India is life squared, and Varanasi is India squared. Even the tour guide who sells us our overpriced train tickets for an arm and a leg admits that it’s “very dirty. Incredibly dirty. So dirty, so crowded, so noisy. Amazing. You go once in a lifetime. You must go. But only once.”
Once may be enough, but it’s decidedly better than zero. We arrive just after 4:30 am at a train station some 40 km from Varanasi by night train from Agra. The only information on the city we have are some notes I copied the previous night from a Lonely Planet India a Dutch couple in our compartment was kind enough to share. I have a sketch of the riverbank studded with a few dozen of the city’s ghats, or riverside temples, and the names of a few restaurants.
We start with the famous riverside boat tour of this incredibly holy city, where pilgrims from all over India come to bathe in the Ganges, receive blessings at the ghats, or get married or die. (More below.) Our guide rows us along the river and we watch dozens pouring down the steps of the ghats to leap into the sacred Ganges, joying to feel its water on their skin. A vendor selling candles cupped in dried leaves rows closer and I buy one for a few rupees, then set it into the river and watch it swirl among the pilgrims bathing. We dip our feet into the river off the side of the boat, touching some of the holiest water in the world.
The Lonely Planet chapter on Varanasi warns that “here you will see all the major rituals of life and death taking place in public.” We see some half-dozen giant wedding parades, most at night, bedecked in neon lights and topped with a lavishly couple usually atop a horse-drawn carriage. We also see funerals: many people come to Varanasi to die, as dying in this holy city, if I’ve understood correctly, liberates a Hindu from the cycles of death and rebirth. Hindus are cremated and in Varanasi, this is done publicly, on the banks of the Ganges so the ashes can be scattered directly in its waters. On our second day we creep close enough to watch, and then realize we don’t need to creep: everyone is watching. In a country of 1 billion people, there is no room for privacy.
Much of the city leading up to the river is a tangled knot of galis, or narrow alleyways, crowded with people, tiny stores, the stink of boiling milk, pooping cows, barking dogs, shouting children, zealous vendors nearly dragging you into their shelves of silks. At times it feels like Varanasi is trying to kill you. Indeed, our second day ends with me kneeling by the side of the road puking and sobbing in pain from food poisoning so bad that I wake up at 4 am delirious with fever, feeling my stomach writhing and picturing the poisonshitfilth of Varanasi inside me and wondering how I can possibly live with it there. (While it doesn’t stay there much longer, apparently the bacteria have enough time to spread elsewhere in my digestive tract, a sickness that is even less pleasant as it leaves me too exhausted and dehydrated to get out of bed for a day. While lying in my bed drinking clean water and eating bread, I think about all the people in India, and everywhere, who get this and don’t have either. Most of them must die.)
On our final night we watch the evening puja by the river. Wiry 20-somethings in robes whirl batons and staffs of fire, kneeling before statues of Shiva, to whom the city is dedicated, and sketching curls of smoke onto the night sky. Julia buys a candle-charm and sets it into the river. The Ganges fills with points of light, and still there are pilgrims approaching the water, touching it with a grin, dipping their heads below its surface with awe.