I am fairly certain that it is completely inappropriate to admit to really disliking India’s holiest city, not to mention realizing my great takeaway from the visit will be visions of feces, but alas, here I am.
The guidebooks say to “give it a chance”, that for those with patience, Varanasi can be a hidden gem.
Instead, here I find myself in a religious conundrum, and more immediately, sidestepping and slip-sliding on pooh around every street, corner and ghat step. Cow poop. Goat poop. Dog poop. Bird poop. People poop.
I truly wanted to love Varanasi. I fully assumed that I would love Varanasi. I had visions of feeling completely at peace in spirit – it is, after all, the most auspicious city in which to die for Hindus; dying here means you’ll complete the cycle of lives and deaths. It’s where pilgrims come from around the world to wash away sins in the Ganges River, and make offerings to their gods along the ghat steps. It’s where hundreds of cremations take place daily along the Burning Ghats.
Sadly, the reality I encountered was one that mainly reeked of tourist-marketed relgious zeal, peppered with harassment and touting at most turns. A scene where a small bowl of flowers and a tealight candle – an offering to the Ganges – were shoved in my hand, and told by the falsely smiling flower lady: “Now, give me your money.”
When I balked, she told me it was good for my Karma. I wondered how her Karma was doing.
Our arrival into town was marked by a man falsely producing a card from our guesthouse, then taking us by autorickshaw to a different guesthouse. Then, when we threatened to call the police, leaving us on the street, literally in the dust. Touts lurked at every corner, chasing our auto and bike rickshaws to lure us to other guesthouses or restaurants. And then there was the filth. Oh, the mighty filth of Varanasi. Only to see it, smell it and step in it is to understand it.
Our hotel was next to the Burning Ghat, where massive piles of wood line the surrounding streets, and at any given moment a funeral procession – a body on a stretcher, draped in colorful cloths and flowers – may be marched by to the sound of chanting and bells. It is ready to be covered in wood and burned, ashes scattered in the Ganges.
Even here, at this most intimate of ceremonies lurk the ruthless touts. “Do you want to see better? I take you somewhere.”
Oh lord, I just wanted it to end. But not the burning, you see. The burning was the only thing resonated with me as being honest. The burning I understood. Touts, fleecers, hustlers – that fire is not theirs to sully.
This morning, we took a sunrise boat trip along the Ganges. Watching the morning puja, from a distance, was moving. The ceremony, the prayers, the flowers, the bathing, the ritual, the quiet.
And then as I watched in silence, a boat rowed toward us fast, it’s driver gripping the hull of our boat. His boat was filled with plates of flowers, more offerings. He shoved one into the unsuspecting hand of another passenger, as my arms were tightly crossed.
“This offering. 100 rupees you pay me now. Good for Karma.”