I’m going to kick this off with a pet peeve of mine. When people talk about places they visit, I’ve almost never heard a bad review. Ever. About anywhere. It’s weird, but it’s kind of politically incorrect to say that a place sucks. But even beyond that, it’s also a downer, which nobody wants to hear. When people ask “how are you?” I have found that they rarely actually want to know. It’s just a greeting. But let’s be real here: sometimes I’m not doing so well. And not every place I visit is amazing. Varanasi is a place that should have been amazing. It was beautiful, it was interesting, it was a place unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. But when I think back on it, I don’t think about that. I think about the endless conga line of assholes that tried to rip me off so shamelessly. I’ll do my best to set my baggage aside for the good of the article though.
About Varanasi: The Holy City
A.K.A. The City of Death
Varanasi is known as the holy city. It is said that all the Hindu Gods live here. After finding enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, Buddha came here to do his first teaching. There is also a sizeable Muslim community here. The city is therefore packed with religious landmarks and temples.
For Hindus, to die in Varanasi is to die a holy death. Therefore, when Hindu people think that they will die soon, they come here. Within 7 hours (approximately) of their death, they must be cremated on the shores of the Ganges River. Hundreds of bodies are burned here everyday. Women are not allowed to attend the burnings because they are more likely to cry. There is no crying allowed at a cremation because, in Hindu culture, if the mood is not happy, then the deceased person will not be happy in their next life. Also there had apparently been issues with wives and daughters throwing themselves on the flames because there was no man left to take care of them. That's should tell you all you need to know about how women are treated in India.
In certain circumstances people cannot be burned – children who died before the age of 10, pregnant women, people who died due to snake bites, lepers, and victims of a few other diseases are not eligible for cremation. Instead, their bodies are just thrown into the Ganges River to float and gradually decay. As such, you will see corpses floating down the river pretty commonly. Down river, you can find rotting bodies that have washed up and been picked apart by crows, vultures, and stray dogs. These post-mortem rituals have been going on for so long that the fish in the Ganges near Varanasi have (supposedly) become carnivorous. I don’t know if that’s true, but I can verify that they are freaking gigantic; it looks like there must be a nuclear power plant nearby or something. This doesn’t stop people from bathing in the Ganges to be cleansed though. Spiritually - not physically. Hopefully they take a real shower later on.
Hostel Review: Stops Hostel
Price: 700 INR (10.75 USD) per night
I stayed at Stops Hostel. It’s a bit of a hike from the Ganges River (which is where most of the city is concentrated), but it’s the best option available for a solo traveler. It has a great atmosphere, clean bathrooms, good air conditioning, solid wifi, cheap tours for just about everything in the city, and an extensive library of movies that you can watch on a big screen. It’s a 70 INR (1.07 USD) rickshaw ride from the main ghats, which is expensive, but if you couldn’t ask for an easier place to make friends here to split that ride with. A night in the air conditioned dorms there cost 700 INR (10.75 USD).
The first thing I did in Varanasi was attempt to walk down to the ghats at the Ganges River with a new friend. Our hostel was a ways away, and we got hopelessly lost. Being lost is never fun, but was an interesting walk. The most interesting part of it though was when we came to a dead tree… that was full of eagles. Weird, right? There at least 20 of them alternating between sitting on the dead branches and flying around. This couple of pictures don’t do this oddity justice, but they do their best.
Eventually we had to just take a rickshaw to a point where we could find our way. We were dropped off in the thick of the city, and our walk continued through the narrow streets. Everywhere we went there were cows wandering aimlessly, stopping traffic and causing road blocks in narrow markets.
In addition to a surplus of cows, roaming and grazing through the city, Varanasi is also crawling in monkeys. On every ledge and rooftop you will see them hopping about, and swinging off into the squalor. I had heard stories of the monkeys here stealing from people before, and I had always dismissed those stories as poppycock, but I believe them now! These monkeys were big, brave, and mischievous. At one point we caught a glimpse of a particularly large troop of monkeys through a door in a courtyard. We asked a local woman if we could come in to see them. She begrudgingly gave us permission to come in a take a few pictures.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen more colorful or picturesque alleyways than those that wind through Varanasi. I’m not usually the kind of person to get caught up on things like this, but the doors in Varanasi were incredible. I couldn’t help but snap pictures of them as I went. Later on I saw a “door tour” advertised. Apparently I’m not the first person to make this observation.
The people in Varanasi are quite aware of how photogenic they are, and they do their best to capitalize on it. You may have heard about Varanasi's "holy men", you know, the guys with giant beards that face paint? Holy men my ass. They are glorified bums who make their living trying to get you to pay them for a picture. After my altercation in Calcutta, I decided that I could do without. Kids also try to get you to pay them to take pictures of them. I won't do that either. I like for the pictures I take of people to be a keep-sake from something real - an actual interaction. Paying for it totally defeats the purpose. Sometimes though I would have kids ask for pictures just for funsies. The exchanges with these little goofballs are always entertaining, so that I can do. One kid just asked me to take a picture of his dog, which I thought was funny.
Here's a few more shots from around the city, just to give you a feel for the place:
Burning Ghat #1 (the small one)
Eventually we made our way down to the ghats. There are 2 burning ghats (burning as in cremation). One of them is relatively low-key and the other is a big operation. We wanted to walk the full length of the Varanasi riverfront so we started at the south side with the smaller burning ghat. I wasn’t sure exactly where this smaller ghat was, but I was feeling pretty content with just wandering. Soon I came to an area of dirt and a man approached me. He told me that this was one of the cremation areas and that I should not take any pictures out of respect. That was pretty reasonable, so I put the lens cap on. Then the man invited me to watch the burning and learn about the ceremony from him.
People in Varanasi had already proven themselves to be the conniving, slippery, and money hungry (sorry, just trying to be real here) so I was skeptical.
“How much?” I asked, squinting.
The man seemed taken aback at such a businesslike question. “No money! Free! If you come to Varanasi you should want to learn about our culture… blah blah blah”
“Okay okay okay, I’m sorry. I just have to ask. I’d love to learn about it,” I responded, with a smile. As long as it is clear that I won’t be paying him, then why not?
The man led me up a small flight of stairs into a strange structure so that we could sit with a bird’s eye view. We sat down and watched a body burn. Beneath us, a few meters from the Ganges, there was a bonfire with a pair of feet unceremoniously protruding from the side closest to us. The men of the family stood around looking very bored and despondent. Every once in a while one of them would get up, grab a large stick, and prod the fire. Meanwhile I watched in transfixed horror as the skin on the feet blistered and melted away revealing flesh and bone.
Soon one of my new friends came along and joined us up there. The man introduced himself to us as Prem. He said that he owned this burning ghat. He claimed to be the 7th generation of his family to oversee cremations like this. He explained to us the hierarchy of locations for cremations. The closer in proximity a body is to the river, the more expensive it is. He pointed to the smoldering embers of a fire a ways back, and explained to us that the family of this dead person was too poor to get them any closer to the Ganges. Then he pointed to a small platform, which stuck a little ways out into the water. He said that the price for a cremation on this platform was about 15,000 INR (about 230 USD). Seriously, this guy has to be so rich! He went on to tell us that there were approximately 70 bodies burned here every day. Cremations happen round the clock, a few at a time, with each one taking about 3 hours. Feel free to do the math and estimate his income.
I looked back down at the body below me just in time to see the last feeble tendons and pieces of flesh that hadn’t yet been incinerated give way, causing one of the feet to fall completely off, and tumble down into the embers.
Eventually Prem told us that it was time for us to go. I wasn’t sorry to go. But as we tried to walk out the door he stepped in front of us confrontationally and asked us if we would make a donation to the poor. After hearing about how much these families have to pay to burn their bodies, I felt like I might actually do that. So I asked him where we could make donations. He responded that we should give the money to him.
And THERE it is folks!
I laughed and told him that I we had already agreed that I wouldn’t pay him anything. Prem was offended at the implication that he might keep the money for himself. He yelled at us. It was awkward. He was blocking our way out, so in the interest of making a peaceful exit, my friend that I was with asked how much people normally donate. Prem seemed to regain his composure.
“Some people give just a little bit, some people give like that,” he said, stretching his arms out to indicate a large sum of money.
My friend took out a note for 10 INR (0.15 USD) to give to him.
There was a pause before Prem spoke again. “Take that money, and THROW IT IN THE RIVER! GO AWAY! LEAVE!” He yelled, apparently offended at how little money he had been offered.
Whatever. I pushed past him and we walked off. I never had any intention of giving him anything, but I have to give this guy brownie points for the vibrato of his performance. It was good acting. He had a solid scam going, and he stuck to his guns right until the very end. I think that might actually make him even more of a scumbag though.
Walking Down The Ganges River
We walked further down the river and did our best to enjoy ourselves. Walking down the ghats there were people jumping into the river to bath left and right. Boats motored past us, sometimes stopping on the sandbank on the opposite side of the river. There was clear evidence that the Ganges had been a few meters higher within the last few weeks. In some places children were hosing mud off from the bricks. In other places I could see the gunky line that remained from a high water level in the recent past. In many places these lines were over my head on the buildings and pillars.
It was mostly an uneventful walk, until we got close to the other, larger burning ghat. Between this ghat and us was a crowded dock area. We pushed through the crowds, saying “no… no... no…” to everyone that tried to get us to buy something from them. One man in particular was in my face so finally I turned to him and said “NO!” The man smiled and said “okay, namaste” stretching out his hand for a handshake. He had made quite a show of sticking his hand out so I felt a bit uneasy about shaking it, but it seemed like my quickest route to getting this guy to leave me alone. I feel like, between men, to not accept a handshake is very disrespectful gesture, so I reached my hand out. He grabbed onto it, forcefully pulling me closer to him. He began massaging my hand and working up my arm.
“Really dude? I’m not paying you for this,” I said, annoyed.
"No sir! Very nice massage!" He said, groping my arm harder.
“I don’t want this,” I said flatly, as he moved up my forearm.
I told him again and again to stop but he pulled me in closer until our bodies were touching and my armpit was resting on his shoulder. I’m not a big fan of touching even with people that are close to me, let alone this creep. At that point I had had quite enough. Being polite was getting me nowhere.
“Fucking stop! Jesus Christ!” I said, shoving him away from me. I heard him call to me but I turned and continued pushing my way through the crowd.
Burning Ghat #2 (the big one)
When we were arriving at the 2nd burning ghat it was much more obvious. We could see the flickering light of the bon fires and the smoke rising over the buildings from the riverfront. In order to get there we would have to take some back alleys. We turned a corner and a man told us to put away our cameras. We complied, and continued onwards. We were now approaching the burning area from behind, and there was firewood stacked at least 20 feet high back there. We moved forward and found ourselves in a stinky alleyway covered entirely by tarps so that no sun could get through. There was a wind that day, the effect of which was to blow all the smoke from the cremations up that alley. With the tarp down, preventing any smoke from escaping, we were in a hot whirlwind of fleshy smoke.
Eventually we got to the end of the alley. Here there was a hospice for people who were waiting to die. On the wall of this building were plastered hundreds of mug shots of the people to be burned that day. A closer look revealed that these people were already dead at the time of the mug shot. This was a wall of pictures of dead faces.
We climbed down, and then back up, to find a good vantage point from which to watch the cremations. We arrived just in time for one of them to begin. A group of men carried a body wrapped in white cloth over to a pile of firewood on a bamboo stretcher. They lay him on top of the pile of firewood. His feet hung off of one side of the pile, and his head gaped backwards hideously over the other side. They began stacking more wood on top of the body.
Eventually they began the task of lighting the fire. It was slow to start with, but before long a good-sized fire was crackling underneath the body. Beyond the body, at other points around the burning ghat, were more cremations, all clearly in different stages. It didn’t take long for the white cloth to burn away on the body closest to us. The face remained covered somehow (thankfully) but the flesh of the legs was burned away right before my eyes. The skin began to blister. Then the blisters began to pop, revealing that the skin was beginning to melt. It was disgusting.
Now, we aren’t supposed to take pictures here, and I didn’t. The guy that I was with however, who shall remain nameless, was a bit more of a rebel, and he snuck this shot. It doesn’t quite do the situation justice since it was taken on the iPhone, but you get the idea.
From there we hired a boat to take us to float in front of this ghat for sunset. From the boat I was able to take a few pictures, but we were too far away for me to capture anything truly gnarly.
Here are some pictures of Varanasi at sunset though...
When we returned home that night we took a tuk-tuk. We agreed on a price of 100 INR (1.54 USD) with the driver. When we were dropped off we gave him the 100 INR and started to walk away, when he ran after us, saying that that we had agreed on 150 INR. We looked at each other, confused.
“No we didn’t. The price is 100,” we responded flatly.
It wasn’t long before the taxi driver started yelling at us about how he’s been driving his taxi for 20 years and never ripped anybody off. There was a crowd gathering, but unlike in Calcutta and Dhaka, nobody was getting involved. They just seemed amused. Eventually I had lost all hope of reasoning with this man, so I started yelling back at him. But, predictably, that didn’t make anything any better. The thing to do was just to walk away, which I did eventually.
When I first arrived in India I found myself disappointed in my fellow travelers pretty often, because they seemed so rude and dismissive towards the locals. But after Varanasi, I understand. They act that way out of necessity. The trick to staying sane is just to not start the conversation. Don’t acknowledge anything or anyone that you don’t feel like dealing with. If you give them an inch, they will take a mile. It’s hard for a guy like me, because I’m kind of sensitive, and when I have a conflict I need closure. But in here it really is just best to walk away. I made a mental note of it.
Sunrise on the Ganges River
Lucky for me, the hostel that I was staying at offered a number of different tours around the city. One of the ‘tours’ was to go see the sunrise from a boat on the Ganges River. It was only 100 INR (1.54 USD) to go, so I set my alarm accordingly.
We were supposed to leave around 4:30am. It was a little less than a 30 minute walk from our hostel to the Ganges through the dirty, darkened streets of the city. I stumbled along groggily, trailing our small group. Eventually we reached the docks, and as the sun rose, we bore witness to an interesting ceremony. I honestly didn’t know much about what was happening… and thanks to the rocking of the boat wasn’t able to get any good pictures in the low light, but it was cool. Bells rang, and people in red robes chanted while they went through various motions with torches. The flames flickered in the early morning light, illuminating the faces of their bearers. Birds flew through the air and monkeys jumped from window to window as the holy city wiped the sleep from its eyes. “THIS is the Varanasi I like,” I thought to myself.
If you are ever in Varanasi, go to a shop called Blue Lassi. Guide books and tour guides have a lot to say when it comes to food in Varanasi, but after reading though guides and going on those tours, this was the only place worth mentioning. If you recall, I mentioned drinking Lassi in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It’s kind of like a yogurt-y milkshake, but warmer, and with a pinch of salt. It’s kind of hard to describe its subtleties but, it’s good, and this shop is cool. If you have an extra passport photo laying around, bring it. You can plaster it to the wall. I recommend the Coconut Lassi.
On one of my last nights here, I was walking down the street as part of a group, and the traffic had come to a complete stop. We struggled and squeezed through the spaces between motorbikes until we eventually reached the source of the problem: protesters. The street was jam-packed with men in white robes. One man stood at their center with a megaphone. He was yelling in Hindi, and the crowd would occasionally yell back at him in agreement. There were trucks with elaborate statues of Hindu Gods blocking the street in 2 directions. With some sleuthing, I came to find out that the Indian government was attempting to regulate Varanasi's religious traditions for the disposal of dead bodies, the reason being a new initiative to clean up the notoriously dirty Ganges River. This had apparently caused quite an outrage in the "holy city".
I'm going to remain neutral in this particular disagreement. However, I will say that the Ganges could do with some cleaning. It's a bio-hazard zone, to say the least.
From Varanasi I got a train to New Delhi. From New Delhi I got a flight up to…