I don’t imagine many American couples celebrate their first wedding anniversary in Varanasi, India. We certainly didn’t plan to, but we honestly didn’t spare much thought to the occasion because we had a single objective on our minds: exiting India as quickly as possible. After just two weeks, we were physically and mentally exhausted by the touts, the filth and the struggle to move from city to city. What had started as a three-week jaunt on the Indian subcontinent was about to be cut short to two weeks as we fled to Nepal and a trek to Everest Base Camp.

The day of our anniversary, I awoke to a thunderous rumble. It was about 5:50 a.m., 10 minutes before Him’s alarm was scheduled to sound. I was actually thankful for the inclement weather; It meant we had an excuse to put off a sunrise boat cruise and remain in our beds at Baba Guesthouse.

But when I rolled over to peer through the barred window of our room, the sky over the River Ganges revealed itself as pink and purple with the first rays of light, and I could see row boats ferrying camera-touting tourists on the placid surface. I puzzled over the clear skies before catching sight of a macaque monkey bouncing across a neighboring rooftop. Still, thunder or primates, I didn’t want to move. I rolled onto my back and stared up at the hole in our A/C unit where the room’s resident lizard lived.

Ganges sunrise

Sunrise over the Ganges River

Him’s iPhone made its guitar riff trill, once, twice, three times from the table beside his head. I looked across the room to see if he had heard it. Nope. He was passed out. We were sleeping in separate beds because the double’s mattress was thinner and harder than plywood. Him had kindly offered the significantly less firm twin bed to me. Both beds were draped in questionable linen – his with stains and mine with lettering proclaiming it property of the Central Railway. Once again, we were thankful for the protection of our sleep sheet sacks.

I snoozed Him’s alarm and stepped inside the box containing our toilet, sink and shower.  We had already learned that the close quarters made it impossible to shower without soaking the toilet seat. (Perhaps that’s why the management didn’t supply toilet tissue.) Him had thoughtfully demonstrated the proximity of the shower head and toilet by smacking his head on the former while rising from the latter.

But drenching the bathroom would not be a problem this morning. Fumbling with the knob under the sink — thus far the only proven way to operate the faucet on the sink — failed to produce any water. Testing the shower, toilet and “bum gun” nozzle (AKA: toilet paper substitute) proved equally unsuccessful: No water. The pipes groaned with the effort.

Him, awakened by the banging, also failed to produce any results. He lumbered downstairs to reception for assistance but returned within minutes to report defeat; Reception was pitch-black, the floor covered in the sleeping forms of family members who lived in and ran the guesthouse.

So we resolved to put off washing our faces and brushing our teeth until we returned from that Ganges boat ride. By then, perhaps the water would return or the staff members would wake up and correct the problem.

The onslaught began the second we began descending the garbage-strewn steps of Munshi Ghat.

“Yes! Boat! Boat!”

“Boat, sir! Boat!”

“You want boat?”

We were suddenly surrounded by boathands. To them, pale skin and odd western clothing meant an hour-long job potentially equaling an entire day’s wages. But we found our popularity daunting as there was no conceivable way for us to negotiate with one man while the others continued shouting and jockeying for position inches from our faces. And we didn’t know which rickety wooden vessel belonged to which man. It didn’t seem wise to agree on a fare until after we had confirmed the boat appeared seaworthy.

Overwhelmed, we drifted away. The original boathands followed, and we attracted additional new friends along the way. Some planted themselves in front of us, and we did our best to avoid walking into them while simultaneously side-stepping rivulets of urine streaming from the ghat walls where local men relieved themselves.

Varanasi boat tour

Him and “Blue,” our Ganges River tour guide

I made a beeline for the muddy riverbank as soon as I spotted a boathand who had yet to spot us. I think we surprised “Blue” by approaching him, but he seemed pleased to negotiate an hour-long cruise for Rs. 150. We boarded Blue’s aptly painted cerulean skiff, and he began rowing north.

Every India travel guide lists a sunrise Ganges boat trip as the quintessential Varanasi experience. These books gush about the gently brightening sky and the sight of locals washing themselves and their laundry at the river ghats (how quaint!). So on this, our first anniversary, we anticipated a degree of romance touring this Venice of Asia. What the guide books fail to mention, however, is that the Ganges contains visible run-off from sewers, mud washed from the backs of wading cattle and human urine freely running down the ghats from those splashed ghat walls.

But to Hindus, the Ganges River is the most sacred of rivers. It earned its exalted status from a legend that says King Sarga performed a ceremony charging warriors with stopping a roaming horse. But the horse became lost, as did Sarga’s 60,000 sons, and they all ended up in a cavern belonging to a sage who became so angry at the interruption of his meditation that he burned the sons to ash with his fiery gaze. Through prayer, the goddess Ganga was persuaded to wash her waters over the souls of the sons and release them to heaven. Thus, the “Mother Ganges” has the power to purify and cleanse believers of their sins.

So pilgrims swim in the Ganges, they bathe in the Ganges and, as we witnessed during our morning cruise, they fill their cups and jugs and drink from the Ganges.

“If you bottled the water from the Ganges, even several months later, there will be no bacteria in it,” professed a university student we met in Khajuraho.

Situated as it is on the river, Varanasi is revered as the religious capital of India. To die there is to achieve moksha, liberation from samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth. Hospices have been built atop the ghats to ensure the dying do so in Varanasi. Once they’ve expired, their shrouded bodies are carried to one of two cremation ghats — Harish Chandra or Manikarnika – to be burned in public on a pyre.

Women are not permitted to take part in cremation ceremonies, Blue said as he rowed toward the smoking wood piled high on the stairs of the Manikarnika Ghat. It is the male members of a family who form the music and dance-filled procession to the riverbank. But even they must not have direct contact with the corpse, as it is considered polluting to Hindus, and a caste of “untouchables,” the Doms, assist as the body is immersed in the river, placed on a pyre and set ablaze with flame procured from a temple. Ghee, or clarified butter, is poured on the remains to distribute the flames.


Wood piled high on Manikarnika, a burning ghat

All but the chest of a male body is burned, Blue said. On female bodies, all but the hips are burned. Once the rest of the body has been reduced to ash, the chest or hips are tossed into the Ganges.

The remaining ash is coveted by three sects: the Doms, the Hindu holy men known as Sadhus and the roaming farm animals. The Doms sift through the ash in an effort to pocket (and by “pocket,” I mean “keep.” Their loin cloths don’t contain pockets) any teeth fillings, coins or jewelry left behind. The Sadhus, those stick-thin naked guys seen meditating on the ghats, cover their bodies white with the ash to remind themselves of the temporary nature of life. And the cows, goats and stray dogs seek out the warm embers as beds on which to sleep.

Pregnant women and children, Blue continued, are not burned because children are considered pure. Instead, their bodies are fastened to rocks and sunk to the bottom of the river. Some bodies, however, don’t stay sunk. Gases from the decomposition generate incredible buoyancy, causing the corpse to pop to the surface like a champagne cork. There’s a special boat charged with traveling up and down the Ganges to collect wayward bodies. It deposits them on the far river bank where wild dogs eat the remains.

I’m not sure I would have believed this graphic, matter-of-fact description of local body disposal practices had our boat not been overtaken just then by a very stiff, shrouded body bobbing by. It was too big to be the body of a child, so we assumed it belonged to a pregnant woman. Her body was perfectly folded, as if she had expired while sitting in a chair and then rigor mortis had set in before she could be moved.

I admit that I failed to catch much more of Blue’s tour narration. I was mesmerized by the bobbing body and the spectacle of the burning ghats, two of the most surreal sights I have ever beheld.

In Varanasi, bodies burn all hours of the day and night, and the smell of singed flesh and hair lingers in the air. Mountains of logs tower next to scales; Doms calculate the cost of cremation by the weight of the wood used. Hundreds of people – and animals — mill about the pyres. They include mourners, undertakers, drummers, local passersby, river bathers and open-mouthed tourists. There is no visible fence or barrier separating the living from the dead.

“It just seemed so impersonal to me,” Him said in reflection. “They set you on fire and that’s it. Then strangers rifle through your remains.”

dead body

The body of a pregnant woman floats by our skiff

We ultimately gave Blue Rs. 300 – payment for both his thorough, informative tour and as gratitude for not sinking the boat. He seemed very pleased. We were a bit shell-shocked – and surprisingly hungry.

The highlight of our anniversary was a delicious breakfast of yogurt, muesli and fruit at the Lotus Lounge, an outdoor patio restaurant situated high over the riverbank. During the three days we spent in Varanasi, we ate at the restaurant three times – partly for the delicious, eclectic cuisine and partly for the company of Meow Meow, the incredibly rambunctious resident kitten.

The Lotus Lounge seemed to attract many return customers, as we noticed the same clientele each time we dined there. I presume wimpy tourists like us, when utterly bamboozled by the macabre cycle of life and death unfolding on the ghats, regard Lotus Lounge as a safe place to decompress while watching the chaos unfold below. (The sights and smells of the burning ghats, thankfully, are some distance from the restaurant).

After breakfast, we walked back along the ghats toward the hotel with hopes the water had magically returned so we could brush our teeth and maybe even use the bathroom. Him went ahead, but I was waylaid photographing locals as they dipped their laundry in the river, slapped it hard against flat rocks and then spread it out on the ghat steps to dry amongst the cow patties. I noticed most of the laundry consisted of hotel sheets and wondered whether the set currently covering my twin bed had been cleaned this way.

When I finally climbed the steps of our ghat, I found myself standing in garbage waterlogged in a flowing stream of red. It resembled blood, and the sight of a litter of puppies shredding the flesh of dead rats seemed to confirm this. But then I remembered Holi, the upcoming Hindu religious festival of color, and knew it was red dye. This revelation served to help us avoid future onslaught as local children intent on pelting unsuspecting tourists with water balloons were positioned like snipers throughout the city. In addition to water from the cesspool river, their balloons contained colored dye, and all victims – tourists and stray animals included – displayed tell-tale signs of attack.

“Don’t you dare do it!” I yelled at one boy, his hand cocked in my direction.

Deflated, he dropped his hand and scampered off.

I certainly wasn’t concerned about my clothing – I had been alternating between the same two pairs of pants for four months by then – but the thought of having my camera gear destroyed distressed me. I didn’t trust the flimsy lock on our hotel room door, and I couldn’t fathom touring this alien environment without thoroughly documenting it (I shot more than 2,000 photographs in Varanasi — more than I captured in Agra and on our Bandhavgarh safari combined). So when Him returned from the hotel, I took to walking behind him while shielding my gear under my shirt.

Looks like blood, doesn't it?

Looks like blood, doesn’t it?

We wandered through the Varanasi alleys, an overwhelming labyrinth of twists and turns, in search of souvenirs. As in Venice, there didn’t seem to be any discernible plan to the layout of walkways, and it was easy to get lost. Unlike Venice, the narrow passageways were at times impassably clogged with human bodies (I mean live ones this time), motor scooters, hefty bovines and garbage. On several occasions, Him and I had to scale the walls of shops and homes to make way for passing cows or motorized vehicles.

The walls and doors of these alleys were colorfully decorated with bright paint, stickers, graffiti and peculiar motivation posters featuring gurgling, naked toddlers. They also displayed an unnerving number of “Missing Persons” posters, which, on reflection, seemed appropriate considering how easy it must be to dispose of a murder victim within a city shrouded in death.

The alleys owed their color to garbage as well. Soaked in the red remnants of Holi, piles of refuse lay strewn across the path way. The cows and water buffalo grew fat from the scraps. The stray dogs slept soundlessly a top the soggy mess. Some appeared dead. Despite the prevalence of animal feces, many people walked the alleys in bare feet.

Him and I became separated near a block of bangle shops when an undulating wave of worshippers filing into a temple pushed me upstream independent of the direction my legs – or Him – wanted to go. Losing my footing would certainly lead to a trampling on the most vile stretch of payment I could imagine.

Once reunited, we escaped from the crowd to emerge on the riverfront. I poked Him and pointed at the wall across from us. A poster there displayed a photograph of a dead man on a stretcher.

“That’s odd,” I said.

That’s precisely the moment an old man on a stretcher passed in front of us in a procession toward the riverbank. Unlike the other bodies we had seen, this one was shrouded only with marigolds. He seemed to be sleeping beneath the yellow buds.

Yes, we were back at Manikarnika Ghat, the burning ghat from Blue’s tour that morning. The poster served as an advertisement, if you will, for a funeral home.

Once again, I was mesmerized by the astounding proximity of death. Motioning for Him to follow, I joined the end of the marigold man’s family as they carried him past the naked Shadus, the perilous stacks of pyre wood and Holi dye-stained rumps of cows.

Him and I peeled off at the ghat steps and watched the activity of this smoking inferno from a distance: The immersion of a shrouded body in the river, a rowing match off shore, children splashing at a neighboring ghat, the Doms picking through a sludgy mix of human ash and mud, flames beginning to char the body of the marigold man black.

Dead body

That’s the charred remains of a corpse and this dude is rubbing himself with the ashes.

We left this spectacle to locate a Trip Advisor-recommended tea emporium and then a restaurant known as Ohm Café. We succeeded in locating the former, but the epic quest to locate the latter took us several miles downriver to Asi Ghat, the southernmost of Varanasi’s 80 or so ghats. There, amongst the abandoned buildings, we became lost, irritable with one another and extremely tired. When it grew dark, we grew nervous and so turned back toward the riverfront to find an alternative. We climbed the steep stairs of three empty, dark restaurants but were wary by the lack of clientele and the abundance of piercing stares from staff members with seemingly nothing to do. We turned and retreated all the way back north before settling on the buzzing Dolphin Hotel / Restaurant several miles past our hotel.

We celebrated our anniversary with dinner served on the sixth floor balcony of the restaurant. Below, we could hear music from a concert and the distant drumming of yet more funeral processions. We ordered spinach paneer, potato curry with fruit and nuts and – because we felt we had earned it – Butter Na’an.

It was on the walk back to Baba Guesthouse that we realized we had neglected to purchase anniversary gifts for each other – you know, something to remember the day by. We settled on buying a roll of toilet tissue from a ghat-side convenience stand. Paper, after all, is the traditional first anniversary gift. Besides, our cozy hotel bathroom was fresh out.

The water pressure had returned to our hotel room, and I showered with mouth clamped firmly shut against the stream as I washed the pyre smoke, mud and sweat from my body. While Him showered, I relocated my green sleep sheet sack from the twin bed to beside his blue sack in the plywood double. We slept that night, side-by-side, each cocooned in our respective shrouds.