Going with the Flow in Varanasi

Varanasi’s ghats are the holy steps down to the Ganges River, where sacred rituals of birth,  life, and death are performed. They create a colorful, mystical river bank, for which millions of Indians and foreigners alike come each year. They are currently under 30 feet of water, thanks to the most intense monsoon season here in the last thirty years.

However, we didn’t know that before we arrived. And the exact condition of the ghats was not the first thing on our mind as we stepped off of our train at 3 AM. We were more concerned about how we’re going to get to our hostel at this ungodly hour, why so many people are here at this time of night, and how we’re going to avoid all these rats. But eventually, and thanks to our friendly taxi driver,  who fearlessly led us through narrow, pitch-black alleys to  our hostel, we arrived safely.

At Ram Bhawan in swingin' Varanasi

At Ram Bhawan in swingin’ Varanasi

We stayed at Ram Bhawan, which we highly recommend, a nonprofit hostel devoted to study and intercultural dialogue. The building is a calm oasis located in the heart of the twisting, labyrinth of cobblestone alleyways that make up Varanasi’s old city.

On the tops of the buildings, packs of monkeys scurry across looking for scraps of food, perhaps a ball to play with, settling on a window sill to clean each other and rest.

On the tops of the buildings, packs of monkeys scurry across looking for scraps of food and toys, settling on a window sill to clean each other and rest.

From our rooftop, we had a panoramic view of the Ganges, as it (over)flows quickly past the city, covering the ghats, reaching up to the tops of trees. We had a bird’s eye view of the city, with the closely packed buildings of the Old City painted in a rainbow of blues, yellows, greens, reds, fading to pastel hues, most of which were steadily crumbling, exposing the brick and structures within.

Indians are expert kite flyers and can make small, tissue paper kites soar with very little wind: there’s no room to run on the roof, so they throw the kite into the air, whip and tug on the string as the kite dances higher and higher. So far, we have not perfected this subtle art.

One of the many rooftop kite flyers

One of the many rooftop kite flyers

When we did leave the confines of Ram Bhawan, we found an exciting city filled with character beyond the pageantry of the ghats. We explored the alleys, often getting lost amongst the ‘same same but different’ clothing shops, street food stands, and general stores, strolling beside the many cows, whose calm, serene presence in such a bustling atmosphere made it clear why they are regarded as holy animals.

Holy cow!

Holy cow!

Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in the Hindu tradition. Hindus believe that dying in the Ganges will grant you moksha, liberation from the tedious cycle of life and death. At the same time, most Indians we’ve met have referred to Varanasi as a ‘city full of swindlers,’ which is apparently  the national reputation of this holy city.

At the flooded Marikarnika (burning) ghat

At the flooded Marikarnika (burning) ghat

While it’s the norm in any Indian city we’ve been to that you will be barked at by shopkeepers or overcharged for a taxi ride, in Varanasi, it’s typical to be overcharged by five or ten times the amount charged to locals (as verified by some locals we’ve met), but that’s just the price of holiness.

In every market, down every street, we would be constantly badgered by shopkeepers hawking their wares and taxi drivers calling to us to come with them.  Some would just shout “EXCUSE ME” with authority as if we dropped something or there was an emergency and then meet our worried eyes with innocent solicitation. Surely we wanted a pashmina? a saree? some short pants? some prime opium?

Still, these interactions, combined with traversing thigh-high deep water on cycle rickshas, meeting people from across India and the world, sampling tasty foods and spicy chai tea, and witnessing the sacred ritual practices of millions, made for an impressive week in this exciting, mysterious city.

Piping hot, sweet and spicy chai tea

Piping hot, sweet and spicy chai tea

Traversing the flooded streets. Us safely high up in a cycle ricksha

Traversing the flooded streets. Us safely high up in a cycle ricksha

The peaceful green gardens of prestigious Banaras Hindu University

The peaceful green gardens of prestigious Banaras Hindu University

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5 thoughts on “Going with the Flow in Varanasi

  1. Pingback: Obligatory Taj Mahal Post | Gone Quixote

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