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The Call of the Ganga

The Call of the Ganga

There are certain things that are a must do in life. Even if it means pullinag out of bed at 4 in the morning to make it to the water's edge in one of India's most chaotic cities.
But the draw of India's most famous and revered river -- the Ganga, flowing through Hinduism's most sacred city, Varanasi is far too strong and irresistible.

'In Kashi, you can never go hungry'

The steps of the Dasaswamedh Ghat -- the most popular bathing ghat -- are also the most accessed by beggars who start arriving just before sunrise and sit in rows with plates, waiting for alms and food.
"They can make up to $20 a day through the change thrown into those plates," a regular at the ghat tells us.

Smoke from the burning ghat

Just as the sun rises higher in the sky, a corpse is being prepared for its last journey at the Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation ghat in Varanasi.
As the boat passes by, the man accompanying the body, removes the shroud from the face and takes a quick picture. Guide Rajiv Kumar Pandey told us that pictures of the ghat should be taken from a distance

The Dom Raja's domain

Towering over the ghat is the Dom Raja's home. For generations, the Dom Raja's family has handed over the funeral fire to the relatives of those who come to cremate their dead. The Doms conduct the rituals of the last rites in Varanasi.
The Doms, considered a lower caste, are the sole custodians of the sacred fire -- which according to Hindu belief was given to the Dom Raja by Lord Vishnu himself. The Doms, from whom even the kings of Kashi have had to humbly ask for fire while cremating their dead.

A plea for the Ganga

Varanasi is busy, hot and terribly crowded. The area near the ghats needs deft maneuvering through cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, thel wallahs (vendors who use carts) selling mangoes, and masses of people. The narrow galis leading to the ghats are lined with small shops, homes, cows and scooters, walking through which can be a treat or torture -- depending on how you look at it.

'I am because of Kashi'

To experience Varanasi, you have to sample it. You have to go up and down the ghats, walk through the gullies, stand in the never-ending queues of the Kashi Vishwanath temple, have Puri, Jalebi and Lassi by the roadside, talk to people like the lovable Jhilmit Sardar.
With twinkling eyes lined with surma (kohl), Jhilmit Sardar's teashop has been a fixture in one the lanes leading to the Dasaswamedh Ghat. Over kulhads (earthen pots) of hot, milky Chai, he tells us of his life as a young wrestler many years ago when the akhadas of Banaras were a repository of the unique tradition of wrestling.
"I used to do 5,000 sit-ups in every session every day.

The lure, legend and magic

Varanasi -- also known as Banaras or Kashi -- has 84 ghats stretching across five-and-a-half kilometres, lining the banks of the Ganga.
The city is believed to have been built by Lord Shiva and because it is ruled by him, the king of Kashi -- known as the Kashi Naresh -- is considered the representative of Lord Shiva and has always lived on the outskirts of the city.
A 300-year-old temple that sunk on one side because of a weak foundation.

Then there was marijuana

It is 8 am and customers are already arriving at the bhang shop for their fix. Varanasi has government-certified bhang shops and the one we are at is open from 6 am to 11 pm.
Customers buy small balls of the moist bhang, which they consume with a pinch of salt. Around 250 customers patronise the shop every day. A small ball of bhang costs as little as Rs 5.
"I don't have bhang," says the shopkeeper, "even the smell makes my eyes water and my head heavy."

The magic in the chaos

Many a faithful in Varanasi has been bound to the Ganga for generations. For Deepak, our boatman that morning and a Class VIII student, rowing boats is a family profession. Since school had closed for the summer break, he comes by in the mornings to chip in and help his family.

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