Varanasi - Smells and sights in one of the world's oldest cities
The taxi driver brings me to the spot where the guesthouse was supposed to be. I enter the dirty alley and find out that I'm at the wrong Maruti guest house. So I walk to where Google Maps tells me to go. The streets feel rough, dark, and dirty, but I walk with a confidence of having been in India for almost two months and surviving a crazy Mumbai day just 3 days earlier. The lady of the house regrets to tell me that she has given my room away. She says I should've called, but she obviously feels bad about it. I have no intention or hope to find anything decently clean on these streets, so she arranges a few blankets for me to sleep on the floor. The irony is, that the bed she gave me the next day wasn't much softer than the floor. Indian people sleep on hard surfaces, something hard to miss when you see the countless people sleeping on asphalt or wooden planks.
Varanasi is a crazy city, and I can't possibly say it better than Lonely Planet:
"Varanasi is the India of your imagination. One of the most colourful and fascinating places on earth, surprises abound around every corner. [...] This is one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities, and one of the holiest in Hinduism. Pilgrims come to the ghats lining the Ganges to wash away sins in the sacred waters or to cremate their loved ones. [...] Most visitors agree Varanasi is magical – but not for the faint-hearted. Intimate rituals of life and death take place in public, and the sights, sounds and smells on the ghats – not to mention almost constant attention from touts – can be intense."
At 5.30 I get up to see the sunrise. I walk into the streets and find myself in a crowd of hurried people. It is so busy that cars and Tuk-Tuks don't move. An Italian who had lived in West Africa and seen a lot, later told me that he had never experienced this many people. After being pushed through the congested areas by the hoards of people I arrive at the overcrowded banks of the Ganges. The sight is less pretty than I hoped, and with my camera in hand I feel "lustlos", a nice German word for a feeling of lacking inner drive, sluggishness, and definitely not being in the mood for taking pictures. But then the sun appears on the horizon as a glowing red circle, and I have to admit that there is something of the much acclaimed 'magic' of Varanasi. This emotional process of something beautiful breaking my feeling of "Lustlosigkeit" would repeat itself multiple times this trip.
Back at my guesthouse I'm invited to lunch and Puja, a Hindu ritual. The reason for the oceans of people today is a festival, one of many in the Hindu calendar. It feels good to escape the hectic city and simply sit with the kids and an older Australian man. He has come to study the ancient Sanskrit language, probably only something you will do when you're divorced and not in contact with your son.
In the evening I return to the Ganges to witness Ganga Aarti, a nightly ritual with lights and smoke to worship the holy Ganges river. The crowd is even worse than this morning.
The following day I stick to the same schedule of going out in the morning and evening, while staying in my room during the day. Three hours of walking along the banks of the Ganges feels intense enough for a whole day.
At the first sunlight I want to find the quiet lookout I had stumbled upon the previous day. After wandering through different alleys and taking a few wrong turns, I entered the open square that oversees the river. The sun is rising and two men are towing a camel on the opposite bank. Definitely a magical moment. At night I would come back here to glimpse a last sight of the city under moonlight.
I continue down the river along various Ghats, the name for the steps where the Hindus cleanse themselves of sins. There are many tourists with cameras, and even more spiritually devoted Hindus and Buddhists with fascinating appearances. I overcome my own awkwardness to ask a man if I can take his picture; it's now or never. This is a reoccurring struggle and I suspect it to be one of the many reasons I feel exhausted at the end of a day. Everyone is already staring at me because of my height, skin-, and hair colour, so pointing a big DSLR camera at their faces becomes something I have to constantly remind myself that it's worth it. But there are so many amazing pictures that have been left untaken, and so many sights that simply wouldn't fit into a frame.
Other people want money when I take their picture, and again others beg for money. After watching dozens of barefooted children with dirty hair roam around, my heart simply can't refuse the two siblings who are signalling they want money for food.
A real annoyance are the Hindu priests who pretend they want to show you Indian hospitality, drawing the famous red circle on your forehead, only to then demand a 'donation' of at least 100 rupees. Naturally they are outraged when I leave them with 20. It's not about the money, it's about the principle.
Much more sympathetic but no less shrewd is the well-spoken gentlemen who patiently guides me through the burning ghat for no less than 1,5 hours, before he has built up so much goodwill that I can't refuse to visit his shop. I justify my purchase of two scarves by telling myself that I wanted to buy gifts on this trip anyway, and that I eventually have haggled a beautiful blanket for only a fifth of the original price. But the truth remains that a blanket was not on my list. I know all the selling tricks, and yet I'm still defenceless.
The tour he gave me was informative though. The burning ghat is where Hindus come to cremate the dead in open fires. It is an unreal experience when a grieving family lays the body on the stack of wood. They belief that cremating here stops the cycle of rebirth. Women are not allowed here, because "they will cry too much."
Varanasi was an assault on the senses, much like Lonely Planet had warned. Because of its holy status, there were lots of holy cows, and therefore a lot of holy brown and yellow stuff. The streets were loud and dirty, and the Ganges so polluted that I almost smelled worse after taking a shower; using bottled water for brushing my teeth was a good idea. Nonetheless, it was a good experience and of course a goldmine for photographers. And surrounded with religion, I also took a moment to reflect and be grateful for my Christian life.