The Ganges is brown and wide and moves sluggishly as if weighed down by the load that it carries. We have a boat, one of many, and a man to row for us. I let my hand drag in the water and splash my face and forehead. I sit with my back to the sun, my clothes sticking to me. Perspiration runs down my neck. My straw hat protects my face and my cotton pants and shirt cover all of me except for my hands which have been lavished with sunscreen.
There are six passengers in the boat with me, three of my fellow Australian travellers and our hosts Mr and Mrs Kasandra and their daughter. Our bodies rock with the movement of the rowing. We are hushed by the heat and humidity.
At the edges of the river, men and naked children are bathing. They cover their brown bodies in soapsuds and then dunk themselves in the water until they are rinsed off and gleaming. Some children play in the shallows while a row of women wash clothes. The water sprays off them as they swing soaked clothes up over their heads and slap them down onto flat rocks. Over and over they do it in time with each other like a slow dance.
Trousers and shirts are hung out to dry on yards and yards of looped lines. They flap gently in the slight breeze except the starched shirts and underwear which barely move at all. Saris are spread over the steps to dry creating brilliant patches of red, yellow, blue and green at the water’s edge.
We row quietly past the ghats and head to shore. I am glad there are no cremations today. The boat nudges up to the water’s edge and we all get out rather clumsily. It is a short walk to the site of a pool, now dry, where Lord Shiva and Pavarti bathed together. We stand there for a short while paying our respects.
From there we wander through the alleys of old Varanasi crowded with children, beggars, shoppers, cows and dogs. Children laugh and shriek at us; so strange, so foreign. Their mothers hush them and look embarrassed, smiling a shy apology to us. Shopkeepers cry out, call to us, pull at our clothes, begging us to buy, imploring us to admire, miming a purchasing ritual in which we are expected to partake.
Goods are stacked higgledy piggledy in the shops and spill out onto the streets: pots, pans, cutlery, candles, chairs, stools, ornaments, brass bowls, sharp knives, soaps, trinkets, dolls, baskets, brightly embroidered bags, wooden carvings of sundry gods and goddesses, whistles, cymbals, flutes. We move slowly through the crowds. I clutch my hat. There are monkeys leaping about gibbering and squealing.
Eventually we arrive at the Golden Temple, a site sacred for both Hindus and Muslims. Mr and Mrs Kasandra go in to make offerings while we wait in the shade of a flower and perfumery shop and breathe in the heady fragrances of jasmine, sandalwood and lilies.
Our destination is a silk merchant known to Mrs Kasandra who wants to begin negotiations for her daughter’s wedding sari. The Kasandra family are important customers as are their guests so we are treated like royalty. While we sip tea and nibble on dainty almond cakes exquisite silks are thrown on the floor around us and we are almost buried in the gorgeous stuff.
I am wrapped up in a green and red sari and although everyone is politely enthusiastic about how beautiful I look, I remain unconvinced. I do not possess Indian elegance.
We all purchase something. Mrs Kasandra orders several silks for other members of the family and promises to return for the all-important bridal silk. The silk merchant is delighted with the news and bows respectfully.
I buy a beautiful piece of royal blue silk shot through with gold thread. It is carefully wrapped in brown paper and tied neatly with string. Leaving takes some time as we are thanked again and again and wished a safe journey. With smiles and laughter and hands in prayer position at their hearts they accompany us out the door and usher us back into the noisy, hot street.
Mr Kasandra hails taxis and we make our way back to our hotel. I sit quietly in the back seat with my brown parcel imagining the ways I could use the silk. I decide on a vest lined with midnight blue satin or perhaps, a shirt or skirt. In the end, it simply became a wall hanging reminding me of the sensuous pleasures of that shopping trip.