It starts with the tolling of the bells, plump yet sharp soundwaves wading through the yellowing fog. The prayers, incantations, and wailings follow shortly, winding around the dawn light, sliding down only to clamber up again. Another bell from another temple emerges to finally achieve the classification of ‘din’ – that muddle of incongruous, formless sounds too much for a sleep-sunk brain. I hold my face into the red-hot pricks of the shower, let the noises of outside wash over me, and wake up in Varanasi, India.
Holy men sit cross-legged in cubby-hole shrines in temples leading down to the Ganges; a cow flutters its lashes as it reclines on the river’s concrete banks, yet the water remains hidden by a jaundiced fug, part-mist part-pollution. A boatman is acquired over sweet, creamy chai with the assurances of Raj, a king amongst men, smoking hash on a woodpile at 5:45am.
The boat pushes out, away from the orange-bulbed silhouette-scattered shore, and into the scurrying mist. This is the River of Styx and we are pushing out ever-closer to the eternal sleep. The oars stir the inky waters, brushing cobwebs from the faces of the dead cremated at Manikarnika Ghat, pulling ripples and frowns simultaneously.
There is nothing familiar out here on the Ganges; it is between worlds, belonging nowhere but to the here and the now, flowing back Millenia. The shore is still cloaked in orange and yellow where figures stretch and fold to the slow rhythm of the oars.
When the sky eventually lightens a fraction, a girl skips out to us across moored boats and floating debris. She sells baskets of flowers with handmade candles drooping in cupcake cases on top, flames licking petals, tangerine tears dancing in my outstretched palms. I drop it to the water, followed by wishes for my family, whispering the names of gods.
The sun is a miniature sickle now, slicing a peephole in the sky and seeing the bulbous blue impressions of clouds for the first time. Gulls flock and fall on half-light thermals and gulp at the sweet-smelling air around the tourist boats. Boatmen sell pots of small fish, offerings to Mother Ganga.
One man peddles DVDS, showing on a TV that rests precariously at one end of his wooden rowing boat.
A local man with bright eyes jiggles his man-boobs as his ankles sink below the water – ‘cold, cold, cold’ he squeals, before diving gracefully into the holy murk. The other bathers cup their hands, wet their hair, faces and then take the water into their mouths before spitting it in long sparkling arcs back to the river below. This is Varanasi and I am alive.
Images Two and Three courtesy of Anna Roberts – copyright © 2011 Anna Roberts