We cannot imagine another city to compare with Varanasi. A riot of colour, an olfactory overload, an all-senses blow-out.
Slightly jaded after our illness in Bodhgaya we arrived just as the sun had set and we were disappointed not to see magical fairy lights twinkling in the ghats. All was in relative darkness along the banks of Mother Ganga.
Varanasi Junction station, however jolted us back into the amped up neon colours we’d come to expect in India – a Jet-Jackson style building lit up in pink neon. A frenetic bustle of streets pulsating with people.
Fortunately we had a taxi driver waiting who led us through the labyrinth (and shouldered the heavier luggage with ease). We then plunged into the cacophonous & chaotic mêlée that is all Indian traffic. There’s not a lane to be seen anytime, anywhere. Gutters are mounted, chariots swerve within gasping distance of each other, horns of all tones, squawks, beeps and bells sound incessantly. Indian music jangles from all corners. Dogs are barking as they bound in between the autos, cars, rickshaws and bikes.
Dogs and cows are everywhere in Varanasi. Forget the Parisian two-step, here it’s a constant up/down gaze – Up to the wonders of Varanasi. Down to avoid the mountains of steaming ordure everywhere. I don’t know where the cats are hiding but the gangs of dogs set up a howling growling serenade each night round 11pm when they reclaim the alleys.
Ah yes! The Varanasi alleys. They make those in Venice seem like well-lit highways. You expect to bump into Biblical characters – and of course you do. The powder-coated, Rasta-haired sadhus are best first encountered during daylight since often their somewhat intense glare can be off putting to the unwary.
The stalls seen unchanged from 5000BC. Literally holes-in-the-walls with charcoal braziers glowing intensely. Paan-sellers offering leaves with filling to chew ‘n spit. Radioactively colored sweetmeats glisten. Ancient clay pots are filled with chai or curd, …and then smashed to pieces to rejoin Mother Earth.
And always the cows are ambling along confident in their Right-of-Passage everywhere. Often their girth is such to block the tiny lanes. Seeing the points of their horns we defer to their majesty.
It’s just after the monsoons so the ghats are not in their glory. The water level is to the top so the daily spectacular of sights is somewhat subdued. We do, however see the evening ceremony at the Assi Ghat. Its steps must be higher as we sit on them and watch the priests dexterously swing flaming lamps around themselves whilst chanting. In the moonlight it is really something to see, though we worry at the proximity of their synthetic robes.
Our hotel is on Mansarovar Ghat. We have a glorious chicken-wired balcony that looks onto the Ganges. We see the laundry being done, bathing, swimming, and kids at their usual hijinks. This afternoon a barrel of monkeys, babies clinging to their mothers’ backs, trooped along the chicken wire, and like their primate cousins gave us a good stare. Bats flew past us tonight whilst we were having dinner.
Our ceiling is high and even though we have the luxury of a fan and A/C we fixate on the hook for the punkah and imagine the days of yore and the punkahwallah performing his essential fanning with his toe.
When we first entered the room we both started since the family interior decorator (no doubt to make one feel at home – the hotel motto is « Guest is God ») has placed a life-like toy dog under the couch. On further inspection there is also a tiger downstairs and who knows what in the other rooms. The rest of the room has that zany eclecticism that one grows to love in India.
The tourists here in Varanasi are two groups. Women of a certain age who look like life has whacked the spirit out of them. Gaily robed in hippie-couture of the 70s they wander the lanes with fixed smiles on their faces, namaste-ing left, right and centre. The other group is comprised of fresh-faced idealistic youngsters curiously garbed in similarly hippied clothes.
We have become the selfie popstars. Young kids (and old) rush up to photograph us with them on their phones and practice a little English. They are charming and beautiful so we cannot refuse.