In many respects Varanasi was the climax of our time in India. According to Hindu belief, if you die and are cremated on the Ganges you escape the otherwise eternal cycle of reincarnation. So the city is home to thousands of pilgrims who come to Varanasi for their last days, weeks, or months. When they die their bodies are brought through the winding alleys of the old city to the ghats along the Ganges to be burned on pyres of sandalwood by the dalit (the untouchable caste).
These fires are lit with a flame that's been burning, apparently, for some four thousand years and can been seen burning at various points along the river continuously. Pilgrims come not just to die and move on but also to witness and bless these passings. We saw boat-lads of white turbaned men chaning and praying as they passed the burning ghats each morning.
The ghats themselves are often beautiful. Many are built and maintained by maharajas from all over India. They are teaming with locals doing laundry, pilgrims praying and bathing, water buffalo and stray dogs eating discarded funerary materials, and tourists watching it all.
At sunrise and sunset there are performances and ceremonies, which tourists generally watch from row-boats on the river banks. Young girls sell votives and rose petals which bring good luck to those who float them down river. So there you are, floating on the Ganges, watching priests meet the sun with conch calls and incense, and the water all around you is dotted with roses and flames. Unique in my experience and very cool stuff.
One particularly pleasing sight was the Varanasi-contingent of The Laughing Club:
Other new sights in Varanasi included bicycle rickshaws (fighting for breathing room in some pretty fierce traffic):
This lovely tea shop:
And a typically subtle temple facade:
We also took a day trip to Sarnath, which is home to the deer park where the Buddha delivered his first sermon. It's considered one of the four most holy spots on the planet for Buddhists, and it's home to a seedling from the tree under which the Buddha reached his enlightenment, as well as some crocs and spotted deer.
Gastronomic adventures in Varanasi included Nepalese momos:
And India peanut brittle (made with jaggery and cardamum), with which I quickly became obsessed: