Varanasi is not the kind of city that can easily be summarized in one article…even one very long article, but I’m going to try. Varanasi is even more crazy and chaotic than Delhi, but the Varanasi vibe is spiritual rather than economic. This is a city that welcomes death with open arms.
We visited Varanasi in 2014 after spending 30 days in Nepal. We stayed at the Radisson Hotel within walking distance of the Ganges River. After having spent 4 weeks in Nepal, Varanasi was a difficult city to learn the ropes of India. India (at least northern India) and Nepal are radically different places in terms of moral and ethical codes of conduct by locals.
We never had a guide in Nepal and we never needed one. The Nepalese people were remarkably honest and kind. So honest, in fact, that at times it was shocking. One of my shirts blew off the balcony while we were out one day in Kathmandu and though there were plenty of poor people walking around down below who might have benefited from my blouse, I found the shirt hung over the railing of our stairwell when we returned home.
Varanasi was a different place altogether though. We clung to a guide, even just to walk a short distance in the street. Touts and snake charmers, rabid dogs, sadhus, and Brahmins flooded the streets. It was an overwhelming place. Lydi got hit (lightly) with a motorcycle crossing the street. The water was polluted with the ashes of dead bodies and the un-burnt remains of bodies that had been afflicted by disease like pox or tuberculosis as well as chemicals and other types of hazardous waste. But despite this, Indians bathed enthusiastically in the water, smiling and waving at us as we floated by on our boat. The boatman told us that a scientist had proven that the water was “pure”. He believed it. He told us that the people in India are better drivers when they’re drunk. He believed this too.
At the hotel, we learned about the Hindu Fire Ritual that took place nightly at the Ganges. We were reluctant to go out in the evening by the time evening came, but we went out anyway, hopeful that it would be “cool”. And it was. It was so cool, I rank it among one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life. There were hundreds of people there. It was intoxicating and utterly amazing. If you ever find yourself in Varanasi, don’t miss it.
We also tried to buy a sitar from a man in a little shop within the winding corridors that lead from here to there in the city. The deal fell through mostly because we couldn’t come up with a way to carry it from here to there for the remainder of our trip in India.
Whenever we were inside the hotel room, I would sit with the curtains open to watch the men outside our window who were working without harnesses from bamboo scaffolding that rose eight stories high. Behind the hotel, in the distance, men would walk along straight paths between lush fields. When the sun set, the whole world turned a peachy golden hue. The sun would lower into the sky as a gentle, orange disk. At this time of day, everything was beautiful in Varanasi, even the piles of trash on the streets below. Each evening as the sun set, I could see why people were drawn to India and to Varanasi in particular. This is city that fully embraces both life and death in the same breath.