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.


* 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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Hi, I'm Madhu. Wanderer. Travel blogger. Story teller. Bitten late and hard by the travel bug, I am on a mission to make up for lost time.

114 thoughts on “Surviving Kashi

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 🙂

  4. ‘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 🙂

  5. 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 🙂

  6. 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. 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. : )

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

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