At six in the morning, the alleys of old Varanasi gleam with last night's rain. One path just wide enough for two men to walk abreast leads past shops down to the holy river Ganges.
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It's barely sunrise, but the alleys are already in chaos. Men jostle women, women jostle fat bullocks, bullocks narrowly avoid stepping on children. Everything is for sale – small bottles of holy Ganges water, larger bottles of branded mineral water, tiny figurines of the Lord Shiva, whose town this is. Tourists, almost invariably wearing colorful harem pants, brush shoulders with locals.
The storeowners watch the activity with lax interest, slurping tooth-rottingly sweet chai out of thimble-sized cups. When asked for directions they come to life, putting away the tea and describing the path with energetic and firm gestures. This may be the city where Hindus come to find enlightenment, but it is easy to lose your way.
Lines of Indian pilgrims walk barefoot through the alleys, drawn by occasional glimpses of the holy river. At last, the alleys fall away, and the sluggish green river appears, smooth as a sheet of glass. From here the view extends to the distant eastern bank, hazed with brown dust. This year, the monsoon rains have been below average, and the Ganges lies low and tame between the banks.
Tens of narrow steps shine wetly. The pilgrims sigh, picking their way down the steps to the water's edge. It's sunrise, the most fortunate hour, and they're here to take a dip in the Ganges.
In recent years the Ganges River has drawn attention for its ungodly level of pollution. But the bathers are immune to all this. Nearly 2.5 million of them come each year to Varanasi, this holiest of cities, on the banks of the most sacred of Indian rivers. According to Hindu legend, Lord Shiva unleashed the Ganges from the knot of his hair. For centuries, its rich floods lent fertility to the soil of the central Gangetic plains, which nourished some of India's most prominent ancient civilizations.
Varanasi is a heap of mismatched temples and narrow steps located on the Ganges' crescent-shaped western bank, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It is a city of scholars, home to one of Asia's largest universities. It is a city of temples, including the gold-plated Vishwanath sacred to Shiva; the Bharat Mata, or Mother India, temple that boasts a huge three-dimensional relief map of the Indian subcontinent carved out of marble; and the hundreds of small temples that dot the waterways and alleys.
It is also a city of legends. Varanasi strains under its own myths, which are contradictory, obscure and impossible to prove.
"The history of Varanasi is a puzzle [that] has to be solved by a group of scholars together," says Bhanu Shankar Mehta, who has lived in Varanasi for more than 80 years and lectures on its history. "You must put all the mythological and historical and proto-history together."