Friday, November 13, 2009


Varanasi is one hell of a city. History indicates that it is one of the oldest contintually inhabited cities in the entire world. Pilgrims come here from all over India to bathe and pray in filthy but holy water of the River Ganges. Because of the river, Varanasi is also one of the most auspicious places to die in India, and a continual, endless series of cremations takes place at Manikarnika Ghat, which is known among tourists simply as the Burning Ghat. Sahdus (wandering holy men) clad in orange robes line steps of the main ghats, spending their days praying, reciting religious verse, and true to their name, wandering. To top of it all off, the city is swarming with cows, hundreds and hundreds of cows. Like I said, Varanasi is one hell of a city.

Yesterday, I had written about Varanasi's reputation as an aggressive city that can gnaw at you and wear you down. And sure enough, despite my boasts of having the city's relentless touts firmly under control, by the end of our second day here my patience had worn thin. I was ready to leave. But the touts -- boatmen, rickshaw drivers, would-be masseurs, silk shop owners -- were only part of what wore me down. Sure, I had grown wary of pushing them aside, telling them for the fifth time that, "No, I still don't want a boat ride, I haven't changed my mind in the last eight seconds."

But that was only part of it. Much of my exhaustion was caused by the life and pulse of the city itself. Yesterday, I had written that Varanasi emits a mysterious but distinct aura of positivity, and I still stand by this observation. But this chaotic charm comes at a price, and that price might have been my sanity. The endless commotion, the constant haggling, the music blaring from shot sound systems, the motorcycles that speed down pedestrian alleys, honking all the way, the begging children who tug at your arm, point to their mouth and rub their bellies, the cow manure landmines that plague the streets -- it all added up at a staggering pace and before I had even really settled into the pace of the city, I felt the need to escape. Now this may be hard to grasp, but it is exactly this paradoxical sensation of both admiration and disgust that makes Varanasi worth the visit.

We spent the remainder of our first day in Varanasi wandering around and (surprise, surprise) getting lost in the complex labyrinth of narrow galis (pathways) that make up Varanasi's Old City. With out any specific destination, we were content to simply walk around and soak up the vibes of the filthy but vibrant city. Indeed, there is no way of getting around this simple fact, a fact that I kept returning to as we explored the city. There is no way to beat around the bush or to find a nice way to say it: India is outright filthy.

Varanasi's streets are strewn with a vile combination litter, dirty puddles of water, and fresh cow manure. Its skies yield a constant haze, the product of an endless barrage of cars and motorbikes. My nightly shower (getting hot water in India or Nepal is worthy of another post entirely) left trails of black water on the bathroom floor. Alongside, cricket, littering appears to be one of India's national past times, and it seems to be a perfectly reasonable thing to do, given that there aren't any public garbage cans. Wild animals stroll the streets like they own the place, and in the case of the holy hows, this might actually be true.

Because you cannot kill a cow in India, there are a shockingly large number of cows wandering around in India. They block the roads and shit everywhere, but there doesn't seem to be much anyone can do about it. It's just part of life here. I unwittingly stepped in cow droppings on three separate occasions during my stay in Varanasi. As I said though, it just comes with the territory. Life goes on. 

The cows are remarkable to me because they don't DO anything. They just kind of hang out, vaguely in search of something to nibble on. There was a cow on the platform of the train station this morning and no one even seemed to notice it was there. Mimi and I thought this was hilarious, and more than anything, we just wanted to know how the cow had even managed to get onto the platform. If I had to guess, it probably just walked through the front door along with the other passengers.

The point remains, however, that Varanasi is impressively, astoundingly filthy. And yet, I can't write off Varanasi as I did Kolkata. Despite my temptation, I can't file Varanasi under S for Shithole. But what is stopping me? Again, it is because of this tangible positivity among the city's people. While Kolkata was downtrodden and resigned, Varanasi is upbeat. People are proud to be from here. And once again, I think it has everything to do with the river. The Ganges, at least how it presents itself in Varanasi, is in my opinion an unremarkable river on all accounts. It is broad and slow moving, a bit like the Hudson only far more polluted. And yet, people here love that river and the whole city seems to revolve around the ghats that line the Western bank.

A prominent feature of these ghats is the large population of sadhus. We first encountered sadhus in Kathmandu. These are the wandering Hindu holy men of the sub-continent who grow dreadlocks, dress in orange, and subside on the donations of those wishing to improve their karma. In Kathmandu, the sadhus hanging around Durbar Square felt distinctly inauthentic. They wore elaborate, clean costumes and seemed to be generating a healthy flow of income by posing with tourists for photos. (Guilty as charged.) The majority of sadhus in Varanasi, however, were authentic to the core. Sure, there were a few here and there that clearly didn't mind posing for the tourists for a small tip, but the majority of these sadhus really did appear to have given up their earthly possessions in pursuit of a purely spiritual life. They were dirty and thin. Many simply sat around and meditated. Others mumbled to themselves. They were mysterious and intriguing. I wanted to get inside their minds. 

On both nights we spent in Varanasi, we walked down to the main ghat to have a look at the city's main ceremony, a citywide puja (religious offering) to the holy river Ganga. The place was a mad house. Present was an interesting mix of sadhus, tourists, pilgrims and locals. The ceremony consisted of ringing bells, lighting candles and incense, and chanting some prayers. We watched from the steps of the ghat, but many people, tourists and Indians alike, watched from the boats that were parked on the river at the foot of the ghat.

I wasn't sure what to make of the ceremony because I didn't really understand any of its significance. I am not a religious person, and it has always been difficult for me to connect with religious rituals, whether they be Christian, Hindu or anything else. Still, the experience was one to remember. The deafening ringing of the bells, the smoke of the incense, and blare of the prayer coming over the loudspeakers overwhelmed me. I hadn't seen anything like it before.

And apparently neither had any of the other tourists, who took picture after picture after picture after picture. I will do my best here not to allow my commentary to devolve into yet another anti-tourist rant, but I can't help but make a brief comment. It isn't that I hate tourists. After all, I am a tourist myself and I don't hate myself for visiting another country. It's just that I hate the way the majority of tourists act. I hate their presumptuous demeanor and their sense of entitlement. I hate how they treat other living people like an exhibition in a museum. Sometimes I sense that tourists feel, and accordingly act, like they are at Disneyland, or worse, at a zoo.

After the ceremony came to a conclusion, many of the tourists, ourselves included, turned their attention to a group of sadhus that were sitting on the steps of the ghat, chanting and praying, but also posing for the camera. After all, it had been their choice to come to the tourist epicenter. It was then that a balding, pudgy man tapped me on the shoulder, held up his camera and made a waving motion that implied I was in his way. I had already been feeling a bit disgusted by the spectacle of it all, but this really rubbed me the wrong way. Oh no, I thought, I've disrupted this man's photo shoot! The sadhus were there so that this man could take photos of them, and I was ruining his plan. I rudely told him to move around me if I felt that I was in his way. He looked at me sadly as if he didn't understand why I had been so rude and I immediately regretted what I had said. I'm being self-righteous and over analytical, I thought. This guy just wants a photo of the sadhus and I'm flipping out for no reason. I let it go and walked away. But the more I thought about it, the more this man's actions bothered me. The whole experience, the spectacle, bothered me. I needed to get away from all this commotion.

On the second day in Varanasi, we did some more wandering. At some point, a young boy whose name escapes me began walking alongside us and asking me various questions in what I considered to be pretty decent English. Before we knew it, the boy had latched onto us and was following us no matter which way we went. I didn't really mind it though because we made interesting conversation and he seemed nice enough. We wandered around the old city with this boy for an hour or two, taking breaks here and there. He even taught us a little bit of Hindi. We also watched the Burning Ghat for a while, curiously and perversely eying the wrapped corpses as they slowly disappeared into the flames. Eventually, we told him we wanted to be alone. As I expected, he asked for some money and I obliged. It is this kind of experience, I thought to myself, that makes places like Varanasi great. The boy meant no harm, he just wanted to practice his English and make himself a little money. No hassle, no scam.

Later in the afternoon Mimi and I decided to each take a course. Mimi took a two hour yoga class at a highly recommended yoga center, and later told me that the class was wonderful and that it really hit the spot. I decided to have a Tabla lesson. The tabla, and the larger bayan drum that accompanies it, together form the quintessential Indian drum set. As I have written previously, I really like the way these drums sound, especially the deep, undulating bass tones of the bayan, and I thought it would be fun to mess around with a set.

My teacher was an eccentric man who went by the name of Babloo. When we arrived at the music center we found that the doors were locked. An elderly man who lived in the building asked if we wanted a music lesson and I replied yes. "One moment," he said. He then roared at the top of his lungs so that the whole building would hear, "Baaa-BLOO!! Baaa-BLOO!!" A few minutes later, a somewhat haggard, unshaven man came down from the stairs and told us that he was just about to take a bath but that I could have a lesson. 

Above the entrance to his studio was a faded picture of a young, clean-shaven man happily playing the drums. I presumed this to be Babloo. But the man before me now bared no resemblance to the man in the photo. He looked older and more unkempt. "Is that you?" I cautiously asked, pointing to the picture. "Of course it is. I am Babloo." I guess that settles that, I thought.

The lesson was fun enough. I very quickly learned that the tabla and bayan are incredibly difficult to play. Even obtaining the most rudimentary sounds proved an insurmountable challenge for me, but the lesson was still a memorable experience. I would describe Babloo's teaching style as more intuitive than structural. He told me the drums were a spiritual instrument and that I needed to loosen up and channel my energy. I more than anything wanted to just whack away at the drums at my own pace and leisure, but out of respect, I patiently awaited further instruction from Babloo. Gradually, the lesson devolved into a series of lectures on Babloo's greatness as a teacher and on my need to buy a set of expensive drums from him. I politely declined and before I knew it, our time had run out. I gave one last little pat on the drum, thanked him for the lesson, and said goodbye.

We got up early the next morning to make sure we had ample time to catch our train out of Varanasi. Our destination was Amritsar, a city more than half way across northern India all the way in Punjab. When we arrived at the hectic Varanasi train station, however, we were dismayed to find out that our train was running nearly two hours late. The voyage was slated to take 22 hours as it was, and at this rate, we wouldn't get into Amritsar until 11am the following morning. Not the end of the world, but not the best news either. But when we found out that the train was now scheduled to arrive at 12:30, a full three hours after its original departure time, we began to get frustrated.

Indian train stations are not the most fun place to hang out. Like the rest of India, they are crowded, hectic and dirty, only more so. We remained as zen as we could, however, and patiently waited for our train to arrive. The Punjab Mail didn't roll into Varanasi station until 2:45 in the afternoon, and as I write this, at 1:00pm the following day, we still seem to have hours to go before we get to Amritsar. The latest news is that we will arrive in Amritsar at 4 in the afternoon, a full eight hours late. I had read that Indian trains are some of the most efficient and reliable in the world, but this experience has left me wondering how true that really is.

The train ride has been fun though and I actually got a pretty decent night of sleep. I managed to read the entirety of The Kite Runner on this train trip as well as write this entire blog entry. The Indian men across the aisle from us have been loudly farting with regularity for the majority of the trip's duration, providing Mimi and I with just enough entertainment to stave off our boredom. Food vendors regularly parade down the aisle offering a modest but sufficient selection including samosas, omelets, candy bars and chai tea.

Despite all this, I am beginning to get a bit stir crazy, and having been on this train for nearly 24 hours, I am eagerly awaiting our arrival in Amritsar. We only slotted two days here, and one of these days has already vanished before our eyes. Still, we are going to make the most of our time here. The dominant religion of Punjab is Sikhism, a tolerant and relatively liberal spin-off of Hinduism that is mostly known in the Western world for the beards and turbans of its male population. The highlight of Amritsar is undoubtedly the Golden Temple, which is Sikhism's holiest temple and whose architectural splendor apparently rivals that of the Taj Mahal.

In any event, I can't wait to get off this train and get out to the Golden Temple in time for sunset! Enough writing for now. More in a few days!

Here are a few more pictures from Varanasi:

Baby goat on a Ghat.

Man drying cow dung in the sun.

Street cows.

Sadhu on the Ghats with cows. (Guilty as charged)

Baby goats.

Me chatting with our unofficial tour guide.

Tourists photographing sadhus.

Bored on the train to Amritsar.

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