Varanasi: The City of Lights
Seventeen hours out of Rishikesh via train and I arrive in Varanasi, or Benares, if you’re so inclined.
Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.
Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and claims to be the oldest in the sense that it has been one continuous Hindu culture residing here. Other such places have undergone marked changes in religion and culture of the ruling peoples.
The city is prominently featured in Kipling’s Kim, the novel that started my journey, and I had a great desire to see the city though it largely remained a mystery to me for what I would find until my arrival.
And how. This city is the image I form in my mind when I think of stereotypical India; foggy plains entering the city, cows blocking heavy traffic, rickshaws everywhere, narrow streets, the mighty Ganga, cremation ghats, sitar music permeating the noise, and the unyielding Varanasi hustlers.
But lets start with some first impressions. I’ve been to some big cities. I’ve been scammed. Never for a lot, but I’ve been there and like to think it’s a bit harder these days to pull one over one me. Invariably the Varanasi hustler will get you at one point or another. This is largely due to the the frequency of such attempts. Walking along the river or streets you have to adopt proverbial blinders and ignore the onslaught of questions and offers. Hash? Boat? Massage? Rickshaw? Where you from? Oh, very nice beard! Anything they can use to get a foothold and latch on. One has to now the price of everything they wish to buy or face the tourist surcharge.
Varanasi is the epitome of village mentality in a vast city. Cows are kept everywhere, soiling the streets which the locals pace up and down in bare feet. The mangiest dogs imaginable scratch and itch their hides. Sari clad women and ancient men sloooowly wander the narrow streets and alleys. Babas appear with natty dreads and orange robes, hands pressed in prayer as they look hopefully for a handout. Every store owner you pass has something to say.
Arriving late in the evening, I used a tout to arrive at a guesthouse with a price I could live with (150 RPS). On the way we had difficulty circumventing the Muslim festival taking place, with packs of revelers carrying religious items and sticks which they battered my rickshaw with. But I arrived at the horribly named Elvis Guesthouse.
I stayed one week here and became familiar with how the citizens of Varanasi behave towards foreigners based on the craptastic quality of the guesthouse workers. One young employee made a side business selling beers to the guests at double the price of the store. Take into account alcohol is strictly regulated through government stores and trying to buy yourself you find again the tourist surcharge. He also literally helped himself to a sample of what you bought and once followed me closely down three stories of steps to ask for the rest of my small whiskey bottle in my bag. The owner like to pull his own shenanigans, trying to charge me upon leaving for things like scant use of their internet, which he told me was included with my room. He launched into a tirade of religion vs. science one morning at 8 a.m. making claims such as scientists are the worst people on earth. He would do things like draw a line on a paper and say make this line shorter without touching it, which he demonstrated by drawing a longer line next to it. I pointed out the line is the same length as before. Typical pseudo-mystical bullshit that some Indians use for their own profit. Nearly all the employees had some scheme to help you out (ie make money off you).
But you become used to it and begin to see the charm the city offers. The Ganga is lined with huge buildings called ghats. Most are used for bathing facilities while others are cremation sites for the deceased. The Ganga is the holiest river in Hinduism and bathing here washes away your sins. Similarly to be cremated or have your ashes spread in the Ganga is a free entry to heaven. Music is everywhere. Sitars, tabla drums, and flutes can be heard at all hours of the days and puja (ritual prayer) is a main attraction every evening and early morning drawing large crowds. Numerous schools offer classes in cooking, yoga, mediation, music, dancing, and art.
Before you know it, Varanasi becomes home.