In describing the allure of Varanasi (“Banaras”), we could dwell on its mystic beauty, the extraordinarily diverse human pageantry that swarms its fetid streets, the boundless piety of its populace, or its spectacularly long winding history as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. But we won’t bore you with the historic details of this otherworldly metropolis. We, for the most part, spent our days here sightseeing like good tourists and our evenings immersed with locals.
The day is sunny and brisk, the morning air lit with the sweet embers of incense sticks. The undulating ghats that flank the river come into view, spilling over each other into the horizon, hosting an endless stream of pilgrims engaged in yoga, prayers, and ritualistic bathing. The sky’s a stunningly honest shade of blue and cotton candy clouds hover over our side of the river, a bittersweet reminder that the Good Lord Shiva still loves this city. The Ganga (“Ganges”) River itself is a thing of extraordinary beauty.
Yet the signs of civic breakdown engulf us. The water is green, filthy, and still. A dog does its business right next to a child taking a bath. Ultra-religious folk drop half-burnt ancestors into the river while believers accept the dubious drinkability of the water, as mounds of rotting garbage lie awash on the concrete banks and clog the open drains. The question that begs to be asked is: “Why are religious people flocking here from all parts of India and the world?”
To Hindus, the Ganga is a sacred river and any town or city on its banks is believed to be auspicious. But Varanasi has a special sanctity, for it is believed that this is where Lord Shiva and his principal consort Parvati stood when time started ticking for the first time. The place also has an intimate connection with a host of legendary figures and mythical characters, who are said to have actually lived here. Varanasi has found place not only in the great Hindu epic, Mahabharata, but also in Buddhist scriptures as the place of Gautam Buddha’s first sermon. These factors make Varanasi a significantly holy place.
Rest assured: This is not a religious bildungsroman of sorts, because we are convinced that Varanasi has achieved a level of sublimity that is beyond our comprehension (and daresay atheist leanings). There is definitely more to this Gangetic jewel than meets the eye, and this appeal also seems to be universal. It can’t be for no good reason that we came across an unusually large number of travelers from all over India who found it worthwhile to take the 7-hour train from Delhi or Calcutta, or foreigners who have been living in the city for years on end and have no desire to leave. PhD students and lecturers at Banaras Hindu University, whom we interacted with, also echoed similar inclinations. Chats with some locals over mugs of the local brew called thandai in a crowded lane city center left us giddy with almost identical insights. But the common feeling expressed wasn’t so much more complex than the notion that it’s “home.”
Foreigners and Non-Resident-Indians are prone to liken Varanasi to a hot mess of a third tier city replete with cows, dusty crowded lanes, rickety old rickshaws, salvation-selling sadhus, more cows, silly hats, a terrifying cacophony of sounds and foul smells, and sweltering summer heat. Wandering in Varanasi can be the epitome of the ubiquitous pastime of exoticizing India. In evaluating this behemoth of a city, one can easily fall back solely into contemporary reports of communal violence, incriminating instances of ridiculous religious practices and a societal aura of general cynicism and lack of empathy. Following such a train of thought, it is all too easy to arrive at the unfortunate notion of Varanasi being a South Asian cesspool of religious backwardness, doggedly determined to fight against the trappings of modernity till the very bitter end. Yet to do so would be to do this ancient labyrinth a disservice, that of generalization and oversimplification.
Behind the stale and crusty historical baggage lies a center of sweet and rustic sociability, a mild and placid people whose only concerns are those of you, me and God. The people of Varanasi are folksy, unassuming, have a good sense of humor, are quite friendly, relatively hard working and often dressed unorthodoxly (we are convinced there is an inverse correlation between piety and length of loin cloth). We’re sure India’s ongoing “progress” might alter some of these social achievements, but until then we should be toasting with the locals Varanasi’s uncommon ability to attract hordes of travelers and new residents with awkward grins and open hearts to boot.
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