Our boat driver spits a red streak of chewed betel nut into the murky pre-dawn water, and quickly stuffs another pinch of the mild narcotic between his scarlet-stained lips. Without a word he picks up his oars and gently rows us along India's holy river, the Ganges.

The Ganges flows with the history and religious fervor of thousands of years, and has become one of India's main tirthas, or places of pilgrimage. Hindus believe the river flows from the toe of Vishnu, one of the three Hindu trinity of gods, along with Siva and Brahma. Devout Hindus, who often call the river Mother Ganga, head there every morning to wash away their sins. My traveling partner and I, along with dozens of other tourist boats, do not seem to be disturbing this ancient ritual. We watch Hindu men and women immersing themselves for an early morning bath and dipping toothbrushes into the river for some sunrise dental hygiene. The smacking sound of clothes being beaten against rocks fills the thick India air. While we witness men washing bundles of clothes, an older woman, wrapped up in her sari, is fashioning cow dung into round patties to be dried and, presumably, later used for fuel. Several men along the way seem deep in prayer, reciting words over and over like a mantra as they submerge themselves in the holy water. I had heard about river dolphins in the Ganges and am convinced I see one rise up briefly from the thick water.

As much as the Ganges is the river of life for Hindus, it is also the river of death. Hindus believe that the souls of those who die and are cremated on the Ganges will have a quicker path to moksha, or spiritual salvation. Animals and children, however, are sometimes simply buried in the Ganges and not cremated. We see one calf's head float by along or ride, at first unnerving, but the forces of life using this river outweigh the brush with death.

The tranquility of this river journey is interrupted when a man on another boat pulls up alongside us and hands us small tin plates lined with flowers and a small burning candle at the center. "Think your name, make a wish, and let go in water," he instructs us demonstrating how it should set sail on the river. "Wish will come true." We nudge him away but after much persistence, we finally oblige, only to realize there is a heavy service charge for these wishes. We refuse to pay but he blocks our boat from moving, demanding his money. We give him far less than the asking price and he continues to pester us until he finally tires and heads to the next tourist boat.

We spend the rest of our two-hour trip in relative peace, save for our boat drivers' occasional appeals to extend it to a four-hour trip. He finally gives up and lets us admire the hundreds of temples, palaces, and shrines that border the river, one of which is sunken so far that it seems on the verge of floating away.

Hundreds of ghats, or landings on the river, line the western bank of the Ganges, some for bathing and others for burning the dead. Dasaswamedh Ghat is one of the main ghats, and the spot where Brahma is said to have sacrificed 10 horses. The five ghats where pilgrims are supposed to bathe on the same day are Asi ghat, followed by Dasaswamedh, Barna Sangam, Panchganga, and Manikarnika, in that order. The best view of the Ganges and ghats is from the balcony of the Man Mandir Ghat observatory, built by Raja Jai Singh in 1710.

Out of respect for the dead, our boat driver only takes us within distant viewing of the Manikarnika Ghat, the main burning ghat, where we watch men hard at work preparing a fire for a cremation. The boat driver turns us around after we watch the activity at the burning ghat, and returns us to our boat landing.

A lineup of bicycle rickshaws awaits us, each vying for our business. We hire one, and the driver peddles deftly through craggy streets of Varanasi, amid choking car and motorcycle fumes, between ambling cows and scores of locals hawking their wares.

The crowded city of Varanasi stands as one of the holiest spots in India, and is thought to be one of the oldest cities in the world, with some experts claiming it was founded as many as 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. Varanasi was once known as Kashi, meaning bright, thought to refer to its spiritual light. The name Varanasi, sometimes called Benares, derives from its location between two tributaries of the Ganges--Varuna and Asi.

"You want tour of Varanasi?" the rickshaw driver, Rajindra, asks as we're heading back to our guest lodge.

"How much?" we question, knowing from past experiences that if negotiations aren't firm beforehand, the special tourist price can be out of proportion. We agree on a few dollars, and Rajindra takes us to the city's most important Hindu temples.

First we visit the courtyard of the Durga Temple, or Monkey Temple. As its nickname implies, the outer area of the 18th-century, brick-red temple houses hundreds of cantankerous monkeys who become annoying enough to drive us out. We are not allowed inside the Durga Temple, nor are non-Hindus allowed inside the Vishwanath Temple, or Golden Temple, the most sacred in Varanasi. We view the temple, dedicated to Siva, from across the street, taking in the beauty of the gold-plated towers. We are allowed in the modern Tulsi Manas Temple, built in 1964, and sporting a mechanical man in a glass box singing prayers. The walls of the temple are engraved with the verses of Ram Charit Manas, a Hindi take on the famed Indian legend Ramayana. More majestic is the Sree Vishwanath Temple at Benares Hindu University. Verses from Hindu scriptures line the walls, sending messages about living life with a peaceful mind.

Rajindra prepares to take us to our lodge, but I really want to return to the burning ghat to watch a cremation. Rajindra drops us off there before dusk. As we walk along the ghat, a self-appointed guide tells us the ritual behind the burning. First bodies are carried through the narrow alleys of the city of Varanasi to the Ganges on a bamboo stretcher covered in cloth. He says the rich pay for bodies to be burned by high-quality sandalwood and that ritual calls for a relative to wash the mouth of the dead out with water from the Ganges before burning.

While cremations are taking place, we can't help but notice people going on about their business all around us. We nearly get tangled in string by kids flying paper kites, while men sit and chat with one another. Nearby, we find a sadhu, holy man, sitting near Manikarnika Well, where legend says Parvati dropped an earring and Siva dug the area of the tank to get it back.

The spot is almost meditative, especially compared with the chaos on the streets of Varanasi. I feel a sense of equilibrium, as if the ebb and flow of life and death has struck a delicate balance here.

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