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They say travelers who visit Varanasi either, love or hate it. The sentiments about this city is that strong. Powerful. Extreme. This was my initiation into India. Here’s Reasons Travelers Love and Hate Varanasi.
Navigating from a shitty night at my guesthouse and making my way through the maze of homes, shops, vendors, temples,.. I must have eyes all around me. The streets here are stained with beggars, cows in the middle of the street blocking your path, stray dogs sunbathing where they choose, huge cow patties and smears, the smell of piss from outdoor communal urinals and shop owners accosting you at every corner to “Buy! Buy!Buy!“. Rickshaw drivers swarm you, one after another and fake guides want to give you directions. Of course, there’s the biggest, most unfortunate stain of all… the poor. It all feels like a raw reality. But there is beauty in this city too, or else I wouldn’t have fallen in love with it on this rather extreme stay.
Table of Contents: 11 Reasons Travelers Love and Hate Varanasi | Varanasi’s Rawest Stains
Reasons travelers love Varanasi
1. Evening Ganga Aarti in Varanasi
If there is romantic impression you have of a Varanasi immersed in the grandeur of incense, celebratory ritual and chanting, the Evening Ganga aarti at Dasaswamedh Ghat, is where you’ll find it (more here). It’s breathtakingly gorgeous! Young priests dressed in ritual dhoti (? aka long loin cloths) line up on altar mats dressed with the elements of fire, water, incense, flowers and bells. An aged bhajan (chant song) about the Ganges comes over the PA system and there is live drum accompaniment to sound beats. In ritual trance (similar to Butoh performances) the priests move slowly through each element.
Driven by chant, by drum beats, by ritual and by their devotion to Shiva and the Ganges, they move in hypnotic pace- haunting, sensual, divine.
I could attend this performance every night. It removes the ugliness of my day.
2. The ghat neighborhood and its residents
There’s a unique local flavor to the ghat neighborhood of locals going about their daily chores and prayer rituals. The alleys house a lot of colorful activity and people from babas in robes, shops selling incense and mala beads, children playing in the streets, paan sellers drumming up rolls to intoxicate clients, sari shops adorned with color fabric and shop owners milling about. This is very unique culture of homes with house altars, built alongside small temples. You will find altars everywhere in an alley’s nooks and crannies.
3. Indian children are beautiful to photograph and play with.
There’s a gorgeous naiveté in Indian kids and it holds a bold curiosity and eagerness towards foreigners. They are open, wanting to know about you. In many ways, they seem fearless, curious, questioning.
4.Worship on the Ganges is illuminating
Varanasi is the ‘city of temples’. A home of over 2,000 temples, you’ll find them not only on the ghats lining river bank but you’ll also find shrines and temples in neighborhoods or in the most seemingly random spot. A sunrise boat cruise along the river is another place to witness the powerful worship practices and rituals many Hindus take part in.
5. Varanasi Locals are endearingly friendly
Indian people DO have a kind of warm curiosity about foreigners. They’re similar to Nepalese, but unlike the Nepalese, it’s not always immediately seen. The harsh lifestyle demands you to develop a rough exterior, a selective eye to what you want to see and a hard tortoise-shell to guard against the climate & daily rat races; but when you flip the shell over, you will find a genuine warmth, willing friendliness and a lot of curious stares.
Reasons travelers hate Varanasi
6. Trash and pollution
Entering Varanasi, the skies go from light blue to a light brown haze. Pollution thickens when you enter Varanasi. Maybe it’s from all the candles burning to light devotion or the burning of trash in the streets, but you’ll notice it.
The Ganges River floats debris daily. From ashes, to ash from cremation, dead bodies, devotional flowers, etc.. the Ganges is estimated to have over 3000 meters of sewage.
The ghat alleys can feel like a giant toilet. It can use neighborly care, a little sweeping and occasional city cleaning. Maybe it’s a bit of caked mud from dirt and Ganges water, and you’ll see occasional cow or dog poo stains. Either way, there was no way I was walking into old Dashashwanath Ghat with bare feet.
7. Varanasi is raw and rough around the edges
Today, the father (or older bhai) of a boy I photographed came straight in front of my camera and gave the child a hard slap on the cheek, shocking both, myself, the child and a group of friends, who had gathered around us. In the U.S., that can be considered child abuse and a perpetrator should be reported.[*Only days later, I realized that it’s probable that it was due to the boy, Rajesh & his sister’s insistence of me entering their home to take pictures of them in front of their altar that was the reason for such punishment]
8. Varanasi has a dark side
Ugliness is tiring and wears on a backpacking trip, but witnessing human ugliness leaves a bigger stains which haunt us. I witnessed what I think to have been rape and i’m not particularly proud of myself for not doing anything.
I passed the open door of a dark house and I saw a man initiating sex with a woman, in the way a dog corners a mouse. I stopped 15 feet away, next to a nonchalant grandma selling jewelry in the street as a little boy played nearby . Something immediately didn’t feel right with this scenario of the man and young girl. The woman didn’t seem obliging or appreciative in his advances. Another man (his friend) came out of the house and closed the doors, holding them shut from the outside (see picture below). I could hear as the struggle inside as the couple banged against the door, while the friend held it back, grinning.
I felt helpless, horror, anger, upset and panic. As a western woman, I have fight in me. But in a foreign culture, unaware of cultural relationships and laws, I didn’t know what to do. No police were nearby (and I had been warned they may be helpful in situations like these, anyways) and I was a single foreign female, alone. Could I fight his friend if I needed to? Would I be justified to react on instinct even if I didn’t know all the facts? All I could do was walk away feeling a stain on me for turning my back on something that seemed a transgression.
9. Scams, touts and fake guides in Varanasi
The touts in Varanasi are really hard core, stalking tourists to take a rickshaw ride, boat ridea,… buy, buy, buy. They are persistent like flies. But that is because Varanasi is a famous pilgrimage spot which attracts a huge influx of tourists daily, both foreign travelers and local Indians.
Varanasi is a tricky city. It’s like an open wound where travelers will come across scams (read here) and false guides (read here). One always has to be aware here. Most of them are harmless and aiming for the kind of money or “donation”, that is like pocket change to a western traveler. Still, this only encourages a bad habit and dishonest practice and you never know what else.
A little boy was trying to make himself my “guide” by helping me find my way from my guesthouse out to the main street, so I gave him a cookie for his help. His face lit up as if I had just given him 5 dollars! Even though I’m substituting one habit for another and it still encourages begging, I never endorse monetary rewards. I have a powerful sweet tooth myself, so I always carry treats in my bag. Watching the reactions of the children, who are given ” one piece” of candy, brings delight & sadness to the sponsor. Typically, the candy is thoroughly enjoyed and the “candy wrapper” is sucked dry as if it were gold!
Bribing with sweets works on adults too! Usually it melts even the hardest hearts and helps build bridges. When my car pickup had broken down at the airport– I was stuck in the sweltering Indian heat in a parking lot with a group of young male drivers, who could easily decide to carry me off into the bushes if they wanted to. I opened a package of cookies and passed it around. One by one, hands reached in. This friendly token put smiles on their faces and lightened my worries; after all, who would want to attack someone, who’s just given them a cookie?
10. Beggars on the ghats of the Ganges
You’ll find a lot of beggars around the Main Ghat entering the Ganges River. As one of the more opulent draws of the town due to its evening aarti, you’ll also find a lot of handicapped beggars and this is a sad sight to see. Poverty stricken and limp, it is hard to look them in the eye with their hand cupped open in front of you. Some of them may be scams, but either way, there is a real side of poverty in India.
11. The burning ghat scam
Many guides or boat drivers will lead you to the burning ghat; some won’t even ask but just take you there! This is a scam and your guide gets a kickback of some sort. My boat driver took me there and made me get off, where another guide met me, led me into a building with an Indian mafia type of woman who wanted me to donate money to help buy wood. I was alone in a deserted building with these people, so I ended up donating something.
Only when I returned home, did I realize I grew to love Varanasi despite its raw stains. It’s almost like a partner, who you love for the best and worst, because your experience with them was so much greater, pregnant and vivid than what you’ve experienced from others. Love isn’t always predictable, but when it finds us, it grips us and hooks into us, getting under our skin. That was my experience with Varanasi.
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