The moon over Varanasi
At five thirty a.m., the gunmetal sky above the Ganges river promised us another hot day.

Before the scorch, though, we were off to watch Varanasi wake up.

From burning dead bodies, to bathing babies and washing hotel sheets, life's rituals are performed on the holy river.

Our first sight before sunrise was the cremation ghat. Tall piles of wood are stacked in the alleys surrounding it. Families pay for the wood and taxes, our boatman, 20-year-old Sanjay, told us. Three glowing fires flickered at the beach. Men stood around without apparent grief. Are they the families or paid pallbearers, I wondered.

A few children played in the ashy mud at the river's side as the shadows in the fire played hide and seek with my imagination. Are those feet I see? A skull?

Sanjay knows the morbid interests of tourists: "There are five kinds people not burning. Five, bodies in river."

Children, pregnant women and holy men are already pure and so they don't need the flame to cleanse them, he explained. Plus, people who have died from a cobra bite or leprosy are considered already touched by god. Later we pass a bloated mass of something. Bones protrude. Animal or human?

As disturbing as it is, now I have a plot for my next novel, I think. A murder mystery.

Past the cremation site, we went to a more joyous part of the river. Men and women stood hip-deep in the water, washing their faces and arms. A few men chanted: "Om. Om. Om." Little boys played in the water, clinging to an inner tube. Older boys had plastic jugs stuck in their underpants as flotation.

One section seemed to be for laundry. Stones were piled up to make a line of washboards. Men beat hotel linens in the water rhythmically. After a good beating, the twisted fabric was thrown to a pile on the bank, and later spread on a retaining wall to sun-dry. "Not your guest house!" Sanjay told us reassuringly.

Sanjay pointed out some landmarks among the chaos of buildings and stairways that make up the riverside 'ghats.' The Ganpati guest house also houses a home for widows. A Bollywood star owns a big flashy red building. A royal family donated such-and-such palace to sadhus (holy men). And, one elaborate building belongs to the guy who collects the 200 rupee tax from the cremations at the burning ghat.

"He is very rich, but his caste is very bad," Sanjay commented.

We turned back, facing the golden sun that rose through the smog like a burning penny. Even at 7:30 the heat was getting intense. Sanjay pulled the boat up to a group of stones to let us get out for breakfast.

Varanasi had awoken.

**Click here to see photos from Varanasi**

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