REAL india.

Varanasi Travel Blog

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varanasi...benares...the city of death, city of prayer, of life and rebirth, of wanting, of yearning, of decay and waste, of hopes and dreams, of transformation, of cheating and scamming, of faith, of dedication, city of darkness, city of light, of dissolution, of regeneration, of holiness, of criminality, of perversity, of banality... where Shiva's shaft of light hit the earth...a cosmic city.

cows and goats and buffalo wander the streets.
monkeys jump from rooftop to tree.
piles of mysterious wetness on the road.
few women out alone, almost none at night.
even less white people.
rickshaws and bicycles and motorcycles and cars.
cops beating men with bamboo rods.
bells and horns and whistles and yells.
the call to prayer in the background.

betel nut stains.
ahhh, the streets of varanasi.

first day in benares, i was the closest to a dead person that i've ever been - twice. there were two funeral processions that passed us on the street, presumably a group on its way to the ganga for a ritual cremation. herds of buffalo wander the streets, and stand in the ganges for their daily bath. children flock around us, wanting to touch our skin, shake our hands, introduce themselves. it's a really strange phenomenon - between the kids and the multitude of blatantly staring adults, we feel somewhere between venerated celebrities and creatures from the black lagoon. shouts of "hello rickshaw!" and "madam rickshaw!" seem to follow us everywhere we go. "special price for you beautiful lady" flies out at every woman from the "western" shop next to haifa hotel, and "indian price" is what we're promised when we try to haggle with the pushy shopkeepers.
ghat at the ganga (ganges) river


the first five days, we stayed at nandan and bunti's guesthouse in bhadaini, whom we found through couchsurfing. [it is necessary to have some kind of friendly face in this crazy city!] it's hard to keep to the curfew that people recommend...women shouldn't wander around after dark! bhadaini is a relatively safe neighborhood, but we still stick together and avoid the winding, dark alleys at night. i've gotten used to the craziness here, and can almost tune out all of the honking and bells and "come!" "sit!" "where you go!" "what country!"...almost. we spent three nights at "hotel ganges view" which is a super fancy, beautiful hotel right on the river [and got the third night free! i talked to the owner about our leaky toilet and a bug in my food - things which elsewhere here are just normal - and he offered some discount, etc etc lots of calm back and forth etc etc - and then we stayed and ate there for free! wooo!]

the first day of spring brought a breath of cool air and light rain while anna and i rose from the dead at the crack of dawn to go on a ganga ghat boat ride.
the drizzle and the cool air were the only things that kept us going throughout the rest of that hectic day. we went to godoulia, the center of the horrifying maze of alleys in the old city, in search of cotton punjabi suits, ended up lost in the alleys and found solace at a japanese restaurant in a closet. the tiny little streets are just wide enough to let you pass by the cows that own the cobblestones...usually. the temperature drops pleasantly between the buildings that block the sunlight.

nandan took us to what he promised would be something we would remember for the rest of our lives...definitely the weirdest thing we've done in india. we went to giri baba's room in the lali baba monastery...watched the aghori sadhu get all dolled up in 31 kilos of necklaces while he talked about his popularity on facebook.
nandan told us some very unsettling stories about that particular monastery...but we sipped the chai anyway. giri baba took us to the ghat to experience them doing the evening arti [ceremony to put the ganga to sleep], which was surprisingly commercial and felt ingenuine. after that long, mosquito-infested, disenchanting performance, we wandered through dark, twisting alleys to try to find a mellow restaurant for dinner. after circling and searching and jumping over puddles of darkness, we found it...a closed cafe. after a reconciliation dinner at a german bakery that didn't have any of the food on their menu, we found a terrifying rickshaw. what a night!

we took tabla lessons from a guy who doesn't speak any english....mistake. all he knew to say was "NO," so on top of a slightly unsuccessful drumming session, the language barrier made it so much more frustrating.
washing buffalo in the ganges
no more tabla in varanasi :(  BUT we took two sitar lessons...i LOVE SITAR! the drone and cacophany that all the strings create is so beautiful and soothing and exciting. its played similar to a guitar - except the frets are floating. i am hoping to continue both sitar and tabla in mcleodganj.

it's funny, when i first saw the traffic in bangkok, i was amazed at the chaotic frenzy. now that i've been in india - varanasi especially - i have no idea how people stay alive!! there is no such thing as "flow of traffic." right of way belongs to the person who's vehicle is larger or who's horn is louder. lines on the street? no. although, something like 500 people die every day in india due to driving accidents...i guess we've just been lucky that we haven't seen any!

anna and i went to BHUniversity to see greenery and calmness.
buffalo wandering the streets
the walk there was, of course, neither, but the campus was pretty, dotted with peacocks and students and banners asking people not to litter and not to smoke! a rickshaw driver followed us around for a long time, commentating about what we were passing. eventually his persistence won and we got in his rickshaw (mostly to escape the guy that had joined our walk). we went to the campus temple - WOW! once we stepped into the temple grounds, a furious wind picked up and was blowing through all the openings in the temple, leaves flying everywhere. going to the university was the right way to spend our last day in benares. :)

questions floating around in my mind...
-how do i experience varanasi? i keep analyzing how to approach it, that i'm keeping myself out of it.
.
-why can't you photograph during take-off (plane)?
-what is the symbolism of the bindi? (bunti says it's just fashion..?)
-why are there so many religious temples concentrated in sarnath? jain, hindu, buddhist...
-why do feral animals have gigantic nipples?
-why do hindu men hold hands and act physically affectionate?
-why are there so many monkeys at the monkey temple??

intense varanasi! from "benares: a world within a world" by richard lannoy:
"[walter benjamin] characterizes the ancients' mode of intercourse with the cosmos as the ecstatic trance, and distinguishes between the communal nature of this holistic engagement and the dangerous error of modern men to regard the experience as unimportant, even avoidable, and to consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights.
it is not; its hour strikes again and again, and then neither nations nor generations can escape it."
"for benares uniquely, not only among indian cities but everywhere else, is the last ancient city which still maintains active holistic intercourse with the cosmos."
"it's layout, it's pilgrimmage schemata, and its seasonal round of sacred drama comprise a scale-model and functioning simulacrum of the all-encompassing cosmos. no other indian city in its entirety still possesses this integral function as a metaphysically coherent mirror to the all."

jaded, less intelligent thoughts that varanasi has brought to us...
"i don't care if he's creepy or helpful, as long as he's not stealing us."
"a stupid thing in a boring place " (sarnath)
"it's like walking into a pink floyd song"
"welcome to india.
my windows
here is a cockroach."
"soon we'll be in a place where we can eat real food! .... and then we can shit that out, too."


the last day in varanasi, i screamed in the street. it felt amazing.
udenchi says:
besides these it is a holy city with lot of cultural values and ethnicity...my ancestors belonged to this city...so i have no choice rather loving it..
Posted on: Mar 29, 2009
StupidGuy says:
Beautiful Poem.
Posted on: Mar 25, 2009
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ghat at the ganga (ganges) river
ghat at the ganga (ganges) river
washing buffalo in the ganges
washing buffalo in the ganges
buffalo wandering the streets
buffalo wandering the streets
my windows
my windows
godoulia market
godoulia market
monkey!
monkey!
...like were movie stars
...like we're movie stars
our fly- and cow-infested street
our fly- and cow-infested street
sarnath buddhist temple
sarnath buddhist temple
leaves! green! trees!
leaves! green! trees!
we sat and watched the filming of …
we sat and watched the filming of…
nandan, bunti and babu
nandan, bunti and babu
anna held babu on a really scary 2…
anna held babu on a really scary …
sunrise boat ride along the ghats …
sunrise boat ride along the ghats…
getting fitted for our tailor-made…
getting fitted for our tailor-mad…
aghori...
aghori...
adorable!
adorable!
doing laundry in our flat
doing laundry in our flat
anna, hindified.
anna, hindified.
the view from our fancy chalet
the view from our fancy chalet
pilgrims bookshop, where they bri…
pilgrim's bookshop, where they br…
bowls made from leaves! ...and gro…
bowls made from leaves! ...and gr…
guido dogs
guido dogs
the only garbage can we saw in var…
the only garbage can we saw in va…
nice hair...
nice hair...
maybe they wont notice us?
maybe they won't notice us?
just another rickshaw ride through…
just another rickshaw ride throug…
traffic.
traffic.
woah! landed in new delhi, and we …
woah! landed in new delhi, and we…
new delhi. wow. what a horrid plac…
new delhi. wow. what a horrid pla…
excitement, where otherwise it is…
Varanasi
photo by: rotorhead85