Surviving Kashi

I tried hard to like Varanasi.

There is no doubt that the city – alternately referred to as Benaras or Kashi – is remarkable. In its geography, arrayed against the left bank of the sacred Ganges, as well as its fascinating history, woven with fantastic legends*. I am not sure how its claim to being the oldest continually inhabited city compares with that of Aleppo (Syria), but its antiquity is undeniable and its timelessness lauded by the likes of Kabir and Tulsidas  and most every writer worth his salt.

That little has changed over centuries is underscored by this excerpt from Mark Twain’s 1897 ‘Following The Equator – A Journey Around The World‘, that could very well have been written yesterday!

“Benares was not a disappointment. It justified its reputation as a curiosity. It is on high ground, and overhangs a grand curve of the Ganges. It is a vast mass of building, compactly crusting a hill, and is cloven in all directions by an intricate confusion of cracks which stand for streets.

Tall, slim minarets and beflagged temple-spires rise out of it and give it picturesqueness, viewed from the river. The city is as busy as an ant-hill, and the hurly-burly of human life swarming along the web of narrow streets reminds one of the ants.

The sacred cow swarms along too, and goes whither she pleases, and takes toll of the grain-shops, and is very much in the way, and is a good deal of a nuisance, since she must not be molested.”

We had ditched our ‘official’ guide, who just didn’t seem to get the fact that we weren’t typical pilgrims on a temple run, after the fourth temple visit in one morning and after he declared the rest of the day ‘free’ at the first hint of rain. And so I sought Jeremy ‘Jai’ Oltmann’s help to explore the bazaars of the North

The irony of being shown around the holiest of Hindu cities by a Christian from Minnesota wasn’t lost on either of us. But it was Jeremy, in the very short time we spent with him, that opened our eyes to the charm that lay beyond the overwhelming hassle and chaos of the ghats and temples of Varanasi.

I had obsessed about the likelihood of rain and having to wade through the resultant slippery sludge on those streets. And sure enough, the Gods decided to test me. R says he expected me to bail out, as did Jeremy. But I persevered and that walk was on par with the best we have participated in across the world. Not least for Jeremy’s intimate knowledge of the back streets and its inhabitants as also his understanding of Hindu culture and folklore. Thanks Jeremy for the chai and samosas. And the stories.

Dying in Kashi – poised as it is believed to be on the tip of Shiva’s trident, and hidden from time and Yama (the dark God of death) – is said to grant one eternal salvation and a release from the cycle of death and rebirth. Although this is one of seven most sacred destinations in the country neither my mother nor my mother in law had made the pilgrimage, and it was for their sakes that I braved standing in line, barefoot, in the filthy street to enter the highly secured* holiest of holy temple of Kashi Vishwanath.

I find ‘high security’ non conducive to prayer and reflection and being pushed and shoved even more so. There were vendors inside the cramped space and I loathed the commercialisation of such a holy site. Trying to ignore the components of the sticky muck underfoot was added stress. But most distressing of all was the ghastly sight of plastic cups (used to carry milk that is the main offering for the sacred Shivling) floating inside the kund (pool /altar)! Unlike Mr. Twain above, I was vastly disappointed.

They say Kashi should be seen with the minds eye. Its spirituality felt rather than seen. We saw many there who did, and I was envious of their faith. We stopped to greet a Scottish friend of Jeremy’s who asked us “Isn’t Varanasi beautiful?” R smiled and I mumbled guilty ascent.  I tried hard to feel that beauty. Sadly, I failed to delve beyond the superficial. Perhaps It was the wrong season: the ghats had still not been cleared of silt from the recent floods. Perhaps it was my OCD.  Perhaps I am just a bad Hindu.

Do I regret going? Absolutely not. We had some memorable moments there. Witnessing the Ganga aarti for one, the walk with Jeremy through some really interesting sections, and the day-trips to Sarnath and Ramgarh fort. My album full of atmospheric images prove that the drama of life and death in Varanasi is a compelling reason to visit. But I remember thinking, as we drove to the airport, that I was finally departing a destination with no desire whatsoever to return.

PS:

* All Wikipedia articles that I have linked to, carry references to legends associated with Varanasi & the Vishwanath temple.

* The temple was destroyed by Mughal emperor Aurangazeb in 1669 and the Gyanvapi mosque built alongside. Hence the disputed status and heightened security. The present structure was rebuilt in 1780 by Maratha Queen Ahilya Bai Holkar.

Related articles:
The Light Of Faith
Framed Stories
Holy Cow
A Morning Cuppa
Reflections On Our Road Trip

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

114 thoughts on “Surviving Kashi

  1. Fantastic photos, Madhu! This seems like it was a definite test to the traveler’s soul. I’m sure, though you were glad to depart with no thoughts of return, that you will always be glad that you went.

    1. Oh yes, I was Angeline! Have always wanted to go. Only the experience was more intense than I had bargained for 🙂

  2. I’m glad you stayed long enough to take pictures – they are gorgeous, full of real life. I think you should write a travel guide for people who want the real low-down rather than the usual trite rubbish that says everything’s fine and dandy.

    1. Thank you MM. I agonised over hurting religious sentiment. But it is what it is, and I wasn’t going to sugarcoat it, even if I toned it down lots 🙂

    1. Sunrise actually. That dawn boat ride was the closest I came to connecting with the spirit of the city. Thank you Dallas.

  3. Thanks for the tour, Madhu,…loved your images of life as lived in this place, especially the faded Gynvapi Mosque, the Lassi vendor, and that rubbish strewn street…Well done for sticking to your guns and getting off the beaten track!

  4. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The Scottish person believed the area to be beautiful but this may not have been your opinion. Scotland is completely different from India and the change in culture would be fascinating and beautiful from someone from Scotland.

    It’s also funny how someone from a different culture gives a good insight into your own culture – probably because they approach it with an open mind and without prejudice.

    Also, as a Christian I am promised eternal life if I accept Jesus Christ as my Saviour. I think it is something Christians take for granted and forget that other faiths do not have this.

    1. I tried to keep an open mind Jane, but couldn’t get past the accumulated garbage and the smells. It would take little effort to make Varanasi beautiful again.

    2. Bhagavad Gita
      Chapter 18, Verse 58.
      If you become conscious of Me, you will pass over all the obstacles of conditional life by My grace. If, however, you do not work in such consciousness but act through false ego, not hearing Me, you will be lost.

      Bhagavad Gita
      Chapter 18, Verse 66.
      Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.

      Uddhava Gita
      Chapter 9
      A devotee of mine, though not a master of senses, is still not overcome by the desires because of his powerful devotion. Just as a fire would turn firewood into ashes, so does devotion to me completely burns the sins committed by my devotees to ashes. Oh Uddhava neither Yoga, nor Sankhya, nor piety, nor austerity or renunciation captivates me so much as the strongly developed Devotional service unto Me.

      Skanda Purana, Uttarakand
      Guru Strotram/Guru Gita dialogue between Shiva and Uma

      “Dhyana Moolam Guru Murti.
      Puja Moolam Gurur Padam,
      Mantra Moolam Gurur Vakyam,
      Moksha Moolam Guru Kripa”.

      Avadhuta Gita

      [1:34] वेदा न लोका न सुरा न यज्ञा vedā na lokā na surā na yajñā
      वर्णाश्रमो नैव कुलं न जातिः । varṇāśramo naiva kulaṁ na jātiḥ /
      न धूममार्गो न च दीप्तिमार्गो na dhūmamārgo na ca dīptimārgo
      ब्रह्मैकरूपं परमार्थतत्त्वम् ।। ३४।। brahmaikarūpaṁ paramārthatattvam //34//

  5. Varanarasi has always been a city on my “waiting list” … but every time I was in Delhi or Mumbai, I never had companions who wanted to accompany me. I have visited other cities but Varanarasi is always on the waiting list. I think I’ll bring there the family… before taking a vacation in Goa… or some other small village on the west coast!
    Thanks for the detailed descriptions and beautiful photos… I would have liked to share a couple of samosas and a some tea with you 😀 claudine

    1. Mine too Claudine, even when everyone said I would find it hard. And I am glad I went. Would love to read your impressions…have no doubt you will see it differently. I might sound biased, but you can’t beat the West coast 🙂

  6. gorgeous photos Madhu…sometimes no matter what…a place is just somewhere you need to see once…and the leave it behind

  7. It’s funny, seeing your photos I remember the dirt of India, but at the time it was invisible – doesn’t make sense I know. I wanted to go to Varanasi but there wasn’t enough time.

  8. This is something I would love to see. I imagine it exactly as you and Mark Twain describe it. I can imagine how seeing it through the eyes of a foreigner might actually add to the experience. Perhaps he and his Scottish friend thought it was beautiful because they expected it to be the choatic frenzy you describe while you expected something more reverent??

    1. Perhaps. I just couldn’t feel reverence amidst the filth and chaos. And that made me feel guilty for some strange reason! Hope you do get to visit Juliann. Would love to read about your impressions 🙂

      1. My friends parents tell me that 20 years also only, before the plastic came it was beautiful. Now its all drink boxes, water bottles, candy wrappers, broken toys, plastic bags and those horrible plastic chai cups (yuk & gross). It is an issue that the local community and local government needs to work on.

  9. India and especially Varanasi have always been on my wish list for travel. So much so that I have informed my husband that for my next ‘big’ birthday a plane ticket to India would be lovingly received. Whilst I can appreciate that this area is not something everyone wishes to visit I have always been fascinated by it. Your pictures only make me want to go there sooner! 🙂

    1. I am happy you enjoyed my pictures.
      My fascination for Varanasi was the reason it bagged top spot (after the Taj Mahal that I was visiting to shut people up :-)) when we decided to tackle domestic destinations last year. And I still think It should feature in any India itinerary just to experience first hand, the intense religious fervour that is its essence. But be warned, it isn’t pretty. And that is a huge understatement. Something tells me you will be fine though 🙂

  10. ‘Survived’, I think is the best way to describe places like Benares, Madhu – where the layers of history, tradition, religion and culture overlap in kaleidoscopic colour and chaos. Unless you’re participating through fervent belief, there are sure to be almost constant challenges to one’s levels of personal space (and cleanliness). For some, of course, the theatre of such exotic places is a revelation which transcends the onslaught to the senses (or perhaps they’re lucky enough to become enthralled during the ‘right’ season!). On the plus side, your perseverance and determination have given us a collection of photographs that take us there with you … without getting wet and dirty toes (something that makes my toes curl, just thinking of it!). Brava 🙂

    PS I’m loving your India trips.

    1. Many thanks Meredith. The right season is the key I think, because rain makes those garbage strewn streets eminently unnavigable. Makes my skin crawl at the memory of that day! I doubt I gained my ancestors any brownie points in heaven with my attitude 🙂

  11. It’s interesting to me to hear you say this was the first time you left without a desire to return. In my tiny bit of travel, I’ve wondered about this—about how the more places you fall in love with, the more you long to visit them again! It must just compound. 😉

    1. It does Riba! I usually fall in love with every place I visit and almost always hope to return. This was a first 🙂

    1. I agree. And memory usually blurs all the gritty bits. Who knows, I just might go back in winter someday and fall in love with the place!! Thanks for stopping by Marina. Hope you are all settled in your new home 🙂

  12. we have not been there Madhu, but thank you so much for this post and your story, all the elements we would want to avoid too … yet you have brought us the beauty and these rich iconic scenes to enjoy … so funny to find Jeremy as your guide, but he seems to have been perfect!

    1. You are welcome Christine. Yes Jeremy was a great guide and possibly knew more about Hinduism than we did!!

      1. ha ha ha … Knowledge is a tricky mistress… beautiful but too prudish & proud for me to commit to. I look closely & sometimes play in the shallow part of the pool but Hindus like yourself *know* much more because it comes out of internal anubhav and external sadhana. : )

  13. Thanks for taking me somewhere that I will never get to visit, Madhu. Your photos are wonderful, especially the sunset one. You really had an adventure, and although you wouldn’t want to repeat it, I’m sure you’re so glad you had the experience.

  14. Madhu, I’m glad you recognise that being a travel writer/blogger doesn’t mean we’re asked to like every single place we visit. You were brave to wade through the muck barefoot inside those temples!

    Not too long ago I met up with a Swiss couple who were midway through a round-the-world trip. They loved India but when they got to Varanasi… well, all the chaos and cremations and the near-constant sight of the dead proved a little too much. The couple decided it was enough and they soon fled to Dharamsala.

    But despite all the grime Varanasi does come off as being very photogenic. And what an interesting story about Vishnu’s trident, I never did grasp why it was that Varanasi was such a popular place to see out life’s end – thanks for explaining that in this post!

    1. Thank you James. It is Shiva’s trident actually. One post wouldn’t have been long enough to narrate all the stories relating to the hallowed status of Varanasi, hence the links.
      I can well imagine how the Swiss couple must have felt. This was an assault on the senses even for us, and we are no strangers to grit and grime. It is a pity that the place has been allowed to slide to these depths. I wished often that I could travel back in time and see it in its prime. It must have been magical.

  15. I think you grasped the situation well. Commercialization and human greed have transformed many a place of spiritual rest, architectural splendour and beauty into discord and ugliness. I’m not sure what the solution is. Every part of India amazed me for the 20 years I lived there. Benaras was one of those places.

    1. I know you are an Indophile Ian, so I am not surprised 🙂 With will and vision, I can’t imagine why it should be so hard to spruce things up a bit. Driving through UP was a revelation and I have begun to appreciate the South more!
      Hope your health issues are all sorted 🙂

  16. Varanasi is a truly captivating town. I loved getting lost in its alleys. Languorous strolls over its ghats are surreal. Your post re-kindled memories of my visit to this engulfing town. Thnks for this lovely post.

  17. Amazing and exciting Madhu. How beautifully you have expressed your thoughts and narration of your visit. Also it’s interesting to read about your guide Jeremy and his and his website. Very useful resource for us city folks who may want to visit Kashi. The pictures too are fantastic.
    Thanks and cheers 🙂

    1. Glad you enjoyed this Dilip. Many thanks. Varanasi Walks is indeed a great resource for anyone interested in getting to know the city better.

  18. Varanasi/Benares wasn’t my favourite place either. (Mumbai/Bombay probably was and Agra) The streets were filthy and it wasn’t just down to the sacred cows. The river was filthy too. I had a spat with someone on the steps down to the Ganges when he was telling me how wonderful India and Varanasi was and I told him it was a filthy dirty place!! We left for Nepal the next day, I’d just had enough for whatever reason. Came back (but not to Varanasi) and fell in love with India all over again. Sometimes India is hard to absorb and Varanasi was the last straw for me. Can’t even explain it.

    1. You don’t need to. I understand perfectly well what you mean. Sometimes India is hard to absorb even for those of us born and brought up here!! 🙂

      1. It is one of the places I would go back to though, and that’s saying something. Not Varanasi (!) but India itself. Especially for the places I didn’t get to.

  19. I knew it as Benares when I was little. But no matter how people call it, the images of Kashi always stir the feelings of excitement, curiosity, hesitation and even disgust to many people. However, as is the case with many cities, the charm lies behind those busy streets and closed doors. Nothing has fully convinced me to go to Varanasi up to this moment. But slowly images like what you show here change my perception, one photo at a time.

    1. You must visit Bama, to decide for yourself. Who knows, you just might connect with the city better than I did! 🙂 I watched, dumbfounded and with not a little admiration, a couple of young Japanese boys up to their neck in the river, and thought, going all out and immersing oneself into the experience is the only way to understand the city. I couldn’t bring myself to do it though.

      1. Our city is this;

        || Rand, Sand, Seedi, Sanyaasi… inse bacche to sevai Kashi ||

        “Widows, bulls, stairs, saints… escape from these and you reach Kashi”

        Widows are holy sisters but can steal a man’s virtue. Bulls are Shiv’s pet but can gore you in the streets. Stairs lead down to Ganga Mai but they can make you slip & crack your head. Saints… the trickiest of the bunch… they steal all your money and don’t offer good puja!

        Maybe Kabir, maybe Bharatendu Harishchandra, maybe unknown author…

        This is Banaras… externally holy and not holy. Internally pure.

  20. It’s not a place I could ever loose my heart to, Madhu, fascinating though it undoubtedly is. I find the whole business of the ghats quite disturbing and macabre. I’d never make a Hindu! 🙂
    A couple of your photos I could fall in love with, though. The gentleman framed in the doorway is worthy of Steve McCurry.

  21. I spent two nights in Varanasi a few years back…and only because a friend visiting from Australia wanted to see the holy city. Just like you.. Have no desire to return and cannot understand the feelings most have for this chaos.

  22. Your images and words always combine to take me away…and in this instance my toes feels ooozy and dirty. Wonderful as always!

    1. Means a lot, thank you!
      How to convey that feeling while maintaining a sensitive balance was my quandary, and the reason it took me four months to write this report!

  23. Lovely pictures Madhu. And thanks for an honestly written post. Much of travel writing tends to romanticize every place… without getting into the reality of the experience, and this was such a refreshing read.

  24. In our limited travels we tend to shy away from taking tours due to the sheer commercialism. It seems few want to delve into the heartbeat of a city, content rather to skim the surface. Your detail, the gritty images you capture, and your honesty are very refreshing Madhu. Lovely post!

    1. Thank you LuAnn. Ticking off sights from a list doesn’t seem enough anymore. But that will surely entail a pruning of the bucket list 🙂

  25. I think this looks like quite a fascinating place and to be lead by a fellow Minnesotan (that’s where I’m from!) is even stranger. Awesome pictures Madhu!

    1. Oh I hope you do, and experience it for yourself. You just might come away with a better understanding of its spirituality. Thank you for your visit and comment.

  26. E’ sempre affascinante visitare il tuo blog, si impara a conoscere una cultura lontana, fuori dagli schemi di noi europei. L’India è una meta lontana e i luoghi che mostri quasi sicuramente non avrò modo di vedere, intanto le tue immagini e i tuoi racconti colmano le lacune. Ciao 🙂

  27. I’ve learned so much from your fascinating India travel. You are telling your experience, stories, and culture, not just beautiful building photos … Thank you, Madhu!

  28. I don’t think we have to love every single place we visit. There are many places I have been over the years I haven’t loved, many I have barely appreciated. You did a wonderful job giving voice to history, even while showing what was wrong with today. Lovely photos also.

  29. Madhu… you both were fantastic and I think Kashi likes you! I am sure you will come again soon… the city opens slowly… its a courtesan of holiness. Technically the moque pictured is the Darahara Masjid. Gyanvapi as you rightly mentioned was next to Kashi Vishvanath, which was restored by are dear Holkar Queen Ahilyabai. Also Yamraj is kept at bay by Kaal Bhairava (Kal Bhairo), Shiv as the great and terrible Oz of endless time. It is our most worthy magistrate Kal Bhairo who doesn’t allow Yama to pass into his city. Your blog is beautiful btw. kudos. Jai

    1. Thank you Jai. It was our pleasure to have you show us around Kashi. We enjoyed every minute. I shall wait for the courtesan to work her magic 🙂

      PS: Thanks also for pointing out my error in labeling my image of the Darahara Mosque. Duly edited.

  30. That is so the same with the one in St. Peters Basilica in Italy. But that one is becuase of the paintings and the building designs. I guess with the temple here that really should feel ‘more’ spiritual and should be more respected. It looks like you still managed to get a good look (and great pictures) of the place, its streets and its people.

  31. Beautiful gallery, Madhu, as well as honest thoughts of your experience. It will be hot, hot, while I am there, so at least my feet won’t be crawling through the mire. I have prepared myself for sensory overload.

    1. An utterly fantastic time guaranteed then! All the best Lynne 🙂 And thank you for the kind words.

      PS: Will you be staying on the river? We stayed in town, and were very glad we did at the time. The ghats must be free of silt now though.

  32. Ii realize reading this post that Benares/Varanasi is haunting and fascinating for me through books, fiction and otherwise. I love Kabir, so to find that he loved Varanasi is another plus. REading your account, knowing the honest and open and intelligent traveler that you are, that it is better for me to rest with that impression. If I were ever to go, my physical reactions would be just as yours. Maybe even stronger. And yet I’m sure that you are not sorry you went! Whatever the experience is, it is your own experience, and it is of your India.
    Your blog is truly amazing in all its responses!

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment Judith. I should have mentioned that Kabir was found by his foster parents on the banks of a lake nearby, and he lived and compiled most of his work there. I regretted not having visited the Kabir Chaura – the memorial Math and global headquarters of the Kabir sect – just 3 km from Varanasi.

  33. I think I too would have been disappointed in the Vishwanath Temple given your description of your experience . My strongest memory of visiting a Hindu temple in India was in Pushkar, one of the few Brahma temples in the country. I walked in and burst into tears. The devotion of millions over thousands of years hit me like a tsunami – in a good way. It’s the only place in India where it happened like that. Your photos are superb.
    Alison

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