at after a minute-long discussion had a stunning view of the Ganga and the ghats. Not five-star-hotel-stunning, but more like a budget-guesthouse-would-you-please-close-the-door-behind-you-when-you’re-done-taking-in-the-views-because-monkeys stunning. And the fear of monkeys was not unfounded. Apparently, a couple of foreign travellers had left said door open, only to find their passports shredded upon their return. Think about that the next time you're having a bad day.

It was too hot to go out into the open, so we decided to go have lunch somewhere first. We picked a local joint, what we understood to be a local favorite and ordered without consulting the waiter. And that’s how easy it is to make a bad decision in life. The food was so hot and excruciatingly spicy, it felt like it unlocked another dimension in my body. A rather unconventional induction to the spiritual ways of the city.

***

The vastness almost takes you aback, the first time you step onto the ghats.

The windswept riverfront a sharp contrast to the bustling, sweltering streets, literally a few steps away.

It is quite difficult, if not impossible, to capture the sense of the place in one broad stroke. There is an electric quality to the air, a vibrant undertone to every activity along the banks. Yet, there is a deep and overwhelming sense of something old and untouched by time. Mark Twain once wrote the city was, “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” And it certainly did.

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As the day wound down, the ghats took on a life of their own under the soft evening sky. Boats swaying idly in the smooth waters by the shore. People out for solitary walks and group photographs. Workers building boats and tourists cutting across the river on these boats. Teenagers playing cricket with frightening intensity. Con men trying to perfect their own game.

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All this, while some of the ghats are prepared for the evening prayers. The preparations themselves look like, and probably are, a full-time job. The ghats are washed and cleared and five small, stage-like structures are set up at the edge of the steps and decorated. The loudspeakers kick in at some point, making announcements and playing low-production religious tunes which might have been recorded the same day or a few decades ago.

By the time the floodlights come on, the place is packed and bustling. There are people not only on the steps of the ghats, but also in the dozens of parked boats by the shore for a better visual perspective.

At some point of time, after much deliberation, the centuries-old tradition kicks off. The gathered crowd responds with a staggering range of emotions. From an instant trance-like state to bored contemplation. There is incessant picture-taking and people live streaming the goings-on to their loved ones. Entire families on mobile phone screens, sitting together in silent prayer, unmoving and unblinking.

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Ash-covered sadhus sit motionlessly. Dogs run around carelessly.

There’s a man who is orchestrating the whole affair. He keeps urging — no, shaming — people into singing with wild gestures with one hand, while tucked underneath his other arm is a donation notebook. Can't sing? Better donate to make up for it.

The ceremony reaches its fever pitch with the final aarti. There a bit of a push and a shove. Even the passive ones in the crowd don’t want to miss this. People swaying. Mouths agape. Faces lit golden in the light of the flames. The fire rising to the sky, reflecting into the cold, dark water below. And with some final swift and practiced motions, it all comes to an end.

The crowd disperses before you had a chance to start breathing again.

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***

It's around midnight, and it's quiet now.

We can see a few people roaming around the ghats from the roof of our guesthouse. Few people sleeping out there in the open, a few others on the boats.

The sky is clear and you can see the stars. Even identify a few planets. Bats flying in circles. There’s a coolness to the wind now. The silence washes over, only punctured every now and then by a restless pigeon in a large cage on the roof next to ours.

My body hurts, but there’s a sweetness to the pain. Like when you are too tired but know the sleep is just around the corner.

There’s a bridge in the distance. Its lights keep changing from red to green to white in hypnotising patterns. Someone starts singing in the ghats below.

I wonder what this place would have been like 500 years ago. Quite different. Quite the same.

***

We walk to Assi Ghat the next morning to have some good ol’ bread and butter after the previous day’s culinary adventures. It’s the first of days full of long walks.

It’s overcast and windy, but the ghats are mostly deserted at this hour. The graffiti on the walls jump out in the daylight. The bright colors and surreal patterns against the old and moss-coated havelis.

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There are unending clotheslines running parallel to the more popular bathing spots. People washing off their sins nearby.

Every ghat you cross, someone will suddenly start walking alongside, asking if you would like a boat ride. A massage, perhaps? How about something illegal? All without a care for all the authorities in the world. Quite magnificent.

***

Every ghat has its own unique aesthetic and atmosphere, from the architecture and the temples around it to how much it has kept up with time.

Some are your conventional hangouts, with shops selling snacks, cold drinks, cigarettes and all that. Others more closely resemble a deserted parking lot — expansive and lonely. And then, there are the rest.

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Manikarnika, a cremation ghat, is the embodiment of otherworldliness — a place out of time.

If you are walking through the ghats, there is no way to avoid it. In order to go to the next one, one has to go through it. Covered in black soot, the temples and structures around seem to have been unchanged for an eternity.

As you walk up the steps, you can feel the heat from the funeral pyres below. Ash engulfs you.

There is strangeness in the voices, as though someone is talking from far away. There’s a tingle in your toes.

The crossing takes a barely a few minutes, but you will remember it.

Swimming through a lucid dream.

***

In a city so deeply embedded in religion and rituals, hiding in plain sight is the Jantar Mantar observatory, built in 1737 by Jai Singh II of Jaipur (then Amber). Inside are life-size instruments for measuring local time, altitude (of the place) and declination of the Sun, stars, and planets, among other things. But inside, you will also discover something else entirely.

As we found out, only after buying our tickets, the place is a meeting spot for young couples. Arm in arm, faces covered, muffled voices, hiding behind every sundial and scale. You immediately realise that you just walked into the wrong neighborhood.

Science, the last refuge for misguided love and stolen moments.

We try to hang out for a bit to check the place out, but the sense of intrusion and discomfort is too strong. We leave within minutes.

But soon enough, we found ourselves in a kind of a place that stays with you for a long time. Built in the 17th century by Aurangzeb, Alamgir Mosque’s glorious domes tower above the surrounding landscape. A steep staircase takes one right to the entrance, and inside is an oasis.

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The large entrance door opens to a courtyard. There is a fountain in the center. Glassy, blue-green water moving ever so slightly with the wind. The pool itself is surrounded by flowers. A peaceful quiet fills the space, which soon fills you.

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There is hardly anyone inside. Those who are, understandably, are lost in their own thoughts. There is a coolness to the place too. The temperature outside has no effect inside these walls.

The left side opens up to a terrace, giving one what is perhaps the best view of the ghats. The wind picks up, and the place feels like a floating castle.

Alamgir II

As I sat there in the courtyard, a few raindrops began to fall. The parrots scattered for cover, the air cleared up. It was hard not to imagine oneself as a minor character in a Márquez or Rushdie book. Only here, the magic utterly overpowered the realism.

***

It’s late in the night now and we are out patrolling the ghats. The crowd has gone home and it's just us oddballs now. The little drizzle in the afternoon has only increased the humidity. Everyone keeps talking about the rain. A look up at the sky and a shake of the head.

It’s a strange city alright. One foot in the past, one in the present. The word ‘future’ feels out of place here. Things just have been and continue to be.

A lone boat with a sole passenger drifts past in the dark. Out in the distance, neon coloured lights spill out of one of the rooftops where someone is blasting Bollywood songs. The bridge on the river is suddenly lit up as a train passes over it.

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There are a couple of foreign Asian tourists trotting around, bewildered and taking photographs. Two locals pass by them. One of them turns back around to face them, clearly drunk out of his wits. “India pagal hai pagal,” he screams into the night. When this fails to draw any reaction from his audience, he freezes in his spot, hand on lips, trying to remember something. Then, with a flash in his eyes, he says “MAD.”

***

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To be on a boat is to see the city with new eyes. Everything is familiar in a way, yet the perspective is so dramatically different, it takes your breath away. The beautiful glow of the morning light washing over the centuries-old temples on the ghats and the ageless river.

There are people bathing, singing hymns, meditating, getting a haircut, going for a run, or just sitting around, soaking it all in. The city of poets.

But what perhaps gets lost in all the morning glory and the golden hour photography is the physical depth of Varanasi. Step off the ghats and you will find yourself lost in a labyrinth of winding narrow streets.

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It’s easy to get lost, but that’s half the experience. Densely packed shops and restaurants line up on either side. Temples at every few steps. Streets signs in Japanese.

The sound of the tabla or sitar pours in from behind closed doors every now and then. The 'one-two-three-four's of dancing instructions. Long lines of people waiting to get a glimpse of their gods. And only a glimpse it is, more often than not.

There were many hundreds of temples we passed by, some we entered. There were a couple, we were told, we had to go to, or carry the regret of not visiting forever. So we did. I could say with a certain confidence now, unless our stars were not aligned at that moment, we wouldn’t have regretted much.

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Here is how it goes. First, you have to fend off some of the most aggressive people selling flowers, sweets, milk and the like. There are some offering, no demanding, that you leave your footwear, wallet, mobile phones, bags, etc with them while you visit a temple. There is, of course, a “donation” to be made once you go back to recover your vital belongings. (Pro tip: If there are two or more of you, take turns to go in. If you are alone or want to go in together, keep some change in your pocket and leave the rest wherever you are staying. As for your footwear, you can leave it right outside the entrance.)

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But even if you make it to the temple after standing in a line for a quarter of an hour, it’s not a straightforward affair. There are people sitting around the periphery ready to literally grab you by the hand (or your head), make you bow down while they chant and tie strings to your arm. It’s hard to escape (and we are two Indians in our 20s who speak fluent Hindi), and once they are done, it's time to empty your pockets.

Now imagine you are in your late 70s or 80s. You have spent a good amount of money and have travelled all the way to Banaras to have a word with the One. You finally make it into the temple, although only you know what a toll it took on your health. But once inside, you see the shrine is surrounded by policemen. It’s alright, you go up close, try to get a glimpse of the ever elusive. You have barely let a breath out when a hand grabs you by the shoulder and yanks you to the side. It’s one of the policemen. He’s mocking you now, telling you to move along already. If you don't have an offering to make, forget about getting to the center.

This, on repeat.

Now, of course, not every place is like this. But a lot of them are, especially the more popular or “important” ones. And a lot of people in the city can be exploitative and manipulative on these lines, if you are not careful or are easily swayed by religious rhetoric.

The first day we went to the ghats, a foreigner walking alone was stopped by an older, well-dressed gentleman. The older man started talking about religion and spirituality, about the meaning of happiness and the power of a blessing, all the while repeatedly moving his hand on the foreigner's head and reiterating that he’s not asking for any money, he just “felt” like talking to him.

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After a few minutes of this, as the young foreigner began to leave, the man asked him for a donation. When asked why, the man replied that he is not looking for money but would like a donation for “blessing” him. “Minimum Rs 500,” he said. The naive young traveller tried to argue with him, telling him how he absolutely loves the city, all its colours and spiritual flavours, but why should he pay him? Few minutes of this, and frustrated, he just walked off. He had barely turned the corner, and the old man had caught another one.

***

It’s our final night in the city and, once again, we are at the ghats. The temperature and the humidity have almost become unbearable now. People roam around restlessly. There’s a group under one of the floodlights playing Ludo (which I believe is the official game of the city). There are a couple below in front of us, smoking. If there’s a wind, we can’t feel it.

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Earlier in the day, we had come across this incredible exhibition on rains at the Bharat Kala Bhavan, inside the vicinity of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU). The university had felt like a small city in itself. Departments after departments stacked up in neat rows. The visit to the Ramnagar Fort afterward had been quite disappointing. The place was in absolute shambles.

But now, sitting by the waters, it all hardly mattered. The last few days had been exhausting at times, but exhilarating throughout. The whole experience had felt like dipping one's toes into something mysterious and profound. Like an epic poem, of which you can only remember the first few lines.

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I could hear someone shouting. The voice came closer every second, but it was still hard to understand what this guy, running towards our general direction, was saying. Then the people around us picked it up, and we soon heard it too. “It’s raining.” Behind him, swallowing one ghat after the next, and headed right for us.

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Our beloved guesthouse was only two ghats away, but suddenly it felt too far away. We ran, but it was useless. In the next hour, we witnessed a thunderstorm of deafening ferocity from underneath a flight of stairs. People trying to shut shops and get off the boats. After it slowed down a bit, we ran too, skipping over the waterfalls that the stairs had been turned into.

Suddenly, the city fresh and anew. The air clean and cool. Maybe I’ll come back sometime, and learn the whole poem.

All images by the author

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