A week into Varanasi I packed up and moved to where I intended to stay in the first place. I met two well-trodden travelers in Dharamsala who refer to Varanasi as their home since they have spent so much time here and I followed their precise instructions: down river from the main ghat, up the stairs of Narad Ghat, and through the unmarked broken blue doorway. Welcome to Munna House!
This is by far the best place to park yourself in Varanasi if you spending a bit longer in the City of Lights. Its filled with longer term travelers who are foremost a musical bunch and furthermore just great people. The proprietor, Munna, is someone who will always treat you fair. A rare breed indeed.
That said, your mother would cry if she knew you were staying there. At 70 RPS a night, its the cheapest you’ll find but the trade off is you should provide your own sheets and everything else you may need. Cleanliness can be a bit lacking, but again keep it the way you want it. Its not a place to drop in and expect to get a room (though I was very lucky doing just that).
Probably the longest term resident is Jeevan, the best looking street dog you’ll find in Varanasi. Munna House is about five stories high with the center being hollow. Jeevan, which means “life” in Hindi, fell through two stories has a young pup and managed to keep his despite, hence the name. He is quite a smart dog and knows how to sit and shake. His son also takes residence here and is noticeably lazier and more docile. The dogs tend to have the run of the place and enact a passive resistance when being moved that would make Gandhi proud.
Since Munna House is located in between ghats right on the Ganga River, the view is breathtaking from the upper floors. Some nights the moon reflects clearly in the river and on others an ethereal fog rises like Shiva’s breath and limits visibility to less than 100 meters. Sitting outside on such a night, perched on a ledge over looking the river and ghats, the electricity gave out (like it does every night). Instantly I was plunged into a foggy dreamworld that felt like I was in a floating city since the ground could not be seen.
And it is Shiva’s City too. My favorite of the Hindu pantheon, Lord Shiva is a major player as the god of destruction with whom creation would be impossible. The Ganga River is said to flow from his hair.
Its logical that Shiva’s city would be a center of death, and indeed two main burning ghats cremate bodies 24 hours a day. Mourners purchase wood (Sandalwood being the most expensive) and see their loved ones off to the next plane. Its not uncommon to be sitting in a cafe and a group of chanting Hindus walk by carrying their deceased loved one on a stretcher while you sip orange juice. The highly recommended movie Baraka contains moving images of these rites as well as others of Varanasi.
Shiva is worshiped in several forms, and one of the most common is the lingam. It is generally accepted that this represents the genitals of the god; it’s a phallic symbol.
Another interesting aspect of Indian culture is the use and consumption of bhang. Essentially its the leaves and buds of the female cannabis plant and is eaten, smoked, or drank in a lassi. What is most interesting to me is that the government condones the sale of bhang through special shops.