For a city of more than one million and an endless inflow of pilgrims and tourists, the infrastructure in Varanasi is very poor Image Credit: Graham Crouch/New York Times

To most people, Varanasi is not a place, it’s an idea. A microcosm of India in all its myriad hues — timeless, exotic and full of promises. A mystic land where life and death are spiritual experiences, where funeral pyres line river banks, and saffron-clad, bare-chested holy men perform mysterious rituals that cannot be witnessed anywhere else on the earth.

True, Varanasi, also known as Benares, is all of these. But it is also much more. At a time when history is being rewritten to suit a singular narrative, the ghats of Varanasi stand as an oasis of mutual acceptance and harmonious living. Despite the fact that Kashi — another name for Varanasi — is considered to be the cradle of Hinduism, at the ghats, the River Ganga is maiyya (mother) to all, regardless of their faith.

The members of Varanasi’s large weaving community are made up both Hindus and Muslims and to them, the river is their guardian and protector. The ghats are where one can see Muslim families sitting right next to where a pooja (Hindu ritual worship) is happening, and performing sadka — offerings in the name of the divine. Setting free live fish into the Ganga is one such ritual, meant to protect person and property from evil because “where else do fish belong except with Ganga maiyya?” as a shy young man tells the Weekend Reivew. He and his father were releasing fish, brought in plastic bags, into the river.

At the ghats, individuals and communities from around the world co-exist as parts of a singular ecosystem. And if spirituality is about human experiences, then the ghats of Varanasi is where one can hope to find eternal bliss.

The first encounter with the city, however, can be anything but spiritual. The ‘highway’ that takes you from the airport to the city is narrow, bumpy and caked in dust. A taxi must weave its way past humans and cattle, as well as endless flow of four-, three- and two-wheeled vehicles in all sizes and shapes — and from every direction at once. ‘Lane’ and ‘safe distance’ are alien concepts here, and a self-respecting taxi merely brushes past everything around it with complete indifference.

“A lot of accidents occur, especially at night,” says Sunil Verma, an airport taxi driver. “Cattle roam free on the roads, and with not enough streetlights, we often end up running into them. And, believe me, that spells big trouble.”

An overhead ring road meant to significantly ease the traffic is under construction. At the moment, however, the massive concrete pillars that hold it up just add to the misery of the drivers. And as many of the drivers were traditionally farmers who had to turn to other professions for subsistence, they have a different set of woes to share, including interminable power-cuts and the unplanned urbanisation that has made farming unviable.

Closer to the city, roads become even more congested, and the last leg of the journey to the ghats has to be completed on foot, across broken pavements — again dodging humans and animals. But if one manages to look up from the path, ancient but beautiful buildings can be seen on either side of the road, mostly in various states of disrepair. Electric wires run overhead in hopeless tangles, with absolute disregard for human life below. For a city of more than one million and an endless inflow of pilgrims and tourists, the infrastructure is very poor. The city seems to have grown inward, like an ailing toenail, and if first-time visitors begin to doubt the wisdom of their choice, they cannot be blamed.

And then, one reaches the threshold that marks the beginning of the ghat. Stepping over the threshold is like crossing a portal and entering another world, one that is beyond anything that even a movie-and-literature-fuelled imagination could be prepared for. The Ganga is immense like a sea, with hundreds of similar-shaped wooden row boats undulating peacefully on her calm waters. Flocks of seagulls rise up and swoop down to circle the boats, their squawks mingling with the sound of brass bells ringing in the distance. The sheer beauty and grandeur takes your breath away

“The Ganga is our mother,” says Bhola majhi, one of the thousands whose lives are tied to the ghats. “We majhis (boatmen) have been ferrying passengers from the time of Pandavas,” he adds, referring to the legend of the Mahabharata that was supposed to have taken place thousands of years ago. “Taking pilgrims for ‘Kashi Darshan’ is not just our trade, it is our duty.”

But behind his smiling words are the dark shadows of an age-old caste system that binds communities to their traditional roles. The son of a majhi carries on with his father’s trade, just as the son of a Dom inherits from his ancestors the onus of cremating bodies on the ghat. “But I send all three of my children to school,” says majhi, “because I want to give them the opportunity that I did not get.”

From the boat on the Ganga, the view of the upper embankment with its long row of beautiful ochre-coloured buildings, each a remnant of a passing dynasty, is spectacular. Dasaswamedh Ghat, Munshi Ghat, Narad Ghat, Manmandir Ghat… there are 84 in total. But Harishchandra Ghat in the middle stands out for its dark and desolate appearance.

“They cremate bodies here, a practice since the days of King Harishchandra,” says Bhola majhi, narrating a story from the Mahabharata, of a virtuous ruler who fell into hard times and had to cremate bodies at the ghat to feed his family.

Life and death flourish together on the ghats, feeding off each other. According to Hindu beliefs, the soul of a person who dies in Kashi, or has their last rites performed here, attains liberation from the cycle of life and death. Dasaswamedh Ghat has a long row of wooden platforms to one side that await pilgrims who bathe in the Ganga and proceed to ensure the last rites for a family member or a loved one. Local priests perform these rituals for a fee.

Many elderly and terminally ill people travel from all parts of India to the ghats seeking a peaceful death. In fact, Varanasi has guest houses that cater exclusively to the dying, the most famous among them being Mukti Bhawan, where ‘guests’ are allowed weeks to die. If they do not oblige in the given time, they must leave. The bodies of the ones that die in Varanasi are cremated in one of the two ghats: Manikarnika or Harishchandra, with most of the cremations taking place in Manikarnika Ghat.

On a winter evening, the mere sight of Manikarnika Ghat from the Ganga is enough to stun a person to silence. In the gathering darkness, huge bonfires can be seen blazing, their flames and smoke reaching for the skies.

“Those are bodies, being burnt,” majhi points out casually. “At Manikarnika, cremation happens day and night.” It is hard for a visitor to suppress a shiver at the reality of death as seen here.

Until recently, Manikarnika Ghat had a gruesome reputation, as half-burnt bodies used to be dumped into the river to make space for others. Fortunately, the Clean Ganga Project which was kicked off in 2014 has put an end to that practice. The project, however, has not stopped large pipes from dumping effluent into the river, as can be seen at Harishchandra Ghat.

Religion is big business in Varanasi — in fact, the most lucrative of all. Home to more than 2,000 temples including the famous Kashi Viswanath near the ghats, Varanasi has exclusive temple guides who cut through lengthy queues and take visitors straight to the sanctum sanctorum — for a hefty fee — and a gullible pilgrim may part with more money than they had bargained for.

Most of the local population of Varanasi make their living from tourism as priests, tour guides, vendors, weavers, boatmen. Children even dress up as deities for tourists to take photographs — for a nominal fee. And dominating everyone with their sheer presence are the babas, the legendary holy men of the ghats, with their ash-smeared bodies and long, matted hair. While many of them are spiritual beings who live in their own separate worlds, there are those earthly enough to pose for photographs for a fee.

“How else can I subsist?” asks Dollar Baba, whose name is derived from the currency that most of his income comes in.

Many old houses near the ghats have been converted into home-stay facilities where visitors can rent rooms with basic amenities. Rani Pandey, whose house is near Dasaswmedh Ghat, rents out the rooms of her ancestral home at reasonable rates, while her brother Santhosh Pandey runs a restaurant on the ground floor. The amenities are barebones at best, owing to long power-cuts and constant occupation of rooms. However, these places not only provide cheap accommodation to visitors, they also offer a livelihood to a local population with little education or training. These men and women work as cooks, cleaners and handymen in these facilities, albeit for very low wages. Most of their earnings come from the tips they receive from guests.

Poverty here is seen in dirty streets and pathways, in sidewalks that spill over to fill narrow roads, and in the quiet desperation of people. It reflects too in the general inability of many to break out of caste-based roles or to question existing norms.

The situation is worse for the weaving community in Varanasi and its surroundings. Most of the weavers of the world-famous Benares silk, known for the beauty and fine quality of its weave and motifs, now live in abject poverty. The advent of imported mechanised looms have worsened their plight by offering cheaper products to customers.

Though education as a harbinger of change has taken its time to reach Varanasi, it is here to stay. Like Bhola majhi, there are many others who ensure that their children get educated. Lakshmi, a single mother and second-generation migrant from Tamil Nadu, says she will do anything to educate her daughter Bhoomika.

“I send her to a good school, and pay for private tuitions as well,” she says. “I don’t have the knowledge to clear her doubts, you see. She wants to be a teacher, and I’m going to make her one.”

Ever since her husband left her as a pregnant 17-year old, Lakshmi has been selling bead necklaces, bracelets and other accessories, most of which she herself makes and sells from her stall on the stone steps of the ghats.

“On a good day, I make up to a Rs1,000 (Dh58), but on most days, it is much less,” she says. “And there are days when I make nothing at all.” Yet, not only does she manage to keep Bhoomika in school, she also looks after her widowed mother. “Life is hard, but no one starves on the ghats. Ganga maiyya sees to that.”

The allure of Varanasi’s ghats seems to transcend not only religious beliefs, but also geographies, cultures and languages, bringing people from as far as Europe, Australia, the Americas, China and the Far East. Some, like Monique and Victor from the French Alps, find communication a real problem, but not enough to disenchant them.

“Of course, we will return,” says Monique. “We have to. There is something to this place.”

“How many days would it really take to get a feel of the city?” wonders Adam, a young artist from New York who has come to the ghats with his Japanese girlfriend. How many days indeed, to understand the dynamics and undercurrents of this ancient city?

“A lifetime is not enough,” says local Santhosh Panday. “But three or four days would be good.”

Mini S. Menon is a writer based in Dubai.