One thing all guide books will mention about Varanasi is the all prevailing chaos and the city lives up to its name right from its arrival point, the airport, where the world’s smallest conveyor belt forces passengers to pounce like piranhas to spot and grab their luggage during its two second ride on the belt. After that, for most part, the taxi ride to the city was like any other Indian road trip, as we went past long stretches of mustard fields with its yellow flowers amidst lush greenery interspersed with quaint mud huts. These views always strike a chord with the farmer deep inside me. After all, my family has a long history of subsistence farming, only broken by my father. But the chord broke as soon as we started approaching the Old City as the traffic started to worsen. And when we reached its crazy pumping heart, Godhulia, chaos presented us in its purest form.
We had to let go of our taxi, hoist our luggage on our heads, and trudge amongst the most densely populated place on earth like fish jumping and swimming in a muddy channel from which most of the water has evaporated. The chaos subsided as we escaped from this melee of chatter, horns and ringing bicycle bells from every angle in the protractor and took a turn towards an alley that led to Meer Ghat, the location of our hotel. But the alley had its own share of tales to share with us. Every alley, and there are lots in Varanasi, have an ecosystem of their own. Within the ten feet of width, they present a potent alchemist’s mix of stench from faeces and urine from several animal species, fragrance from incense sticks, aromas of boiling milk and snacks getting deep fried in large pots of oil. As we trundled along the cobbled alley, balancing the luggage on our heads while skipping the shit strewn across regularly, we come across hordes of bare footed worships on their monarch butterfly journey to the Vishwanath temple, the holiest for Hindus. We also come across the smallest wedding procession with just one drummer accompanying the couple and their parents. Huge cows, usually in a relaxed mood, happy from their recent shitting, ignored us. But suddenly we came across a huge and horny ox chasing an equally large cow, throwing a hapless bicycle rider off balance and other by passers scampering for safety. All the same, these alleys are a real charm of Varanasi where one can suddenly be surprised by an elegantly curved wooden door, a brightly painted wall with old world simplicity, a shop selling the most delightful milk cream, and a sadhu (priest) with a parrot in his hand and hair that would get George Clinton running for his hair stylist.
Another defining aspect of Varanasi is the ghats (river banks) along the Ganges, each with its own character. There is the psychedelic Kedar Ghat with its loud stripes. There is the Dasaswamedh Ghat, the hotbed of activities from hair trimming, holy Ganges bathing, body massaging, boat riding, and begging. The stairs leading down to the river are rather high, providing a sense of personal space to the numerous widows, lepers and handicapped beggars who line the stairs like a human railing. And then there is the Manikarnika Ghat, the most intriguing part of Varanasi, where the cremations of the city happen,. No where else is death so accessible to the living. This macabre spectre of smoke from several burning funeral pyres, next to the calm river, sounds of grim bells from the adjoining temple, wails from grieving family members of the deceased, cheerful chatter of the kids playing in the same premise, guides explain the place to camera bearing tourists, shitting cows leisurely strolling around, all against the backdrop of stacks of dark brown funeral firewood, numb your senses as you pass through. I could imagine myself being carried over the shoulders of sympathizers, my body covered with a colourful blanket, and then gently placed at the centre of the pyre. Someone would then break my bones for easy burning, smear it with oil like a suckling pig readied for the oven, and then put fire on my mouth. All I could wish for then was to be converted into a fossil instead of being rewarded with this insignificant farewell.
Varanasi has probably the highest density of places of worship in the world, but a few like the Vishwanath and Durga temple dominate over the others for devotee attention. The crowd can be quite heavy at the Vishwanath temple if you time your visit wrongly. The winding alley leading to the temple is lined with state security personnel and ramshackle shops, heckling you to buy the necessary offerings. Since the state forbids you from carrying any bag, phone and camera to the temple and the religion forbids you from carrying any footwear inside, these shops make a killing offering storage for these in return for you buying something from their stores. Master upsellers, they will first ask you to buy milk for pouring over the idol for five rupees, then insist that you buy the god’s favourite flowers for another five rupees, and then a lavish food offering packet for another 25 rupees, and then a coconut for another 5 rupees to ensure sure-shot hearing from god. After being groped several times by security personnel on the way to the temple, the actual visit to the shrine is a drive-through fast food experience, where each devotee gets five seconds or less to make a case to God why his son should do better in exams than other’s or why his business should do better than competitors'. As I, an unreformed atheist, observed all these without taking part, the security personnel got irate and pulled me away from the shrine, confused why I was spending time inside while I was not grovelling on the shrine like others. The temples themselves are interesting pieces of architecture and it’s a pity that photography is not allowed within their premises. I have always wondered why Gods across religions are perceived to be reluctant to be photographed. Is it the antique fashion sense of the gods? As for the devotees, they start boasting soon about how their 5 seconds with god were more special than that enjoyed by others at the shrine, because a monkey had seized his offerings or he had managed to seize a few flowers from around the shrine, clear divine signals without any doubt. Judging from my fellow traveller, my mother, they would probably keep boasting about this for the rest of their life.
At this holiest city, god’s blessings are out for sale everywhere. At a nearby Annapurna temple, a priest heckles tourists to give him 20 rupees in return for a few coloured threads. When one person gave him one rupee only, he cursed her for treating him like a beggar. A disabled person approached all claiming he was a Brahmin and any donation to him would result in great rewards for he was a disabled Brahmin. When you are poor, shame is a luxury. The city also probably has the highest density of beggars in the world. Stories abound of sons who have tactfully let go of their old parent’s hands in the crowd to get rid of them. I came across an old lady who had just been given a ten rupee note by a young man. She, used to dealing with small change, kept looking at the note intently without any expression as if she had never seen anything like this in life.
The people in the city are nice on the whole. While most do ask for money at every interaction, typically offering to take you for a boat ride, they are typically helpful and warm whether you oblige or not. Women are always addressed as “mother” and men as “brother”. They would go out of their way to show the direction to your destination or offer suggestions for places to visit. They would also eagerly talk about the history and religious importance of the city revealing their love of the place. As for the tourists, the most abundant are the Bengalis whose large numbers have forced the city to adopt Bengali as its second language. Low in budget, large in their appetite for adventure, they travel in large groups of friends and family, enjoying every moment. There are also the Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, and Caucasians, with a look of feeling special to be at this place. Curiously, the only people to be seen meditating or doing yoga in Varanasi are the Caucasians. There are also loads of migrant labourers, mostly from the dirt poor adjoining province of Jharkhand. Their minds are so simple that they are completely bewildered when offered a tip. Mostly in their early twenties, they are rather distinct in appearance because of their short height and dark skin. Earning only 1200 rupees a month and having a wife, kids and parents to look after back home , these heroes retain their mild unsuspectful nature and simple sense of humour about them.
A word must be also mentioned about the animals of the place. Varanasi has probably the most well behaved stray dogs I have come across, probably content that their shitting is not considered offensive in the city. The cows seem equally content, probably from the same reason and also because by virtue of being considered holy, they have enough to eat. But the rulers of the city are the monkeys, ruling the temple roofs, watching with a look of contempt the hapless devotees compelled to carry food offerings for their holy tryst. Experts at snatching stuff, they have grown fat at the sugary diet of temple offerings. The twice-smitten devotees, in their simple minds, take every such monkey thuggish act as another sign that they are the chosen one in the eyes of god. Panglosses rule in Varanasi.
Overall, Varanasi is an amazing world city, with its unbelievable sights, sounds and smells. Hindus believe that one must visit the city thrice to avoid being born again. For me, just one trip was enough to amaze me through its enormous density of humanity, the bustling alleys, the morbid Manikarnika ghats, the chaotic roads, the amazing range of old shops and their offerings, the delightful desserts, and the long lost respectability the city offers to a budget traveller. One hand there is the astounding achievement of humanity in concretizing almost every square inch of such a large city, covering it with ghats, cobbled alleys, concrete streets, and numerous temples. On the other hand is the full-strength display of another astounding human construct, faith, so fanciful and abstract but with immense real life implications, so simple-minded yet complex, so hopeful in promise yet so hopeless when you see the beggar pleading in the name of God. Three visits, I don't advocate. But one visit is a must.
Pics of Varanasi in this link.