Varanasi: City of Life & Death

“Hello my friend! Welcome to Varanasi, the oldest and best city in all of India! City of life, city of death, city of Mother Ganga who heals and cleanses all. Follow me my friend, I will show you the temples. No? Then perhaps you prefer to shop? In Varanasi you can buy finest silks in all India. My cousin, he has shop, very close, very cheap price. Come, I will show you!

No? You do not want my help? Then be careful my friend. The streets of Varanasi are dark and narrow and very dangerous to walk alone at night. The dogs are wild here and hunt the streets in packs. But you are lucky my friend, Varanasi is the best city in India in which to die”

Beside the river the pilgrims and the tourists, the boatmen jostling for business; small girls in orange dresses selling flowers, men with crooked backs carrying great stacks of wood upon their shoulders; Baba priests with the incense and their faces covered with human ashes. The families of the dead gathered around the ghats. And above, the sick and the old watch the fires, knowing it won’t be long until they will be down there.

Beneath my feet are the broken remains of children’s kites, trampled into the ash and cow shit; their strings tangling around the feet of the careless. A young boy, barefoot and dressed in rags is flying his kite by the river, he watches as it ascends to the heavens, but the kite itself is lost in the smoke and the fog. As far as anyone could tell, the kite was gone. But the child remains making the kite dance high above the clouds.

Bit poetic all that huh? It’s that kind of place, I’ll get back to the normal blogs soon….

UPDATE: Since I didn’t do a proper entry before, I’ll do one now.

Our flight from Mumbai to Lucknow was delayed and we were worried that we wouldn’t make our connection to Varanasi. We needn’t have been. There was only one other plane at the airport, and we were escorted across the airstrip to it while someone pulled our bags across on a trolley. Why couldn’t Turkish Airlines do that?

We arrived in Varanasi by taxi, and were then lead through a maze of tiny alleyways – some less than four feet wide – full of people, cows, dogs, goats, shit, rubbish and kamikaze motorcyclists to our hotel. It was a haven in a crazy town. From the rooftop restaurant you could look out over the hazy River Ganga in peace, while still experiencing the sights and smells and noises of the city. The lad who had shown us to our hotel had offered us a tour of the city, we knew it would cost us, but given how disorientating and unrelentingly chaotic the city seemed we decided to take him up on it.

He showed us the usual mix of temples and sights, as well as the hand loom shop where he (allegedly) worked. We knew where this was going and it wasn’t long before lo and behold we were in a silk shop where we were pressured to buy some expensive handmade silks. We resisted, and after a short sulk our guide took us to the burning ghat, a place by the river where 200-300 people are ritually cremated in public each year. Apparently three or four people a year still willingly burn themselves alive here in tribute to Shiva, and there are hospices overlooking the ghat where people come to die before being cremated.

A “priest” took us into the ghat and explained the ceremony. It was simultaneously shocking and spiritual to see the dead laid out by the river and then to look into a fire and see a human face being consumed by flames. He asked us for a donation towards the cost of wood and the hospices which we gave, and which I’d like to think really went towards such noble causes, although our boatman the following day suggested otherwise.

We got up early the next morning with the intention of taking a dawn boat ride. The Ganga though was steeped in a thick mist, and after an eerie wander down the river we decided to go back to bed for a couple of hours. When we did get up again, our boatman Raj took us down the river, explaining the origins and history of the different Ghats. All along the river people bathed and washed their clothes in the river.

The pollution, raw sewage and the ash of the burning bodies mean that the River Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, but the Hindus here believe the ‘Mother Ganga’ can cleanse and purify all things – both physical and spiritual and thousands come on pilgrimage’s here to bathe in the waters. It really is quite a staggering faith. These people live in one of the most polluted, dirtiest, dangerous and most crowded places in India and yet their faith is so strong.

It was also the kite festival while we were here so every day the skies were full of kites, flying from the rooftops above the narrow streets, and you can’t walk 10 steps without tripping over a broken one.

The is perhaps one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been, though it’s also one of the hardest work as a tourist. Touts and beggars are relentless and will simply not leave you alone, the streets are lethal at night and the whole city is covered in filth. And yet it really does have something about it. You just feel special to be here.


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