Monday, September 19, 2011

Loving Varanasi: Part 1

It is nothing new that I loathe cities, of all sizes, geographies and shapes. I know I live in one, though I most earnestly wish I didn’t. There is something about the quality of them that I cannot associate and make peace with, the people, their sentiments, the congestion and the cacophony of noises. By those standards, I ought to have hated Varanasi too, because that city of over 40 lakh people is a textbook case. It is dirty, it is extremely crowded, noisy and so congested often not two people can walk besides each other on a lane.

Yet, I loved Varanasi to bits and still cannot get over having been there. I loved the people, I loved the narrow and narrower lanes, I loved the sounds, some of the smells and all of the sights, I loved the vibes, I loved everything about Varanasi. So much that I hope to go back for a few weeks every year.

I dislike it too, for the very same reasons. I dislike that it created a hold such as this. But then Varanasi is a city of contradictions.

So it happened last month that I got all fidgety and claustrophobic about being in namma Bengaluru and decided a trip to Varanasi would be cool. My old friend BK, we were in the defence course together for a month, seemed to agree. Without intending it to be so, it would soon spiral into a pilgrimage, we would realize later.

A 44-hour long train journey on the Sangamitra Express took us all over the country, to the east before heading slightly west and up north. Much to my relief, there were no screaming kids, lecherous uncles or loud mouthed gossiping women in our compartment. Save for one young girl travelling with her mother-in-law who claimed she was an expert in face-reading and read our faces! Yes, well! Trains bring in all the weirdos. The journey was otherwise uneventful.

At Mughal Sarai where we got down early in the morning, the ‘tourists prices’ began and a very dusty ride later, we reached Gowdolia, the heart of old Varanasi, close to the main ghat. At the railway station, I was mighty excited to see small bundles of ‘meswak’, the root that was traditionally chewed instead of using tooth brush and paste in India. I had assumed no one did that anymore, but I suppose I was wrong, given how many people were buying them. I would pick up two bundles for Rs 5 towards the end of the trip in Gaya, Bihar.

From Mughal Sarai, you cross a bridge across river Ganga get to the west bank to Varanasi. The thing with the city is that most places can be accessed only on foot and a select few by cycle rickshaws. Very few roads are wide enough for an auto rickshaw. To get to the main gate of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, the police take bribes from the drivers, so you would be asked to pay extra. I think the newer areas are better, but if you are staying in the older part of the city, be prepared to walk everywhere. With heavy backpacks and weary bones, we navigate the lanes, ask two dozen people for directions (everyone is so helpful!) and finally end up in Ganpati Guest House.

A note on this guest house: Ganpati is amongst the most widely recommended places to stay in Varanasi. Rooms are cheap and its USP is that it is right on the banks of the Ganga, so from most rooms you have fantastic views. There are AC rooms with private balconies and bathrooms. We opted for a much cheaper shared bathroom, non-AC room. The one we were allotted was very spacious and THREE doors and a window opened out to the river!! Super thrilled us couldn’t stop grinning. But we did end up passive smoking the sweet smell of joints almost every evening too! The food is only so-so though, the staff ok too. The crowd is mainly foreign, almost always backpackers.

It was while we were waiting for our room that we had the first proper glimpse of the river. And what a sight!! The sun had risen a few minutes ago and between a column of rays was a boat bobbing by with its passengers. (Picture proof soon!) As if by agreement, more boats began to appear. I couldn’t look away and I knew that she, mighty Ganga, would make me return again and again.

Ganga. Swollen in the cleansing monsoon. The purest of all rivers. Carrying the ghoulish grey of the sins of the millions who wash off her. Some flowers, some leaves, remnants of someone’s last memory wash by. She is swollen, yet like a lady, does not threaten.

Before long, the humidity hits. We have not expected it to be this humid. Varanasi is one place where you are warned to expect an excess of everything, from its people to its noises to its traditions. Everything and more you hear about the city is true. The humidity was a blow though. In the sweltering heat, we venture out, trying to navigate the lanes, hoping we manage to find our way back.

There are several things that strike you. Firstly, it is a sense of being in a sensitive area, for at every corner, there are at least four policemen, round the clock. They look over you lazily, between chewing paan, a local culture, but their presence makes you feel very safe, especially in the lesser lit lanes. Second, the men in Varanasi are not the ‘accidentally bumping into/brushing against you kinds’. On a list of reasons to love this city, I could almost start with this on the top! Having traveled elsewhere, I have never before been to a place where such ‘accidents’ don’t happen. But here, the lanes are very narrow and there are many men walking about, yet never once did anything untoward happen. It wasn’t just us, many women backpackers I was talking to at the guest house vouched for this too.

Thirdly, people are super friendly and uber helpful (yes, yes, I am gushing here!), something I wouldn’t have expected in a city that gets such large number of tourists. Fourth, there are touts, many, many of them, wanting to take you on boat rides and hire taxis for you, the usual tourist traps. It helps a lot if you speak Hindi and ignore their poor attempts at English. Just say ‘no’ an awful lot before agreeing to anything and haggle till you are both short of breathe and you should be fine!!

(This will turn out to be a way too long travelogue, me thinks! Bear with me, dear people, I loved this place so!)

Then there was the sun rise boat ride, the Kurdish doctor with a Ganesha tattoo, cows, the theatre of evening aarti by the river and much else. Why don’t you come back here tomorrow and read about them all?


Captain Nemo said...


D.Nambiar said...

Seriously? People don't accidentally brush against u? So interesting. And did that girl read your faces correctly?

Deepa Bhasthi said...

Thanks Achyutha!

Div, yes, that was what most surprised me! That's also why Varanasi is on top of my safest places for women to travel to (at least Indian women).
And no, the girl said some BS that's all. But was fun nevertheless!