A Visit to Varanasi

Boats on the Ganges at Varanasi
An attitude of entitlement sits easily on the many somnolent cows in India. I don't think it's arrogance. They seem to be the most unconcerned, gentle animals. This was confirmed, riding in a tuk-tuk on a busy road into Varanasi this morning. Two of the holy beasts had taken up residence in the middle of the road and decided to pass the time with a lazy nap. One rested her head on the bitumen scarcely centimetres from the wheels of speeding traffic, while their feet were a paper width from motorbikes and cars travelling in the opposite direction. Neither they, nor any of the drivers, seemed to be too worried.
Cows in a village square at Orchha.
Easy to understand why Hindus assign them a special place in the scheme of things. They live as if they are outside and above the daily cares of the rest of us. Standing near one, you might feel some of the aura of quiet transcendence they emminate. Just don't stand behind them or you might feel something far less fragrant. Forget running from the bulls at Pamploma. You can feel the buzz of pressing sideways past dawdling cows right here in the alleys of Varanasi.
Walking anywhere in here is a visual and olfactory experience. Fresh, gluey cow pats. Mucus from a thousand throats. Blood, vomit, piss. Discarded wrappings, food scraps. Black grease grime of centuries, knee to head high on walls. Dogs, alive and dead. The live ones mostly mangey and emaciated. One poor crippled, blind animal howls as he is kicked out of the way by a trader. In the shadows, I notice a small black rat scurry along the base of a wall. Surrounded by all of this, an invitation to try some Lassi, an Indian favourite based on flavoured yohgurt, is gently declined. As we stand in a narrow lane waiting for those with stronger stomachs to try their Lassis, pressed against walls to leave room for pedestrians, no less than six covered corpses are carried past in 20 minutes, stretchered by chanting relatives, invading our personal space, all on their way to the river bank. Cremation is a non stop business in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges.
Two Lassi Shops
Incessant motorcycles thread through market alleys, negotiating with pedestrians, often bluffing with their horns and rapid bursts of acceleration. The throng parts mysteriously and closes in again behind them. Hand drawn carts are a bit more sedate, but just as assertive. The combined result is a maelstrom of sounds, smells, sights and movements throughout the markets and streets; a challenge to people like us, accustomed to more relaxed shopping outings.
Here there is no shortage of persistent touts looking for an opportunity to separate us from our money, feasts of sights (not all unpleasant), blaring traffic horns, pungent smells, and creeping heat. All of this leaves us faint, nauseous and quickly exhausted, mentally if not physically.
Evening is a bit cooler, and the best time for a leisurely boat ride on the Ganges. It provides a platform for viewing and photographing the evening worship events here and there along the river bank. We light candles and set them adrift in small palm leaf boats on the river. The bells, drums and sitars make a surreal sound background for the thousands of chanting people sitting amidst wafting white smoke.
Afterwards, as we return up stream to our mooring, we glide past a cremation fire on the bank.
Varanasi is not for the faint-hearted. I do not think I would visit it independently, although I am sure many do. It is worth your trouble however, if you seek an experience of authentic India and its religious underpinnings.
Incredible India! An experience that challenges at the same time it delights and expands our thinking. Concentrated experience thrown at you from all directions.
It is one journey Sue and I are unlikely to forget. Something of India will remain in us.

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