A cool breeze echoes amongst the crowd as I walk through the mist to the banks of the mighty Ganges, mindful of the cows.
The poverty here is tangible.
“People come here to die,” my guide Veron casually tells me.
It is barely 5am and already the Ghats are filled with pilgrims going about their daily routine of cleansing sins, washing clothes, selling goods and offering a riverside view of the most intimate rituals of life and death.
I step into my waiting boat and am immediately struck by the silence. All around me seagulls gather.
One Ghat after another I am privy to the lives of those I once perceived as less fortunate, yet here, seeing the yoga masters balancing upside down in their holy sanctuaries it is my own world that comes to question.
Through the pungent smells, life is a privilege. The sun melts the river to a vibrant fire as we reach the burning Ghats.
In the Hindu faith one is led through lifetimes of learning and suffering by the gods. To be burned on the shores of the Ganges is to release the soul. “To die here is to achieve Moksha, freedom from the ongoing cycle of reincarnation,” Veron tells me.
Varanasi holds no secrets.
The ebb and flow of life and death is as consistent as the rising sun, and as we sail through centuries of faith and religion I am conscious of how easy it is to be swept away by the gentle current.
I become absorbed by the normality of the rawness found in every day life. For all the chaos that draws in the flocks of tourists who come here to be shocked, this is a quiet place.
To the local people each day holds a promise that they too can be cleansed by the holiness of the river that flows from Gaumukh, home of Lord Shiva, through the heart of India.
With new eyes I purchase a stone-carved elephant from a market boat for 80 rupees, the equivalent of 8p, and head ashore through the piles of firewood, cow dung and enterprising Indians who have learned to balance the spiritual world on the art of survival.
Over a sweet milky chai with new friends the air is thick with life. I am changed.