Read this and post your comments: We’re on the outskirts of town and Catriona – my sister – and I are very excited. Before leaving home, so many people had told us that Varanasi was one of the highlights of their trips to India and since arriving in this strange and wonderful country, so many Indians had told us that a trip to Varanasi was a spiritual highlight in their lives. What is it to be for us? Rajesh is also excited. He is a Hindu and has never been to Varanasi before today. He imagines bathing in the sacred Ganga, performing his morning puja by the waters of the river under the rising sun, and communing with his gods by participating in rituals which are millennia old. Rajesh is our driver. Hardened back packers amongst you may scoff at the idea of us having a driver but we have done our time. We’ve been in India for six weeks already and have enough of dragging bags onto the roofs of buses, elbowing our way onto crowded trains and haggling with drivers of taxis and jeeps. Hiring a driver is cheap and gives you much more freedom than buses or trains ever could. And, it also gives you some idea of what it’s like to be rich and to have a driver at your beck and call – travelling is all about broadening your experiences, after all! We’re looking for our hotel and, as usual, this is causing a certain amount of difficulty. Like many people in India, Rajesh can’t read and when we come to a fork in the road, can’t read the road signs. Neither Catriona nor I can read Hindi so much confusion and merriment usually ensues. Rajesh stops random passers-by and asks them for directions. We eventually attract the attentions of a young hustler. He can only be about ten but has already learned how to spot desperate foreigners in need of having their wallets lightened. We usually steer clear of touts like this, no matter what age they are, but today we have no choice and he leads us to our hotel. Delving deeper and deeper into the heart of this ancient city, we found our hotel, at the end of a vegetable market, surrounded by temples of vivid colours and bustling life and just above Harischandra ghat. Having made the usual and most necessary inspections – working shower, western style clean toilet, not too hard bed – we accepted the room and took a short nap. It took us a while to become this methodical about our system of inspection. At the beginning we only looked at the room and were then cast into despair or disgust at the sight of the loo. This didn’t last for long. Almost immediately we realised the importance of having a working shower but unfortunately, in some parts of the country, this is a real luxury and can be impossible to find. After a week or so, we had our inspection system down to a tee. Quick glance around the room to tell if it’s relatively clean, one of us goes into the bathroom to check out the toilet and run the shower while the other sits and bounces on the bed. It’s usually not very bouncy but after travelling in India for a while you become accustomed to hard beds. Naps were also vital for us. We travelled during the summer and the heat in the afternoon was unbearable. We’d rise early in the morning and do a lot before 12, then retreat to our hotel room, strip to our underwear and lie on our bed underneath the fan, moving as little as possible and if lucky, sleeping a little of the sultry day away. We awoke feeling refreshed. We left the hotel to explore the river’s edge just as the light of day was beginning to fade. What happened next will be etched onto my mind’s eye forever. I know that for many it would be morbid and unsettling to witness an Indian cremation but for me, it was a unique opportunity to see true faith and age old ritual merge to create a scene of extraordinary beauty. (I’m an Irish Catholic and have seen lots of dead bodies so I might have been somehow desensitised to the fear many people seem to have of the body once the person has left it). Harischandra ghat is one of the burning ghats. Funeral pyres are assembled all along the edge of the water. Some smoulder as the last flames consume what little there is left of what once was a person while others rage angrily, the flames intent upon reducing a life to ashes. We watched one cremation from beginning to end and I was so moved by the beauty and the graceful dignity of the entire act. The body, wrapped in a gaily decorated shroud, is carried to the river by male family members who are chanting centuries old prayers and funeral songs. Arriving at the river’s edge, they place the body upon the sandalwood pyre. The eldest son solemnly submits to the next part of the ritual. All the while chanting the funereal prayers, his hair is shaved off. He removes his clothes and naked, he steps into the water of the holy river. He seeks purification and a connection with a world beyond the physical. Stepping out of the water, he is wrapped in newly woven white cloth. He is ready to perform the rite. He takes a branch from the pyre and brings it to the temple where, from a fire which has been burning for over one thousand years, he takes a flame. He returns to the pyre bearing his burning branch and uses it to set the pyre alight. He walks around the pyre, reciting his ancient prayers and completing this age old rite. I felt humbled and astonished at such a show of devotion. This world is other to the world I’ve known. Varanasi showed me a side of humanity I’ve rarely glimpsed, a richness of spirit and a continuity of tradition which overwhelmed me. It was a defining moment of our trip to India and perhaps a defining moment in my life.