They say travelers who visit Varanasi either, love or hate it.
The sentiments about this city is that strong. Powerful. Extreme.
Navigating from 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.
What did I love and hate about Varanasi?…
The alleys behind the Ganges can feel like a giant toilet
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.
The ghat neighborhood has an interesting life of its own.
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, children playing, paan seller and shop owners milling about. There’s a lot of small temples and community to house altars which you’ll find everywhere in alleys, nooks and crannies.
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.
It’s raw streak knocks you in the gut
Today, the father (or older brother) 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.[*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]
Ugliness is tiring and wears on a backpacking trip, but witnessing human ugliness leaves a bigger stains which haunts us.
I passed the open door of a dark house & I saw a man initiating sex with a woman, in the way a dog corners a mouse. I stopped 15 feet away. Something didn’t feel right. The nonchalance of an old woman selling jewelry, just a few feet away, showed me otherwise. What was acceptable in this culture? The man came into the doorway, looked around, smiled pleasantly at me, then returned into the house. Another man came out 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.
Was it willing, rape, or prostitution? I felt helpless. Terror. Panic. I didn’t know …
My surroundings didn’t lend visible clues to distinguish a difference.
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.
Locals like having their picture taken & will thank you for it .
Indian people DO have a kind of warm curiosity about foreigners
They’re very 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.
I had to beware of false guides, scams and people who ask for money if you take their photo.
There are many scams (read here) and false guides (read here) here so one always has to be a little cautious. 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?
Varanasi’s Evening Ganga Aarti
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.