Varanasi will chew you up and spit you out and won’t be concerned about the consequences, not even one iota. For through tourists flock there in their masses, to visit the world’s oldest living city, and to absorb, as if by osmosis, some of India’s famed spirituality; as Tahir Shah so succinctly put it,
‘Enlightenment and the death which comes before it is the main business of Varanasi.’
For a more poignant piece on this refer to:
For anyone who missed that, the main point of Varanasi is that people come here to die. It is where Hindu’s come to attain Moksha; to be cremated in Varanasi is to set them free from the trials of rebirth but in order to do this, THEY HAVE TO DIE, this is the purpose of Varanasi, and the main business of the city. It is this reality that most tourists seem to overlook in their quest to absorb some of its spirituality; though the wily ‘priests’ and locals don’t.
To quote Mark Twain, ‘’All India flocks thither on pilgrimage, and pours its savings into the pockets of the priests, in a generous stream which never fails.’’
Fast forward 150 years or so and in addition to the pilgrims, we now have tourists flocking there in their hoards, ‘Oh yes, Varanasi!’ They cry, ‘We must go there, it is so spiritual, it is so enlightened, we want a piece of that,’ and the ghat-side priests are sitting there, rubbing their holy hands together, with sufficient vigour to create sparks enough to ignite the wood of the waiting pyres.
You see, I have said it before and no doubt I will say it again, I never met a nation more resourceful or enterprising than Indians, its part of what I love about this country, and in Varanasi, as in most parts of India, the locals are a wily bunch. The opportunity to cash in on the tourist’s desire to experience something authentically Indian is far too tempting to resist. This has turned this destination, which has specialised in authentic moksha for thousands of years (and still continues to do, I do not take that away from it), into the Amazon of Enlightenment for tourists India.
That lovely little old priest over there, the one smiling and waving you over? Yes, of course he will bless you, he will even make quite a ceremony of it with garlands and tikkas and holy water, maybe even blow a conch shell for you, and then charge you handsomely for the privilege. The sadhu, adorned in a loin cloth, his body covered in ash, dreadlocked hair arranged into disarrayed perfection, who just seemingly happens to be standing in your path? He is more than happy for you to take his photo, and will then stick his hand out, before your finger has finished its click, for his remittance. Want some Ganges water to take home, if for no other reason than to test its levels of pollution? Then yes, they will happily sell you an overpriced plastic container from their conveniently placed stack at the water’s edge, and bet your bottom dollar, if you have any left at this point, that someone helpful soul will miraculously appear at your side and before you know what is happening, he will grab the container and assist you in filling it up, and then stick out his hand and demand his INR for services rendered. Oh, you will certainly be blessed in Varanasi, try and avoid it, but while you believe that your soul is becoming enlightened your wallet will certainly becoming lighter.
But is it all bad? Well, I wouldn’t be wrong in saying that the city is heaving; throng with people, cars, motorbikes, autos, cows (of course) and dust. You might be getting a sense, that it is not my favourite destination in India, and you would be right. I discovered that spending a week there, seven whole days, was far too long. Everybody warned me, but you see, wherever I visit on my journey to discover more of the ‘real India’, turns out to have far more to offer this impassioned ‘memsahib’ can ever initially envisage and I invariably want to stay longer. I therefore planned accordingly this time.
Now don’t get me wrong, my first two days there were rather enjoyable and we did truly have a wonderful and fascinating time, thanks to the experiences arranged courtesy of Lonely Planet Magazine India and UP Tourism. We sampled the early morning Subah e Banaras, the aarti ceremony on Assi Ghat, and it was magical, ethereal, raw and uncut and that was its’ charm, less known and than the regular evening performance and all the better for it. The boat ride that followed was the experience everyone should do. The sunrise, life playing out on the ghats, people praying, immersing themselves, devoted and devout. This is one thing about India that as a Brit, I will never fully comprehend, the ability to be in the moment, doing what you want, with no concern for who is watching or what they think.
We had then ventured along the ghats to visit an Akhara or traditional wrestling pit or as people would call it these days, especially men with very different ideas, mud wrestling. But this is traditional, dedicated, focused and requires an awful lot of discipline and training. This is something that is now dying out, I guess Fitness First style gyms are taking over, but this is an ancient art and one well worth witnessing. I hasten to add that my recommendation has nothing to do with muscled men in loin cloths, well maybe only partly, and they are less pot-bellied than the faux sadhus, but their strength and flexibility is phenomenal. This is built up over time and with the ultimate dedication and with only traditional training ‘equipment’ made out of wood or concrete – I kid you not.
We had also been escorted into the old town for a walk. I love walking old towns, I love the street food and shops and cows and sense of true India that you just don’t get with shopping malls and air conditioning, Pizza Hut and MacDonalds. You certainly have to watch your step, but the streets are a profusion of colour and culture and ruminants and jalebis being cooked fresh and milk being delivered and chaat being made and shops full of silver and saris and textiles and tat! Nowhere does tat quite like an Indian market!
Benares is also famous for its silk, and so off we went to witness the silk weaving and the production of some of the most extraordinary saris one can find in India. The colour, patterns and stories told both verbally and in the designs on the cloth, were far beyond any expectations I might have had, and the anecdotes that were also imparted made this a fun experience too. I was also enticed to shop, and I hate shopping!
Did you know? Ladies in Varanasi will put on a silk rather than cotton sari to cook as silk is not only considered more hygienic, it also doesn’t go up in flames? No neither did I.
So you see, my first few days in Varanasi were really rather enjoyable, we also included Sarnath, sailing and a whole host of other fun activities which will be covered in due course. It was only after that when things began to go downhill and had me wanting to procure my own funeral pyre. Things certainly got worse before they once again got better. All will be revealed, I promise. What you must do, what not to do, where not to stay, where to stay, and who and what rescued me from leaving the country altogether……. In short, watch this space for how to stay sane in Varanasi.