Varanasi. Where does one begin? Archaeologists believe it’s been around since the 11th or 12th-century BC. Hindus, on the other hand, say Lord Shiva created it 20 centuries earlier.
Regardless of how and when Varanasi came to be, Kuldip reckons it hasn’t been cleaned since day one. And, by the look of it, he’s right. There’s crap everywhere, literally. Kuldip and I went in May when it was 45oC each day; the heat, cow dung, litter and cooking and people smells spawned a pungent brew. The closer one is to the Ganges or Ganga, the worse it gets. Nevertheless, unlike Kuldip, I enjoyed the place, warts and all.
To arrive in Varanasi, dead or alive, is on the bucket list of every practising Hindu. It’s where the living bathe in the Ganges to wash away their sins and the dead come to be cremated. Hindus believe in reincarnation. That’s why they won’t kill anything for it might be someone’s dear departed. However, Hindus cremated on the west bank of the Ganges in Varanasi, circumvent the reincarnation process. (Hindus call it Moksha and explain it as a release from the cycle of death and rebirth.) In other words, it’s an express elevator to heaven. Luckily Kuldip’s not Hindu because he wouldn’t be seen dead in Varanasi again.
Varanasi is overwhelming in many ways especially regarding numbers. Around 3.5 million people live there. That’s nearly 2,500 people per square kilometre. We went in the low season, and the place was packed. I can’t image what Varanasi is like at peak time when an extra 2.5 million people, give or take a few thousand, descend upon the city. When one adds the untold number of stray dogs and transportation of all types, Varanasi must be bulging at the seams from October to March. Then, there is the countless number of sacred cows.
Regardless of whether one is Hindu or not, killing cattle in India is a big no no and illegal in some states. Therefore, when a cow or bull has outlived its usefulness, its owner has no option but to dump it on the side of the road to fend for itself. I’m not suggesting that people like doing it, but the last thing most of them need is another mouth to feed. That’s why where are so many strays on the streets in India.
Lahori Tola is the oldest and most congested part of Varanasi. It’s right behind the ghats (stairs that lead to the river). While Kuldip couldn’t stand the place, I had a good time exploring its tiny lanes where vendors sell tourist tatt and all sorts of interesting stuff. It’s a good idea in the old part of town to stand with your back against the wall to let a cow or bull or group of them squeeze past. It’s also wise to keep one eye on the ground while walking around. Furthermore, it’s not unusual in Lahori Tola to see cowsheds jammed in between shops and houses. No prizes for guessing how one knows when there’s a barn nearby.
Many people have written about what it’s like to witness the beginning and the end of a day on the Ganges, or Ganga, in Varanasi. As you will see from the photos that follow, we did all the touristy things too.
Although Varanasi is the seat of India’s current Prime Minister, it’s behind the eight ball regarding urban development. Long-term improvement is one thing, but surely Narendra Modi can use his influence to get his electorate cleaned up, and quickly. Lucknow’s administration got their city ship-shape in no time. Maybe Modi should get on the blower to find out how they did it.
Varanasi is, to my mind, the best and worst of India and the epitome of life and death itself.
Could Varanasi become squeaky clean and clinical? Not a chance. No one wants it to be, but it’s one of India’s tourist hot spots and should leave a better impression.
Note: We stayed at the Rivatas Hotel it’s in a good location and great value for money. Check out my review on TripAdvisor for more info.