Backpacking Varanasi

Banaras. A city confused between the history of its mythical past, present day religion and religious ceremonies, and the influence of modernization and the West. In under ten minutes you can go from feeling as if you’ve stepped into history, to suddenly a dejavu resemblance to yet-another-modern-Indian-city. From sitting in an electric rickshaw to spotting cycle rickshaws and normal autos, Olas and Ubers, pass by a Domino’s surrounded by several small vegetable stores, handicraft stores and pharmacies, see a Pantaloons or a large city mall, and in no time reach super crowded streets queued up by people in hundreds to visit yet another mandir. And if you walk a little further, you’d find yourself by the Ganga at a funeral ghat. All in 10 minutes.

The city is full of color, graffiti-ed with imagery of Shiva, life all around you is alive - busy streets and constant honking, people rushing about but stopping for a second to pray as they pass the dozens of temples on every street. If you bump into the right people you’re bound to learn a lot from small talk with the locals.

Funnily enough, everywhere I went I found rickshaw-wallas pestering me for a ride to some mandir, shopkeepers luring me to buy their handicrafts, or restaurateurs offering their special thaali, all in tooti-footi yet very Americanized English, thinking I’m a foreigner. This was possibly because of the cargos and the Adidas strap bag I was wearing, or maybe because I look a little more Asian than I’d like. Every single time to their surprise I’d respond in Hindi with a slight Banarasi accent I picked up talking to the people there, and they’d smile so sheepishly, slightly embarrassed - then they’d try to make up for it by asking me where I’m from.

Fun fact and observations.

  • As a Shiva worshipping city, there are exactly 4 shops in front of a police station licensed to sell bhang in the form of a lassi, or a cookie, and yet they do so very secretively.
  • If you’re walking by the ghats alone or with a friend, you are going to be harrassed by locals constantly waking by your side trying to sell you drugs - they’ll murmur “weed, ganja, hash”, almost in a rhyme. I stopped one and asked him how successful he’s been doing this - he responded saying “the funerals and ceremonies are just a way to pass time, our real business is this”. Hopefully he was joking.
  • The Ganga is a where Hindus go to wash away their sins and honour the dead. But it’s a lot more than that - a Korean I befriended while roaming the market remarked, “It’s funny how they also use the Ganga as a dishwasher, a laundry machine and a bathroom.” I couldn’t help but laugh - I really didn’t know what to say to this.
  • If you’re walking by the ghats, and look remotely foreign to the place, the locals - especially elderly men walking with a hunched back and a stick, speaking fluent English with an American accent (not kidding) - will start speaking to you without your consent, telling you stories of Varanasi’s past and explain all the rituals. I stopped him, showed him my wallet and told him I don’t have any more than Rs. 50 to give. He paid no heed and continued. Once they’re done they’ll then try their best to scam you, and you’ve got to be careful here. They’ll play on your fear, start off by asking you to pay “jitni aapki shraddha hai” - translates to “as much as your faith allows you to pay”. I offered him the promised Rs. 50. Astonished, he responded he’ll need Rs. 500 for the tour around the ghats. If you resist, they’ll then tell you to buy firewood that sells at a price carefully picked at Rs. 480 / firewood-required-to-burn-a-poor-dead-person, and that this will do you good karma. I gave him my blessings, just as he give me his and ran off.

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Having visited several cities known for their Hindu mythical pasts and sacred origins of stories from our Puranas, I see a disturbing wave of modernization impacting every such city. I understand how important it is to keep changing with time and technology, but this mustn’t be done at the cost of losing what you have, or are known for. We’ve portrayed a very wrong impression to the West - that of a cultural and mystical nation with snake charmers and elephants, yogis and beautiful temples, tradition and color - this is exactly what you’ll hear from white skinned people when you ask them what they thought of India before they visited. In reality, we’re a nation facing post colonial identity crisis - as a state we try to mimic the infrastructure of the West, losing most of the culture we’ve created, adopted, and accepted in the last thousands of years. At an individual level most of us don’t know where we belong or how we’d like to be seen.

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