Sandeep turned the boat around and we moved downstream past our starting point to Man Mandir Ghat, where the Maharajah of Jaipur converted a palace into an astronomical observatory in 1710. Cricket matches were noisily being played here on a flat stretch of the bank by the Dom Raja’s house. The Doms are the ‘Untouchables ’ of Varanasi who perform the parts of the cremation service that all other Hindus would find ritually polluting. People were enjoying themselves swimming around the boat and smiling as I photographed them; others were diving into the water from the stepped bank, where some Western tourists were sitting silently with their eyes closed facing the sun.
Shouts of “No photos” greeted our arrival at the principal burning ghat of the city, Jalasayin. From my vantage point in the boat, I could see the bodies waiting to be cremated, wrapped in the most colourful sheets. Relatives were fussing around the grieving family members as the funeral pyre was being built a few metres away and children were playing on the huge pile of wood at the back of the ghat. Each log will have been weighed on giant scales to calculate the price of the cremation.
As a mark of respect, you should not take pictures on the burning ghats, even with a long lens, as people have been handed over to the local police for ignoring the warnings. The elderly come to Varanasi to seek refuge or to live out their final days, finding shelter in the temples and being assisted by alms from visiting pilgrims. Hindus believe that anyone who dies in Varanasi attains instant moksha or enlightenment and as a result cremation is big business. Outcasts, known as chandal, carry bodies on a bamboo stretcher swathed in cloth through the alleyways of the old city to the sacred Ganges.
Along the riverbank at the Panchganga ghat young boys were flying multi-coloured kites. Serious competitors try to bring down other flyer’s kites by coating their twine with a mixture of flour paste and crushed light bulbs to make it razor sharp. Unbelievably, my two hours were almost over, so Sandeep rowed me back to the Dasavamedha Ghat and the most photogenic vista of colour I have ever witnessed came to an end. It was so awe inspiring that I got up even earlier the following day, to view the ghats at sunrise once again.