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Mucking About: Stepping Into The Unknown On The Banks Of The Ganges

Stair-stepped ghats hug the western shore of the Ganges River like a string of very old pearls, one after the other, fused together by faith and history and mud. The stairs link the mucky dung-spattered streets on land to the murky brown water of the holy river below, with riotous colors of fabric and flowers between.

I was expecting more dead bodies in Varanasi – really, burning bodies everywhere – for this is the place Hindus come to die, hoping for instant liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth. But instead I discover that only two of the dozens of ghats are "burning ghats," stacked with wood and smoldering funeral pyres. Most everywhere else, people are just very busy living. Some do cremate their loved ones here, but most engage in more quotidian tasks.

They wash dishes, wash clothes, wash their bodies. Mothers cook, feeding twigs into compact wood cook stoves and food into hungry mouths. People sell things; they buy things. They pray and dunk themselves in the water vigorously, jumping up and down as they fulfill a lifelong Hindu requirement to bathe in the waters of the Ganges. Others light candles and incense and circumambulate the grand broad-leafed pipul trees where I'm sure all these deliciously pagan-disguised-as-Hindu rituals originated, the idea of God and greater things tumbling from the branches like dappled sunlight.

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