Varanasi was exactly what I had imagined India to be and this was the ideal place to complete our tour of the subcontinent. We had booked in to a hostel on the Ghat in the centre of the old town. Our taxi dropped us off in the middle of a market street in full flow with people everywhere, we were met by a relative of the hostel owner who had come to walk us the final ten minutes to our accommodation. He took us through a tiny alleyway between a café and spice seller in to a dark maze of passage ways just wide enough for us with our backpacks. There were more shops in here selling jewellery, tobacco, tea, lassi drinks and tourist souvenirs. We passed men on mopeds driving through the alleys but came stuck at the occasional cow that looked as bemused as we did in how it ever got inside this maze. This also meant we were now on the lookout for steaming mines which was difficult at that time of night guided only by light that came from the occasional shop, temple or doorway. By the time we arrived we were dripping in sweat and had to shower and change before heading out to explore and view the Hindu ceremony on the Ghat that is a must see while in Varanasi. It consisted of four young priests dressed in orange robes moving in unison to music being played through a retro ghetto blaster holding a large candlestick holder, burning spices, throwing flowers and chanting, they looked a lot like a holy boy band. That night after another great and cheap local dish we found we were sharing a room with a mouse that was fond of Leanne's makeup bag and a noisy cow that 'lived' just outside our window.
On our first full day we had a local guide take us to an old palace that is still inhabited by members of a royal family that overlooks the Ganges, a number of temples dedicated to different Hindu gods and a mosque. He then took us to the place where Hindus come to cremate their loved ones on the shore of the river, there were about a dozen bodies being burnt as we were shown around by the priest in charge of keeping the fires continually burning, he walked me past the burning piles of wood with the bodies lying on top wrapped in just bandages and the burning fat would occasionally cause a loud pop. Leanne couldn't bear the intense heat being created and watched from a window nearby as the priest showed me his helpers who dispose of the remains in the river and pan the ashes looking for jewellery and gold from teeth which the families never want returned. There are five groups that cannot be burnt and instead are rowed out to the middle of the river and dropped overboard in just their bandages, they are animals, priests, children, leprosy sufferers and pregnant women.
Our next stop was a factory where our guides' mother worked on a loom and after a short tour we were taken in to a room and coerced in to purchasing a few items! For our next bit of fleecing we were taken to a guru who had been living in the mountains for the past 15 years, he had aided Goldie Hawn in her heyday and it was a real honour for us to see him as he wouldn't be here long and doesn't see just anyone. We walked in to a tiny yellow painted room in the house owned by his brother and this overweight man looked over and greeted us with a sneer. He told us nothing of his life in the mountains when I asked and instead pulled out his book of testimonials from 'satisfied' customers who had found enlightenment since meeting with him. He offered us a choice of past, present or future readings Leanne declined and I chose future. We were both taken upstairs to another room to prepare with his brother who meditated with us and hit us over the head with feathers, we both somehow managed not to burst in to fits of laughter. Leanne was taken away to be coerced in to a course of yoga and I had my palm read which I can say has given me the information to live a fulfilled happy life in the knowledge that he was as in tune with the universe as much as Brian Connolly's Mystic Peg!
We spent our last day taking in the sights, sounds and smells of Varanasi at our own pace watching the world go by on the Ghats as men bathed beside cattle and women prepared offerings in the form of banana leaf baskets with flower petals and candles. We took a private boat tour at dusk and near to the burning Ghat watched as a body wrapped in bandages was rowed past us and dropped in to the water. We finished the night by watching the ceremony of the Ghat with scores of other boats as candles floated by us.