Originally posted May 14th, 2014
A city of contrasts, controversy and confusion.
I can’t say I was sad to leave Varanasi on Easter Sunday when we set off for the tiny domestic airport just outside of the city 5 hours early. Nor did I regret our decision when we ended up unable to check in for 3 hours and sitting in a small waiting area with exactly one bookshop, one Himalayan Herbal Healthcare, and one small food stand. Varanasi was hot and complicated, with an overwhelming main street and an abundance of what our Rishikesh taxi driver would have called “cheater cheater men”, which he’d warned us there were many of in Delhi. After two nights and three days, I still hadn’t quite been able to figure out how I felt about Varanasi or whether any of what I had seen went deeper than surface level. It’s a place I’ve thought about often since I left, so I suppose one thing is clear: it made an impact.
Located between the Varuna and Asi rivers, the origin of the name “Varanasi” may appear quite logical, but this is a city of many names. Also called Benares or Kashi and referred to by turns as “the city of learning”, “the city of light”, and “the city of temples”, Varanasi seems to have as confused an identity as this multiplicity of names suggests. Varanasi is a city of both water and fire; it’s a city where Hindus come to die but it’s also a city overwhelmingly filled with life. Whatever you want to call it, this place is a perfect representation of what I found apparent in so many Indian cities as it showcases the confusion between the holy and the all-too worldly; between the beautiful and the repulsive.
Varanasi saw the foundation of Buddhism in the 500s BCE, and has long been held sacred by Hindus as one of the seven holy cities which allows those who die there to enter moksha – release from the cycle of rebirth. However, at times the intense showmanship when it comes to religion makes the sacred seem to be little more than a display of devotion meant to inspire tourists to spend money; every man is out for himself and in direct competition with all those around him. And the caste system which is still all too obvious within India is certainly a powerful force in this city. Only the lowest “untouchable” castes can burn the bodies as it’s an ‘unclean’ or impure job, but we were told they themselves are not allowed the honour of being burned on the main ghats. There’s a separate place for the poor. As it is, a burning ceremony is expensive for the average Indian family with the cost of transportation, wood, materials to prepare the body, and taxes. When they can’t afford to buy enough wood, bodies are at times either placed in the Ganges unburned, or partially burned. Which is pretty disconcerting considering the number of people who bathe, brush their teeth and do their laundry just a few ghats down from the designated cremation area.
(Here’s an article about a woman from the Dom caste who has this prestigious yet undesirable job)
We arrived in Varanasi by plane early in the morning, walking out of the airport and into the dust and heat which was quite oppressive even at that hour. Taking a taxi into the area of the city by the main ghats (the stairways leading to the Ganges) we quickly realised that finding your way around Varanasi takes practice. We would soon learn that wandering through the small alleyways it becomes easy to lose your bearing, squeezing past water buffalo and weaving through street vendors. The ghats which were perhaps just a few minutes ago hot and busy suddenly make for a reassuring and refreshing relief from this claustrophobic atmosphere.
After being dropped off, our obvious confusion was noticed by the owner of a small internet café who attempted to give us instructions to our guesthouse. Just then, one of his friends came up and said that he knew the place we were looking for and that the owner was a buddy of his. This seemed pretty unlikely as our destination was an obscure guesthouse which has no website and no advertising; you really only go there if you know the guy, and I had booked it on recommendation from some friends who had just stayed there. But we waited around a minute and it paid off! An awkward man showed up on a motorcycle and, with a weak handshake, introduced himself as our landlord. I hadn’t been convinced that he’d understood me on the phone the week before, so I was relieved that he knew my name and appeared to have been expecting us. So are we walking there? Nope. He pointed to the motorcycle. Well, I guess if you’re okay with it, we are too. So he got on, followed by my mom and our duffel bag (luckily the big bags were safely stored away in Delhi at this point) and then by me. It was quite the thrilling ride, winding around tight corners, but luckily not a long one as we were very close by.
This place was the definition of simple. We walked through rough wooden doors, down a little corridor where this man’s wife was taking care of their baby parrots, and into our room where his two little daughters were sleeping. He pulled them off of the bed and they helped put on pillow cases and a sheet and our room was ready. Just a bed, a simple bathroom and, very importantly, a fan, but this place became home quickly and really was all we needed.
As our guesthouse was located at the top of one of the ghats, we spent most of our first day in Varanasi wandering along the Ganges beginning to familiarize ourselves with the area.
There is much historic splendour along the Ganges in the form of ancient buildings constructed by the rich maharaja from the past, although most are irreparably unmaintained at this point. Of the 84 ghats in the city, the two most famous are the Dashashwamedh, the main ghat which Lord Brahma was supposed to have created to welcome Shiva (at the very least all concede that he sacrificed some horses here), and the Mahasmasana – the ‘great cremation ghat’. While the former is a place of celebration in the form of Agni Pooja, the worship to fire, the latter is, as the name suggests, where bodies are burned around the clock.
For part of our walk we were accompanied by an Indian Dr. Seuss who seemed to think that the best way to communicate any information is through rhymes. I think he was wrong.
Once again, as the sun set, we saw several aartis beginning along the Ganges with the huge crowds and bright lights making them an unavoidable spectacle.
Our second day in Varanasi we began by touring a selection of the numerous temples the city has to offer. Mr. Landlord had organised a rickshaw driver to take us from place to place and then to drop us off in the Mughal district to tour a silk factory since this is one of the most prominent industries in the city. At each temple our rickshaw would pull over somewhere on the street leading to it and we would disembark, leaving our shoes in the vehicle and walking barefoot into the temple. Of the places we visited one of the most distinctive was the Durga Temple, also known as the Monkey Temple because an absurd number of monkeys live there, impressing and intimidating you as enter this place of worship.
As we were zigzagging around the city we rode through the Banares Hindu University. Considered the best university in India, it is also one of the largest in Asia. The campus was very impressive and as we entered suddenly everything became quiet and green; it was a peaceful haven from the rest of the city.
Our last stop on the tour was the Mughal, or Muslim, section of Varanasi, where the famous Banarasi silk sarees are made. These are traditional wedding sarees made popular throughout India for the quality of the fabric and the opulent gold and silver used in their elaborate patterns. We watched as two men worked at massive looms in a small, dark room, weaving together rich pinks and purples with gold and silver to form floral-patterned fabric. Then we walked down the small winding streets and got to peak into a room where men were sitting embroidering details on the finished fabric. Finally, we were taken to the store where finished products were sold to simply view the fabrics – “no pressure to buy mamma!” our guide stated over and over again, smiling a largely toothless smile and reassuring us time and again that as my mom was his American mamma and he is my Indian brother, he would never cheat us. Then, to no one’s surprise, we bought some goods and he ripped us off. I think there was probably an unspoken agreement that this was always going to happen – we were the wealthy American tourists and he was the Indian salesman and that story just had to play itself out. We had an entertaining time, though, and watching the weaving was beautiful, as were the pieces we ended up buying.
Another hour or so of wandering around the city – which included a break at a well-known tea shop run by a teenage boy who spoke fluent French – and it was evening: time for a boat ride. You can’t go to Varanasi as a tourist and not view it from the water at least once. Our boatman rowed us past all the centre ghats, pausing at the cremation ghat where dusk made the fires even more prominent than usual, burning in front of the dark city. He told us about the different maharaja who had built the crumbling buildings that we passed, and explained that his family had always been boatmen, although they did not have enough savings to buy their own boats but instead worked for others. We circled back to the ghat where the main aarti takes place and viewed it from our boat which was sandwiched in among dozens more. While it was lovely to watch, and beautiful to see candles floating down the Ganges (we also bought a couple and set them afloat) the fact that it seemed like a show might be because it is: according to some, this practice is far from traditional, but recently created to attract tourists to the city. (BBC article)
We were brought back to our hotel and made an appointment to meet the same man at 5:30am the next morning for a sunrise ride. Varanasi does look it’s best early in the morning, although I wouldn’t say it’s calm even at that hour. Many people were out, starting their days with meditation or doing laundry, and, of course, there were the fishermen. Yes, this river which body remains wash into, where people brush their teeth and do their laundry, this river is also home to delicious fish which one can purchase at the market!
Varanasi is a place with two very opposing images. The way it’s publically portrayed, as holy and timeless, and the way people describe it as dirty, touristy and uncomfortable. There’s the way you feel when you are sitting in a boat looking at the calm waters and the clear sky, and there there’s the memory of being in a crowd when it’s hot and dusty and the smell of cremated bodies lingers in the air.
These two very different quotes about the Ganges seem to sum it up:
“Ganga is not only a river. She is truly a Divine Mother. She rushes forth from the Himalayas as the giver of life, carrying purity, bliss and liberation in Her waters. Ganga is not only water. She is nectar – the nectar of life the nectar of liberation. She is a source of inspiration to all who lay eyes on her ceaseless, boundless, rushing current. She irrigates not only our farms, but also our hearts, minds, and souls. She is the Mother Goddess – giving freely to all with no discrimination, hesitation or expectations. Her waters purify all who bathe in them, all who drink from them. In fact, She is the remover of contamination.”
“Which black river am I talking of – which river of Death, whose banks are full of rich, dark, sticky mud whose grip traps everything that is planted in it, suffocating and chocking and stunting it?
Why, I am talking of Mother Ganga, daughter of the Vedas, river of illumination, protector of us all, breaker of the chain of birth and rebirth. Everywhere this river flows, that area is the Darkness.”
– Aravind Adiga “The White Tiger”
Both of these impressions are ones that you feel fairly immediately in Varanasi and I suppose they can overlap and intertwine to make this city, while confusing, an interesting and layered one.