Varanasi / Benares

I took the late train out of Sultanpur to go to the great city of eastern Uttar Pradesh known as the “City of Light”, due to its supreme significance for the Hindu religion. Variously called Varanasi, Benares or Kashi, it’s one of the oldest cities on earth and has beguiled and disgusted visitors for millennia.

“There is no sight more wonderful in all the world than the crescent sweep of the Ganges on a bright morning, when Benares is at prayer.” Unreliable Indophile Francis Yeats-Brown, Bengal Lancer

The riverbank of Varanasi

A NOTE ON TOPONYMY

The modern name of the city in Hindi is ‘वाराणसी’, which is pronounced ‘vaa-RAA-nu-see’. The initial ‘v’ is not pronounced the same as an English ‘v’: it’s a sound specific to Hindi which is halfway between a ‘v’ and a ‘w’ and also sounds a little bit like a ‘b’. The ‘r’ is hard, with the tongue at the top of the mouth, like in Italian, and the ‘n’ is also produced differently, with the tongue further back in the mouth than in English. Also, the final ‘ee’ sound is often dropped in conversation. Therefore, it sounds more like ‘baa-RAA-nus’, with the ‘r’ and ‘n’ sounding confusingly similar, which explains why Europeans called it ‘Benares’ or ‘Banaras’.

Nowadays, the name is rendered into the Roman alphabet as ‘Varanasi’. It’s a more accurate transliteration, but with the English consonantal pronunciations, and tendency to stress the penultimate syllable, it’s usually pronounced ‘va-ru-NAS-ee’, which is actually further away from the Hindi pronunciation than what you get when you say ‘Benares’.

I think it’s assumed that these post-colonial name changes happen when the first European version of a name is a cack-handed or arrogant modification of the native name, and the new version is a more sensitive and accurate rendering. As usual, the truth is more complex. In the case of Bombay, it’s nothing to do with a native name at all, since Bombay was founded by the Portuguese and the name is theirs: bon bahia, ‘good bay’. ‘Mumbai’ is a new invention, motivated by extremist right-wing religious chauvinism, and backed up by lies about a false Hindi etymology. In the case of Benares, the supposedly outdated older name was the one used by colonial administrators who spoke Hindi/Urdu and were in daily contact with its people; the new one is an academic invention which is unrecognisably mispronounced by clueless tourists. Forget the narrative of post-colonial enlightenment. It’s a smug and complacent fiction. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the 19th century Europeans who spent their entire working lives here understood it better than the 21st century ones who turn up for a couple of days before heading south to get stoned on the beaches of Goa.

‘Kashi’ is a mythological and historical name which is sometimes used as an alternative, but isn’t a serious contender. I’ll use ‘Varanasi’ for the rest of the post, but as you read it, imagine it to sort-of-rhyme with ‘Benares’.

Prachin Hanuman Ghat and Karnataka State Ghat, Varanasi

EXPECTATIONS

I was excited about arriving in Varanasi at last, as it was one of my top-priority destinations, but I was also half-dreading it. Earlier in the trip, I’d been told by Indians that it’s “very dirty”, which boggled my mind – just how dirty does a place have to be to get that reputation? I’d heard from the Danish girls I’d met in Bikaner that they’d both come down with severe illness in Varanasi, and the Rough Guide to India saw fit to include a specific warning that stomach problems were “particularly rife” there, even relative to the rest of the country. To add to that, it was also apparently a hotspot of Chat Harassment, and people had given me warnings like, “you haven’t experienced touts until you’ve experienced Varanasi touts”. Again, the Rough Guide had a whole inset box describing the nightmare of navigating from point of arrival to hotel, and the endemic scams played on tourists by dishonest drivers. In Varanasi, they don’t just recommend alternative hotels; in the case of the more popular ones, they actually take you to knockoff places with almost-identical names, so that you never even know you didn’t get to the place you meant to.

I took the usual precaution of making a reservation, at a Hotel Alka, and asked them for a station pick-up to avoid any hassle. They took my details, and my train and carriage number, so when I arrived, I was expecting someone on the platform to be holding a sign with my name, or something similar. I stepped off and looked around, but tried not to look around so obviously that I attracted the attention of general touts and drivers. After a while, someone came up and said, “Hotel Alka?” I said yes, but as a precaution, asked him if he knew my name. He said the hotel had told him but he couldn’t remember. I was a bit suspicious, and kept looking around to see if there was anyone else on the platform that looked like a driver waiting for an arrival. The man said, “You are from Spain, I think?” which, given my already heightened suspicions, was enough to convince me he was a scammer.

I kept looking around, but couldn’t see anyone else. I tried calling the hotel but my phone had no signal. The platform was emptying. I thought again: would scammers really go up to arrivals off the train and try guessing their hotels? What’s more likely: that he got lucky guessing mine, or that he really did forget my name? It didn’t look like I had much choice, so I went with the “Hotel Alka” guy, and realised on the way into town that I hadn’t told the hotel my nationality, but thinking “Tomos” is Spanish is a common mistake. He parked at the edge of the old city, because autorickshaws can’t go inside it, and guided me on foot through the maze of alleys for about ten minutes until we reached Hotel Alka. At least, it had a sign saying “Hotel Alka”, although by this point I was so paranoid I thought it might be a fake Hotel Alka. It wasn’t though. The whole conspiracy against me had existed entirely in my mind.

CITY OF SHITE

“Civilisation is the distance we put between ourselves and our own excreta.” Brian Aldiss, The Dark Light Years

Actually, despite the descriptions, I didn’t find Varanasi quite as disgusting as I’d imagined it would be. The main roads are no worse than Amritsar and the atmosphere is slightly more breathable than that of Agra. The old city is a warren of filth, even more dense and concentrated than the teeming alleys and bazaars of the Rajasthani old cities, though having experienced them, I was well prepared for it. It’s the same stuff, just exaggerated: narrower streets, less space to squeeze around cows, the noxious stench of urine and excrement hitting your nostrils more often. The really notable difference is the river.

Varanasi is located on the banks of the Ganges, which is lined with ‘ghats’, sets of stone steps, where devout Hindus and Jains go to wash and pray. Two of the ghats are ‘burning ghats’, used for riverside cremations. When the pyres are burned out, the ashes are shovelled into the river. Other things which go into the river include: raw sewage, dead animals, unburnt extremities of human bodies, general litter and filth. There are thousands of miles’ worth of tributaries upstream of Varanasi, in which all of that, plus agricultural and industrial effluent, is pumped into the river. By the time it reaches Varanasi, the Ganges is effectively the world’s largest open sewer. And that’s exactly the way it’s treated, with 32 streams of sewage, as well as the output of the two burning ghats, adding an extra 200 million litres of waste per day.

Typical riverside scene in Varanasi

Over breakfast at Hotel Alka, I bumped into John and Sandy, from the train to Sultanpur. It turned out they were staying there as well. In the couple of days since I’d met them, John had downloaded and watched The Room on his tablet. We spent a while comparing favourite scenes and quoting dialogue, and then decided to team up to explore Varanasi.

Sandy was writing postcards home, and posed the question: how do you describe Varanasi to a ten year old? I suggested starting with, “Imagine a city made entirely out of poop…” though in the end she opted for something like, “all of life and death is here in one place”. We also debated, “how much would you have to be paid to lick the ground in Varanasi?” I think it would have to be six figures – in sterling, not rupees.

The difficulty of describing Varanasi has stumped me for a while, hence the delay in posting this. It’s also why I’m relying on the crutch of quotations. The one at the beginning, from Francis Yeats-Brown, isn’t helpful. He was a bit of a mentalist, and after retiring from Army service in India, went a little native and tried pursuing Hindu spiritualism. Unless you think there’s truly a significant moral value to washing in the Ganges, there’s no way you could possibly regard the spectacle as beautiful. The quote below is a bit more enlightening.

“The city fascinated and repelled me, like Yoga, like India. It was no good pretending the repulsion did not exist: Benares is an incarnation of the Hindu mind, full of shocks and surprises. You cannot view her through the eyes of the flesh, or if you do you will want to shut them. Her real life burns in the Unconscious.” Francis Yeats-Brown, Bengal Lancer

It’s worth stopping for a second to consider what Varanasi’s fame means, and why it’s one of the main tourist destinations in India. What’s happened is that India has managed to create a place with such an unbelievable, record-breaking concentration of putrid filth that people travel from all around the globe to marvel at their achievement. It is truly amazing to see life carrying on in the midst of such a foetid environment.

While exploring the old city, I overheard a conversation between a group of awful young backpackers. Between boasts about partying all night in Pokhara and plans to do the same in Thailand, they talked about how dirty India was. One of them recounted, in amazed tones, seeing an Indian openly discarding litter in the street (a standard occurrence) and couldn’t get his head around how someone could do that. Well, if you  ever want to try to understand, Varanasi is the place. Consider this conundrum: if the Ganges is literally a goddess, and an object of great respect and worship, why do Hindus wash themselves and their clothes in it, and pour raw sewage and the remains of their dead into it? Why doesn’t any of that count as disrespectful to Mother Ganga? It’s because in the Hindu mind, there’s no such thing as waste. Ashes and ordure are all part of the cycle of life. What we regard as filth and make great efforts to avoid, they see as another natural element of everyday existence, like light and air. It simply wouldn’t occur to an Indian that dropping a plastic wrapper in the street is wrong, any more than exhaling carbon dioxide is; and since we breathe the air others have exhaled, nor would he think that filling a river with human faeces, then bathing in it, is bad for either him or the river.

EXPLORATIONS

Since the life of Varanasi is focused on the river and the ghats, that’s where you spend most of your time as a visitor. In my case, almost literally, give or take a few months. I took one of the cheap rooms at Alka. They were on the bottom corridor, and at first I thought they were cheap because they didn’t have the views over the Ganges that the higher rooms had. I later realised that that whole level of the hotel was fully submerged in the river during the monsoon season. The owners must sluice them out and completely redecorate them every year, because the room seemed reasonably clean, if a little damp.

We took the classic tour of Varanasi – by boat – twice. Once at dawn, to see people washing and praying, and once at sunset, to see the ceremonies at Dasaswamedh Ghat. This is the holiest of the ghats, where Brahma is supposed to have sacrificed ten horses – the name means ‘ten horse sacrifice ghat’. The evening ceremony was very similar to the one at Haridwar. I asked our boatman what the ceremony was called, thinking it would be the same (“Ganga Aarti”), but he told me it was the much catchier “moon evening Mother Ganga seven person ceremony”.

Moon evening Mother Ganga seven person ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat, Varanasi

At night, from the river, you also get a good view of the burning ghats in action, as long as you don’t mind the fact that your viewing position is basically in the middle of the outflow of an industrial human cremation system. You’re not supposed to take photographs, and you can get a lot of hassle if you try to. We heard of one tourist having his camera thrown in the river by an angry crowd of relatives. I tend to think that if you don’t want people to take photos of something, you shouldn’t do it in public. But to save myself the trouble, I didn’t try anything. Besides, there are plenty of pictures around already, as an image search for “varanasi burning ghat” will prove. I only got a little bit of hassle while standing on the bank, watching the cremations, from a tout soliciting donations for a hospice.

  • Me: Go away and stop bothering me.
  • Tout: No man, I’m not bothering you.
  • Me: Er, I think I’m the better judge of that.

Instead of a photograph, let me try to give you an impression in words of the burning ghat: Crowds of people, mostly Indians, some foreigners, filling the narrow spaces and steps between the crumbling old buildings and the river. Stacks of wood in terraced rows down to the water, some alight with flames jumping 15 feet high. In one, the outline of a corpse visible in the fire, black, speckled yellow where the fat is bubbling out, the head crisp and black and burning through to the skull. Piles of smouldering, smoking ash dumped by the water and picked over by scavengers, human and animal. A cow standing high on a pile of ash and filth, looking down at the pyres and dragging his hoof. The smoke rising up to join the thick evening smog. It’s certainly atmospheric, though I wouldn’t recommend breathing in that atmosphere.

Other than ghats, there wasn’t much else to see in Varanasi. The Vishvanath Temple is the other focus of religious life in the city, but it’s closed to non-Hindus. There’s a museum at Banaras Hindu University, and a possibly interesting giant relief map of India at the Bharat Mata Temple, but they were both a bit awkward to get to, so we couldn’t be bothered. We took a day trip to Sarnath instead, which I’ll cover in a separate post. After that, we mainly stayed at the hotel, debating the ethics of tipping, and gathering our thoughts on Varanasi, The Most Disgusting City In The World, until it was time for all of us to leave, John and Sandy for Delhi and a flight to Thailand, and me for a bus to Lucknow.

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