India has a surfeit of sacred places, but for its Hindu majority there is no place as magically divine as Varanasi, on the banks of Ganges River. In 1895, Mark Twain wrote that Varanasi “is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” He was wrong, or partly wrong: Varanasi is perhaps the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, but the narrow alleyways and smoky temples that define its present shape were only built in the last few hundred years, after India’s Mughal emperors razed the city.
Varansi’s living past is now most obvious at sunrise, when the inhabitants of its medieval lanes along with pilgrims and India’s wandering ascetics visit the banks of the Ganges to make ritual offerings and bathe in the river’s water, which is said to cleanse all sins. Boatmen take tourists down the river, past the many ghats – steps leading down to the water – and the funeral pyres of Hindus, who believe that by being cremated at Varanasi and having their ashes scattered into the river, they will escape the cycle of reincarnation and achieve moksha. I joined the tourists, and took photographs of a place that is like no other, while my taciturn boatman paddled me past scenes from humanity’s distant past – and its present.
Read more about travelling in India at Old World Wandering: A Travelogue, the story of a South African couple’s journey home.