February 10, 2003 GMT
By bike to Agra

Varanasi is one of those places (like Amsterdam) that is so famed for certain things that people neglect to tell you how attractive it is.

We arrived in the small hours of the morning, and made our way through the maze of alleys of the old city to the river. There the mist concealed the water, swirling through the darkness around the intricate carvings of shrines on the banks. Extraordinarily atmospheric, but what we didn't realise then was that, mixed with the mist, was smoke from corpses burning just a few metres away. Equally impressive was the view when I stumbled blinking into the sunshine on the roof in the morning, with the long curve of the old city's waterfront fading into the distance in both directions. The river is wide, and the far bank undeveloped. Not at all what I was expecting.

The curve of the Ganges at Varanasi

The curve of the Ganges at Varanasi

Bodies, whether or floating or burning, are one source of Varanasi's renown, and another is the filth of the Ganges. We were outside the floating season, but I have to admit to sharing the morbid curiosity at the ghats. It was fascinating to watch the cremation process, with the dipping of the body in the river and the building of the pyre with its little ceremonial nuances. It seems a far more sensible way of dealing with death than the western tendency towards a sterile concealment of cadavers, if you'll forgive the platitude.

The bodies burn in interesting ways, sometimes reducing to just the upper torso, the head and stumps at the shoulders (like a Roman bust), sometimes to a whole charred backbone and skull. Eventually just the skull remains, which is broken with a stick to release the spirit. I was amused by a puppy lying asleep in the ashes near a burning pyre. As Bernard pointed out, it must be heaven for dogs - plenty of bones and sticks.

A Varanasi leap with a baby clinging on

A Varanasi leap with a baby clinging on

Back in Delhi, work started on my 1968 British-built Royal Enfield Bullet, in preparation for its glorious homecoming. It has undergone a complete re-build with all new parts apart from the frame, engine case and crank. Since I'm woefully ignorant of mechanics, it was an education for me to watch it being put together, culminating in a moment of elation when the renovated engine came to life. Everything makes much more sense now apart from the gearbox, whose operation is still mysterious to me despite having inspected its cogs. This sort of work would be prohibitively expensive at home, but in India labour costs perhaps two pounds a day. Think of that the next time you go to the garage at home.

The first kick after an engine re-build

The first kick after an engine re-build

Out on the road, I'm limited to 30mph initially to run in the re-built engine. That's no bad thing, though, while I become accustomed to Indian traffic, and to the confusing reversal of foot pedals relative to modern bikes, and to the inverted (one-up, three-down) gears. To clock up the necessary 300 miles for the first stage of running in, I set off early in the morning on a trip to Agra. The journey was pleasant and less nerve-wracking than expected. The road was a surprisingly good dual carriageway but was enlivened by a significant number of trucks and tractors that think it fair game to drive in the wrong direction down the fast lane.

As it was, the trip passed almost without mishap - at one point, I felt something strange going on around my rear end. For once it wasn't bowel-related... the seat had become unwelded from the frame! This made things a little precarious until I found a man with an oxyacetylene welder. Highlights of the trip were camel-drawn carts (a novelty to me), and a siege of herons overhead (OK, so I had to look up the collective noun). Or was it a mustering of storks?

Today I've been playing tourist in Agra. The Taj Mahal really is extraordinarily beautiful, particularly during the half hour at dawn when I had it to myself. Having gorged myself on the other sites, the aim is to break the journey back with a night in the holy city of Mathura, taking in some other sites along the way.

A dusky Taj

A dusky Taj

Posted by James Whyte at February 10, 2003 07:33 PM GMT

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