She Said: “You have been to Kashi, how was it?”
He Said: “It’s just like any other dusty Indian town”
I have been officially solo traveling since March 2009. There were other trips I made much earlier where I was predominantly solo exploring….but today, a week after returning from Varanasi I consider this trip a milestone. This most holy city of India is completely crazy.
In my last few travel trips I was feeling a lack of purpose. What are my travels achieving? What should I be doing in a new place? Are my travel experiences getting repetitive? So when I chose to travel to Kashi, it was a carefully thought out one. I really needed something that would not allow me to be the same old me.
So, the trip was very fascinating and yes, it did throw me out of my comfort zone and I had to adapt. The key however, in such places is to go out of the comfort zone to an extent and then return back to comfort. Otherwise it just gets plain freaky.
Here is what my first impressions of the place were and probably will be yours too, so go prepared 🙂
Yes, any Indian city is filthy. Not like this though. It is really filthy. I remember not being too happy about Haridwar or Pushkar when I went there. Compared to Varanasi they are 5 star hotel clean! :p
The cows! They are everywhere! And cows also includes big bulls with horns. Sometimes these cows/bulls are injured. I inquired about any animal NGO there and the response was not at all encouraging. In fact I heard a very freaky story about an injured cow that was hit by a scooter and it just sat on the road, in pain for days, before dying.
Obviously these animals just shit around and no one really cleans it up. Additionally the people want to feed the Gomata (Mother Cow, cows are considered holy in India). So they will just offer them a whole bunch of foods. A lot of which just falls onto the road as garbage. Sometimes they may actually throw the food down in a bid to feed the cow. So adds to the filth and craziness.
Monkeys: Quite rapscallion bunch of primates. One actually jumped on me when I was in the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Yea, so quite aggressive bunch of monkeys. Ingeniously the authorities got some trained Langurs from somewhere. These guys are trained to shoo off the pesky monkeys away from the temple and other areas. An innovative way at dealing with the monkey problem!
Stray Dogs: These are mostly docile in the day, but during the night they get pretty wild. Fighting each other, ganging up and growling at late night strollers and so on. It is interesting to know that one of the main deities of Kashi is Kaal Bhairava. The animal associated with him are stray & wild dogs. So these dogs are also sacred. God knows, there must be some people feeding/doing pooja of these dogs.
While these animals cause chaos and mess for people, the fact is that I think they are the ones that receive the most ill-treatment in the name of “religious rituals” and just general lack of any proper facilities for them.
Saffron Robed Beggars
Quite a difficult thing for me to see, but saffron clad men were just plain begging. Sure in Mumbai the usual beggars would say “I need to feed my kid, give me money”, “spare a few bucks for me” while over here these guys will stretch out their hands and say “Shiva, Shiva” or “Radhe Krishna” … whatever. It was very odd for me. I mean yes, I know a lot of babas and all are fake, just wanting money but I have not seen them Beg.
The religious racket is supposed to be more refined than this. You are supposed to play out your role of being Gods man and ask for money ‘Only for Gods work’. People give money out of faith and piety. Then the money can be used for any sort of debauchery. That is the game of the fake babas. But these guys were just sitting on the filthy roads and begging. So that was crap.
Often along with these beggars are lepers with oozing wounds, mutilated women and handicap people.
Narrow, Narrow Lanes
2 can walk abreast. That is the size of most of the lanes around the Ghats. Yes, that is tiny, closed and claustrophobic. All of it is dirty and often big cows/bulls roaming around. It is so crazy, I tell you!
Heat: I went there in September last week. That is a very hot time. Summer I guess will be hotter. I thought an AC room would be more than enough to deal with the heat, but not really. I have never sweated out so many buckets before. I think it led to a serious mineral/vitamin deficiency cause after returning I feel very fatigued! More over I had heat related rash type of things on my skin too. This is not at all normal for me, I am usually quite resilient to heat stuff. So I guess the heat is pretty bad!
So prepare for the heat! If you go in Winters then it would be really cold. So prepare for the cold.
Water Level: This is another thing to consider while planning your trip. The water level of Ganga being high is not cool because then the ghats get very cramped up and small. Usually one can just walk from one ghat to another by the riverside! Either due to rains or randomly sometimes the water rises up. While I was there, the water level had just randomly risen very high. All the Ghats were isolated, so that was a bummer. I love walking around the ghats!
This also meant that I had to make my way to the various ghats from the inner claustrophobic alleyways, which can be tricky but fun too.
Vegetarian? Not Necessarily!
Non-Veg food is easily available around the city. It is also available very close to the ghats! It is ridiculous in my opinion. Kashi is supposed to be THE religious, spiritual city in India & hence the World. Haridwar & Pushkar both are completely Veg cities then how can Kashi not be Veg!
A spanish traveller I met there told me that a few years back it was not so easily available but now it was common! I just point to plain bad maintenance.
Hey PM – what happened to your Clean Varanasi project huh?
This was the biggest bummer I found! One of the things I love doing is just finding some ancient temple and meditating there. I said “Meditate” not “Stand in a 45 min long Queue in a cramped alleyway”. Lot of the main temples – Kashi Vishwanath & Kaal Bhairava – that I planned to sit in had long queues. Apparently these queues are just increasing as more and more people pour into this city. These queues also mean that I can only spend a few seconds in the garbha griha i.e. where the main deity is. Overall there wasn’t much place to sit in. Anyway by the time I reached in I was not at all wanting to sit and meditate.
Heat. Crowd. Queue. Cramped. Religious Fervor.
So yeah, the first two days I was at Varanasi I freaked out! At the end of the two days I just had to catch some locals and grill them about all these various things to get idea of what the crap is what! After that anyway I realized a very simple thing was needed to enjoy this place – Screw the popular places, go for the other awesome ones. And in Varanasi there are many other such places! So that is when I had a really good time in Kashi! And I did find a few temples, away from the crazy crowds to sit and meditate in 🙂
The best part was that amidst all this maddening and insane shit, I lost myself somewhere. And that is exactly what I needed. I believe this is because even now, after a lot of degradation and ruin there is spiritual energy and ancient memories in that place. So I will writing more posts about a lot of things from quaint temples, people stories, rituals things, many other things I came across in the city. So stay tuned for that stuff.
Don’t get turned off from all this stuff, just prepare for a Wild Ride! 😉