A Deepdive into Varanasi: Into Freedom, Food, and Filth.
The chaos around Varanasi represents the enormous variety of religious traditions which Hinduism stands for, at the same time also reflecting the freedom of belief it stands for. But to call Varanasi a city laced with simply Hindu traditions is not enough, it’s a city which is quite literally bathed in the Ganga, and ready to absorb all the filth around to come up with a refreshing feel day after day, just like the river itself.
Varanasi offers the kind of freedom- both artistic and religious – which no other Indian city offers. An Indian would feel both puzzled and ashamed after looking at foreigners learning Sanskrit, practicing tabla or picking up Hindustani classical music. Guess a foreigner is equally amazed by the visual appeal of the evening Ganga Aarti and the ceremonious funeral pyres. Be it the freedom of expressing oneself creatively or realizing eventual salvation from the body, the city stands for freedom in its true sense.
As I crisscrossed the staircases along the ghat, I witnessed the chaotic crowds merging into an eternally silent river, as if it was just there to pacify it. The dominance of Indians at the ghats near the Kashi Vishwanath temple started thinning down as I started moving towards Assi Ghat. I started exchanging smiles with more and more “high” foreigners on my way, some on a healthy dose of bhang, some on Indian culture, and some on something really high. I saw them clicking pictures, reading Hindu religious texts, meditating, and enjoying few lovely cafes which have sprung up in the vicinity of the ghats. I think one of the reasons why Varanasi holds a special place amongst a lot of foreign traveler’s itinerary is this sense of “high” which the city provides them, with or without being actually high.
When it comes to food Varanasi offers the variety to shake up even the rested souls. Popular items include Litti-Chokha the flagbearer of Eastern U.P./Bihari cuisine, chaats which are a milder variant of their Western U.P. counterparts, kachori-subzi, and dairy items like hot thickened milk, thandai, lassi and milk-based sweets. The long stay and involvement of foreigners has resulted in few brilliant cafes, bakeries and Italian joints along the ghat area. But a trip to Varanasi is incomplete without having kachoris, a kulhad full of lassi, and to top it all – a benarasi paan.
And then comes the filth. And the garbage. And the extraordinary excess of it.
On my second day in Varanasi I decided to take the holy plunge, but I was welcomed with a floating parade of the top consumer brands in the country. An enticing ensemble of beverage brands including mineral water bottles, soft drink PET bottles and juice boxes dominated the bathing section at Assi Ghat. I felt sorry for my friends selling shampoos and detergents, and for a pretty foreigner wrapped in Zeenat Aman-like Sari (from Satyam Shivan Sunderam, but well covered!!) who actually managed to take a dip in the mess.
The sad part is that Ganga is a supremely appalling state. It is so sad that the slogans written on the ghats tend to be rather painfully funny. Along with consumer products and the usual suspects like polythene and human/animal waste, dead bodies appear out of nowhere to give a friendly appearance. And it’s just not about Ganga. I will never forget the incident when an Autowaala asked me to get down in Pandeypur in Varanasi, as half the road was covered with garbage and the other half was a pit full of water.
But as I ended my gastronomically satisfying and visually chaotic yet colorful time at Varanasi, I also carried a sense of shame, both in the way we have treated Ganga and the way we have disconnected from some aspects of our culture, something which the foreign travelers have picked up on.
More than anything the visual of burning funeral pyres alongside thousands of people bathing in Ganga in all colors of life made me think about life and death and so many other possibilities.
Overall experience: Chaotic yet peaceful, colorful yet grim, tiring yet relieving.
Food experience: Don’t miss the kulhads of lassi and chai, and kachoris and chaats. Be careful of the stuff you eat though, it can quickly turn from a Gastronomical dream into a nightmare.
Places to stay: Cheap ashrams and guest houses both at Assi and Dashashwamedh ghat, don’t spend more than Rs. 200-250, and in peak season not more than Rs. 400-500.
Things to do: Boat ride in the evening at the time of Ganga Aarti, Sunrise, Walking through the markets and witnessing chaos and people spitting the city red.
Have you been to Varanasi yet? What were your experiences in the city?