the dark side of Varanasi
There is no place on earth quite as astonishing to travel through as Varanasi — simultaneously breath taking and breath holding, you could say. It is a place weighted down by mourning, but also lifted with the optimism that better things are yet to come.
Thinking about going? Varanasi has the potential to fascinate, inspire, and be everything you hope it will be, while also making you feel like a serious voyeur. Watching people bathe, pray, and grieve feels even more invasive than it sounds. You sure can try to prepare yourself for these things, but despite your better attempts to be discrete and respectful, something shocking will happen — it always does — and your worked on composure will dissipate.
Varanasi filled me with a certain kind of feeling. It was a feeling I’d rarely experienced, but a familiar one all the same. I’d liken it to the urge that compelled me to giggle during a sex talk in fourth grade, and the one that inspired a laughing fit at my dog’s funeral. In spite of the town’s sobriety, a dark, humorous undercurrent swept through the river. Gruesome things were happening around us, and we seemed to find one [inappropriate] reason after another to laugh. There were at least 5 times I laughed when I shouldn’t have. Here are the 5 worst things that happened in Varanasi:
1. on water for the dogs
Rowing along the shores of the cremation ghats at dawn, the waters were afflicted with unsettling stillness. Clumps of ashes from yesterday’s funerals floated feebly along as damp garlands disassembled, flower-by-flower, into the river. A stray dog, thin with hunger, wandered along the riverfront of the burning ghat and toed the water, testing its contents. With sudden confidence, he plunged his snout into the Ganges, lapping up mouthfuls of charred remains.
2. on Ganges laundry
After 2 weeks of backpacking, we relished the opportunity to have our laundry done. We woke to towers of sun baked apparel on the foot of our beds. Slipping on fresh pairs of underwear and unsoiled t-shirts, we headed down to the Ganges River to hire a row boat.
On the water, we noticed a woman from our hotel. She stood ankle deep in the Ganges — the most polluted river in the world — wringing out a familiar looking linen shirt. Looks like we got Ganges laundry.
3. on the price of everything
The final stage of holiness for a sadhu is renouncement. Rejecting something once desired, holy men move beyond worldly things. Wrapped in orange cloth with colorful face paint and a full beard, a sadhu sat by the water, breaking into a spirited dance and chant as we passed. Charmed, I shifted my glance upward to observe his charismatic devotion. Without even a reach for my camera or a lift of the lens, I was met with a “Take my picture, 10 rupees, ok?” Renouncement, huh?
4. on taking advantage
In Varanasi, rundown apartment buildings overflow with fatally ill inhabitants. We were told many Hindus undergo the journey to Varanasi in their final moments of health, and stay there to die. Sleeping on floors and in hallways, the poor wait with the hope to be burned, and set adrift in the Ganges. A man hustled around town requesting donations from tourists “for sandalwood to provide a proper burial for Varanasi’s poor” and stuffed the donations into his right pocket.
We saw him later that day, wrist deep in his right pocket, purchasing an expensive watch.
5. on a funeral feast
A funeral was taking place. Face uncovered, the body was draped in a red, silk cloth with gold florets while the family said their final words. Laid across the corpse was a strand of blossoming yellow flowers. While loved ones looked on, a trash-grazing cow approached the body and began pulling entire garlands off the corpse, gnawing at them with flat teeth.
The family quickly stripped the body of the blossoms, throwing them aside for the cow to enjoy, and continued with the funeral unfazed. Perhaps Bos indicus are exempt from funeral etiquette. Varanasi is a good place to be a Holy Cow.
Alright, so we’ve all had moments like these while traveling. Tell us about a time that you laughed inappropriately.
Varanasi is actually pretty spectacular! It’s a kind of visceral experience that you can hardly process until your train pulls away. Are you thinking about travel in Varanasi, India? Check out “On the River of Life + Death” for a Varanasi travel guide.