After a 26-hour journey from Kathmandu involving three busses, a jeep, a rickshaw, a night train sans bed, a tuk tuk, the most hectic border crossing I’ve ever seen, and lots of stiff body parts – we arrived in Varanasi, one of the oldest and holiest cities in India. We were quickly surrounded by a pack of 17 men outside the train station at 5am, peddling rides and promises of “very nice, cheap price” hotel rooms.
We eventually made our way to the maze of alleys that line the ghats (steps) leading down to the Ganges with hopes of finding a decent guest house. This is where I was first exposed to the alleys of Varanasi, full of cows, derelict dogs, shit, spit, piss, people, and anything else – living or dead – that you could possibly imagine. Let’s just say Varanasi is a place you should spend time in if you’re in the market for a “quit biting your nails in just minutes!” solution. It’s filthy. But it’s also really holy to Hindus, and an incredible place to explore for a few days as an outsider.
Varanasi is one of the most important and sacred pilgrimage destinations for a Hindu. Allegedly, it’s the place where every Hindu hopes to be when he or she dies. The belief is that death in Varanasi and cremation in the Ganges brings about freedom from the cycle of reincarnation.
As you can imagine, the city not only draws hordes of pilgrims seeking to purify their souls, but also a geriatric conglomerate looking to wind things down – permanently, and a fair share of domestic and foreign tourists there to watch the rituals unfold.
On our first day, we got lost wondering through the alleys around the ghats. At one point, we walked by a wood factory. Coining it a factory would be generous. Mainly, it was a bunch of dudes hacking at tree trunks on the street, topping off the massive piles of wood that towered behind them. “How random,” I thought. “All this wood in the middle of the city. In a seemingly residential area, even. Weird.”
It all made much more sense a few meters down, when the alley we were strolling on opened onto the banks of the Ganges. We had stumbled upon one of the cremation ghats, where bodies are burned in public before their ashes and remains are dropped into the holy river. This was not the main one, and non-Hindus are allowed to be cremated there.
In front of us, a body covered in a sari lay on a funeral pyre as men began to light the pile of wood that would soon engulf the corpse in flames. Around it, a half dozen other pyres dotted the banks of the river, with remains of bodies still smoldering away. Men stood around chatting, city dwellers casually strolled by, goats milled about too, sniffing the fires in search of a few nutritional bites.
We took a seat on a staircase at a distance, observing the scene. It all seemed quite transactional. No one was visibly upset, some bodies didn’t seem to have family present – surely due to the facts, respectively, that Hindus don’t mourn the dead the way many others do (the belief is that once a person is born, he/she never dies – as such, funerals are more a matter of showing respect rather than sadness) and that bodies must be cremated a few hours after death (many family members probably can’t make it to the ceremony in time).
We did see one woman crying, but she was the only that I noticed in visible grief. From what I’ve read, women aren’t traditionally allowed to participate in a cremation. Why, you may ask? The fear is that they’ll cry. Touché.
After a while, I sensed my clothes soaking up the smoke stench and concurrently developed an unpleasant taste in my mouth, and not of the proverbial kind either. It was time to get out of there. We continued our stroll along the river, but had to walk past the area again on our way home.
Another body lay on a pyre awaiting cremation, except this time, the cloth over the body’s head was lifted and a man’s pale cold face was in clear view. I had to look away, I couldn’t take it in. Every time we walked by a cremation ghat after that, I never looked for details, which is for the better given that Kevin saw a half-burned body simmering Terminator-style, with only the ribs, skull, and bones remaining, wrapped in a thin layer of tarred flesh.
Humans are not the only ones that come to die in Varanasi. Animals want in on the action too! As we were walking away from one of the ghats, a kid came out of nowhere and yelled, “Mam! Look!”
I looked down, only to see a dead baby mouse sprawled out across a massive pile of water buffalo shit. “Uhh…?” I looked back at him, confused. “Finished!” He said with a smile, as he swiped his hand across his neck to indicate death, with a good click of the tongue for emphasis.
Gee kid, yeah, it sure looks that way. I’m really glad that you shared that with me. But in actuality, I remained silent, dumbfounded, staring back at him, my eyes squinting in confusion. With a beaming smile and no further exchange of words, he proudly walked away.
The next day, as we were cruising down the Ganges on a rowboat, a dead cow floated by. Just your standard big ole’ dead COW. Behind it, the head of a goat, oh sorry… a dead goat, was poking its head out of the water. And behind that enthralling sight, throngs of Indians bathed in the water, washing themselves, brushing their teeth, doing laundry, praying.
I later saw a dead puppy, spread out on all fours, head to the side, with its tongue on the pavement. There seems to be a complete detachment from the filth in the river, and the city in general, amongst the locals and the pilgrims.
The sheer madness
Rare were the times where we could sit down for more than a minute before someone approached us to sell saris, silk, hash, tours, whatever. The worst is that most of these touts pretended to be friendly at first, as if they were genuinely trying to get to know us. Some of their advances were quite elaborate too, holding up conversations for minutes until we eased up, at which point, they would instantly shift gears to make their pitch, plea, or both.
We grew skeptical of anyone who approached us, which is a sucky attitude to have, but unfortunately necessary in a place like Varanasi. You’d like to give people the benefit of the doubt, but we got shown time and time again that no one (amongst those that approached us on the street, at least) was in for a non-commercial, friendly chat. No one. Except for an older man, but he may have been a little crazy.
At one point, a man shook Kevin’s hand to say hello, began massaging his arms, and refused to let him go (like, really wouldn’t let him go – it took about 5 minutes to wrangle him free). A short while later, a bloodshot-eyed man seemingly afflicted with Tourette’s walked by looking insane. He was carrying a filthy, banged up styrofoam cooler and incongruently blurting out names of Indian cities.
“MUMBAI! DELHI! VARANASI!” He cocked his head towards me, his fiery eyes staring up into mine, and asked, through stained teeth that formed quite the disturbing smile: “Ice creammmm, Madameeeee? PUNE! AMRITSAR! AGRA! BANGALORE!”
Oh hell no. Odds that the man used Ganges water to make his popsicles? 124%. Kevin, oddly, was impressed.
K: “That guy had a lot of ice cream!”
Me: “Um, okay. But there’s no fucking way I’m touching any of it with a ten foot ninja stick.”
K: “No, but I mean he must really have his act together… access to a freezer and everything!”
WHAT? Access to a freezer? Pleaseee, that does nothing to legitimize someone in my eyes around here. Do you know how many times those things have melted and been refrozen? Also, is there any doubt in your mind as to where the man gets the water for his product? And, did you miss the fact that he was visibly clinically insane? Dude was borderline frothing from the side of his mouth.
Did I mention the whole death thing?
We later got lost in another maze of alleys (clearly, a recurrent theme in our Varanasi adventures). We suddenly heard a group chanting, the voices getting louder as we neared a corner. It was a very repetitive, dark kind of chanting. Soon, a procession of men carrying a dead body covered in cloth on a stretcher over their heads swooshed by.
They looked possessed, chanting in a trance, their eyes open wide, with the white surrounding their pupils excessively exposed. We plastered ourselves against the wall, not knowing how to behave. I tried making eye contact or giving a somber head nod, anything to try to express my respect, but no matter what I did, I felt eery chills going down my spine when I made eye contact with any of the men.
I resorted to looking down at my feet in shame, like a kid who just spilled water, nay kool-aid, on the dinner table. While trying to deal with this rather unexpected situation, an old man with a wooden cart ran over my foot, yelling at me to move out of the way. I tried, but another procession of men with a dead body over their heads swooped in.
It was hectic. There were people everywhere, cows blocking the way, dead bodies flying by, men ramming their carts over my feet and yelling. We eventually spilled out of the alleys onto a major road, which didn’t help matters. We were suddenly hit with a tidal wave of honking, rickshaws nearly running us over, people trying to sell us something (anything!), beggars tapping our arms for change, cars, more cows, more honking. I could feel my blood boiling. Gotta keep the cool, G. Gotta keep the cool.
Dealing with it all
You see, walking around Varanasi is a true test to your patience. It’s is one of those places where you get back to your room, shut the door, let out a deep sigh, lay on the bed, breathe, and think to yourself… I did it! I really did it! I made it through the day! And I kept my cool the whole time! Someone give this big girl a cookie.
The trick is to not let the external wrenches affect you. We’ve gotten really good at completely, and I mean completely, ignoring people now. It’s a bit of a video game, walking along, having people pop up inches from your face every step of the way. The move is to keep your head up, your gaze long, your pace constant, and ignore, ignore, ignore (unless you’re up for some fun).
A rickshaw driver followed us for a solid 5 minutes one afternoon, well after we told him about 20 times that we wanted to walk and were completely uninterested in riding in his bike carriage. Like anyone trying to make a dime, this good sir did not take no for an answer. His tactic was to ring his bell incessantly as he slowly creeped a few feet behind us. While we ignored him gloriously, making absolutely no eye contact nor reacting to his advances, he kept ringing his bell with vigorous clamor. Hey… Hey guys… drrrrrrring dringgggg dringgggg… dring? dringgggg, dring? dringggg drizzle to the dring dring with a diarrhea cherry on top?
His persistence was uncanny. It got to be hilarious. At one point, we turned around to retrace our steps. He, unsurprisingly, turned around too. We contemplated turning around once more, waiting until he followed us, and immediately turning around again, just to see how long he’d hang out before he got sick of pedaling in circles. Thankfully, we didn’t have to take it this far, only because other tourists walked by and he got to work on them.
The verdict? I digged it.
The thing is, if you can get past the utter madness and filth of the place, Varanasi is rewarding. It’s mystical. It’s colorful. It obviously holds a very special place in the lives of millions of Hindus. I’ve painted a grim picture of it in this post, but for as much as death hangs around, every nook and corner of the city is pulsing even harder with life and energy.
I didn’t mention the time we walked by a temple where dozens of bells and gongs were ringing in cacophony, while a big bellied man in the shadows, wearing a robe and covered in beautiful religious body paint, wildly waved a cobra-shaped bowl in flames as candles flickered all around. The temple was packed to the brim full of Hindus enthralled in the ceremony. I was in a trance just watching from a distance.
The streets are dotted with bustling chai stands, food stalls, markets, hindu temples, roadside businesses of limitless variety, holy men (sadhus), children flying kites, women conducting offerings, you name it. The place always seems to be lit by those mighty golden hour lamps of the earth, you know the ones that make everything look pretty right before the sun goes away? Except in Varanasi, it seems to be that way all day. It’s hard to explain. I’m not sure if it’s because the city is dusty, tinted in orange brownish tones, or constantly shrouded in haze, but I found this to be the case.
I loved my Varanasi experience, or at least, appreciated it greatly and found it fascinating. Kevin, not so much, but that’s okay. It often felt like we were in a movie, albeit one set some hundred years ago, but a movie nonetheless, where we never knew what to expect next, which of course, is fun.
But to be perfectly honest, I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t experience a sense of relief as our train rolled out of town. I could finally let my guard down. You’d have to pay me a lot of money to live in Varanasi for an extended period time. A lot. But I’m glad I spent some time there. It’s memorable. And it’s worth seeing.