Monday, 7 November 2011

Varanasi: beauty and brutality

A little over a week ago I made a weekend trip with friends to Varanasi, in the eastern part of the state of Uttar Pradesh. It's taken me this long to be ready to write about the experience, because Varanasi is one of the most intense travel experiences you can have. A regular stop on the Indian backpacking trail, this is the India I had mentally prepared for before I first came, and about whose whereabouts I've been vaguely wondering ever since. By turns staggeringly gorgeous and utterly filthy, joyously celebrational and ruthlessly predatory, Varanasi can elevate your soul and depress your spirits several times over before you've even had time to have your breakfast.

It's one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and is generally thought to be the oldest in India. And it feels ancient. Along the Ganges the buildings are piled on top of each other like discarded building bricks. Men and women crouch in the shallows of the river to wash clothes, and the stretched-out saris drying in the sun turn the banks into a giant, multi-coloured chessboard. At dawn and dusk, local brahmins carry out the ritual of paying homages to the Ganges, watched by an enormous crowd of excited tourists, hushed locals and an array of hawkers, beggars and others on the make. And all day long the funeral pyres at the "burning ghats" flicker and smoke, and a continuous procession of mourners accompany their loved ones on their last visit to the river. In many ways, it seems like life here is much as it was hundreds or thousands of years ago - a least, until you venture away from the ghats and alleyways of the old town and find yourself firmly back in honking, chaotic, in-your-face modern India.

And let's be honest: if Delhi can be grubby in places, Varanasi is downright filthy. A walk along the Ganges (at least in the current post-monsoon season) involves a series of athletic leaps over massive piles of pungent mud, punctuated at intervals by patient locals diligently slooshing the grime away with hosepipes. Metres from where children happily splash about and pilgrims come to bathe in the Ganges, a line of men squats, their buttocks exposed to the passing boats, blithely defecating into India's holiest river. And every now and then the corpse of someone whose family could not afford the burning ghat - or who had no family to pay for it at all - bobs up next to a jetty or boat, ignored and forgotten. Varanasi is not for the faint hearted.

Nor is it for the delicate. There is a hard edge here, in one of India's poorest and most crime-affected states, that you would be foolish to ignore. One of my travelling companions was hassled by local thugs who claimed that she was required to pay money to watch a funeral procession (which is nonsense). We were all harangued by the local kids and beggars (though not as badly as I had been expecting, to be honest) and by any number of men desperate to take us on a boat trip. Of course most people I interacted with were as friendly as everywhere else I've been in India, but still I felt a certain underlying unease. For the first time in India I found myself consciously worrying about how easily straying hands might find my wallet.

And yet for all of this Varanasi is an oddly tranquil place. Floating down the Ganges at dawn, watching the sky turn pink in the empty East as the tumble down buildings of the city take shape and the day's work begins at the water's edge, the craziness seems far away and the stresses of life seem to vanish. Watching the hubbub on the shore feels like looking at a far off picture of a simpler world. Docking for a while to watch the evening puja at the water's edge is like touching something older and more profound than anything in the cathedrals of the West. Without really understanding why, you feel that there is such depth in this city.

And it's that depth that made it such a fascinating place to visit. Varanasi is far from paradise, but in its beauty and brutality, its spirituality and depravity, it's a place that houses all the extremes of human existence at once. It's all of life in one city, and it stops you in your tracks. It's like nowhere else I've ever been.

I've put quite a few photos on facebook for those of you who are friends with me on there - but here's a selection for those of you who aren't.


Emily said...

Wow! The pictures are wonderful. I love reading about your experiences throughout India. I'm stuck with no more vacation days and dreaming of my next trip to India. Your description of Varanasi brings me there.

Chris said...

Thanks Emily - have you made it to Varanasi yet? Not too long till the end of the year and you get some more vacation days! :-)

Sonya said...

Great pictures.. What an experience xx

Isabel said...

Hi Chris, I've been lurking on your blog and been meaning to spend more time here and comment. These photographs are stunning! You've really captured the atmosphere of Varanasi.

Chris said...

Wow, that's a huge compliment - thanks Isabel! It's an extraordinary place so I'm really pleased you think my photos do it some justice!

Nikki said...

Though being an indian i have never been to varanasi or most of the northern india. your commentary and snapshots really transported me to there and back. keep writing.

Chris said...

Thanks Nikki - I really appreciate the encouragement. It's good to know people are reading!