At Manikarnika Ghat, I became so mesmerized watching the fires devouring the human bodies that I was startled when a vagabond approached: "Sir, 150 dead are cremated here every day, and they become enlightened." Barefoot workers were preparing the pyres, sprinkling incense on the dead, setting them alight. "Sir, you like charas?" he asked, meaning hashish.
Apparently Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, is an avid marijuana user, so hashish is widely tolerated in India. But I was in town for more temporal allures: to witness some of the millions of pilgrims who pour annually into this 3,000-year-old city. Hindus come to cleanse themselves of sin in the sacred Ganges River. Better still is the prospect of dying in the river, for the City of Light is doubly holy as the only place on the planet where all five elements converge: water, wind, sky, earth, and the "eternal fire" that has been kept lit for 2,000 years. According to Hindu beliefs, passing away in these waters leads to liberation from the cycle of reincarnation.
After dinner on the rooftop restaurant at Palace on the Ganges, a hotel outside the old town, I returned to the fray mid-evening. The pilgrimswomen in peacock-colored saris, sadhus in steel chastity belts, the old and the sick yearning for deathcut a timeless scene among the riverfront assembly. Mantras blared from temple loudspeakers, and the streets were choked by homeless pilgrims, aggressive touts, morose cows, and cycle rickshaws. Elsewhere I would have felt overwhelmed by the clamor. But here I was unwittingly infused with the city's energy of exultationpart of the reason, no doubt, that a trip to India feels incomplete without a visit to Varanasi. DETAILS: Doubles at Palace on the Ganges from $70; 011-91-542-2315050