The river of life, death and tourists

VARANASI, India --- "Cow. Mustard plant. Dead body," our taxi driver said as we drove into town.

Wait, what was that last one?

It was a woman's body, small and wrapped in shiny red cloth, being carried by hand on a pallet down the main street into town.

For thousands of years, Hindus and Buddhists have come here to end their lives -- or renew them -- in the river Ganges. Dying in this ancient city brings moksha , or spiritual liberation to Hindus. The living cleanse their spirits by washing in the waters that run down from Himalayan snow peaks.

That tradition draws a never-ending human current of pilgrims, beginning in predawn darkness each morning. From every street and intersection, blurry shapes amble toward the riverside steps, called ghats . The walk is quiet, except for the pilgrims' drums, chants and tambourines.

The ritual also draws boatloads of tourists. First-time visitors like us typically include the Ganges in a triangle of destinations -- along with the Taj Mahal and the temples of Khajuraho, known for erotic carvings -- in India's history-rich northeast. Almost every step in India offers some kind of intense experience, but nothing was as riveting as that morning along the water in Varanasi.

After walking to the ghat , my wife, Miranda, and I were rowed along the river, with all the other tourists. The bathers with their skinny legs and baggy drawers lined the shore steps.

"The water is very clean, very clean," said our cheerful guide Ajay Singh, scooping up a handful to drink and press against his face.

A few oar-strokes later, we passed the floating carcass of a goat -- a ritual sacrifice and another reminder that Varanasi's ancient traditions fly in the face of modern rules of sanitation and public health.

Upriver and downriver, cremation fires burned continuously. Hundreds are cremated each day. The government has outlawed the old practice of dumping bodies directly into the river.

The never-ending funeral takes center stage at Varanasi, but walk 20 yards past the burning pyre and you're quickly lost in the bustle of merchants, customers, cows and schoolchildren squeezing through the narrow shop lanes.

In India, even the most everyday details can be jarring to a Westerner. A downtown store takes the religious honor accorded cattle to a new level. A huge bull lies lazily in the middle of a pashmina shop, as customers on either side peer at the displays.

A short drive from Varanasi is Sarnath, where Buddha preached his first sermon in the sixth century B.C. The brick ruins of Buddha's temple look out over the stupa , a 100-foot-tall circle of dark stone. From Varanasi, it is a short flight to the village of Khajuraho, known for sandstone temples filled with erotically explicit statues.

Many of the central carvings around the temples show sex acts, including one that would require an extremely strong left leg. One theory is that the erotic carvings were made to demonstrate the Kama Sutra to the illiterate. The best time to walk around the temples is late afternoon, when softer light hits the sandstone.

Khajuraho is small, but the riverside town of Orchha is smaller. We went there to get away from the big cities and see some of the countryside along the way to the Taj Mahal.

We hired a car to take us on the four-hour journey there. The road runs through vast, empty fields of yellow-flowered mustard seed plants.

In Orchha, we stayed in a hotel tucked underneath the ruins of a temple. We decided to skip an actual room and opted instead for a large, two-room tent in the shadow of one of the temples. It's not for everyone, but I enjoyed sacking out inside cloth walls, listening to the night noises of India. My wife? Not so much. Too many dogs fighting, she said.

After Orchha, we set out for the biggest tourist attraction of India: the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Today, a major threat to Taj Mahal is pollution, so you cannot drive close to it, and visitors must either walk, rickshaw, or take an electric car the final mile.

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