Filth and Fascination

Trip Start Mar 14, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Varanasi is the dirtiest, filthiest city I've ever been to. It’s also one of the most fascinating.   Trash in the streets is as common as a blade of grass in Central Park and the labyrinth like streets are land mined with more cow shit per square meter than a dairy farm.  The maze-like layout is not only confusing and fun to explore but ridiculously congested.   Bicycles, motor bikes, delivery carts, and hordes of people compete for commuting space in alleys just two meters wide with the occasional water buffalo just strolling slowly along the store fronts like a Christmas shopper looking for that perfect gift … and then it stops and takes a huge dump.  Nice.  The buildings here are so old, they are about to fall down, and occasionally they do.  The city is founded next to the sacred Ganges River, one of the top 5 most polluted rivers in the world.   It is a disgusting cesspool of human waste, body parts, and ultra high levels of mercury and other chemicals from the factories upriver.  For pilgrims to this sacred city, the Ganges is the ultimate place to take a swim, cleanse the soul, and play Russian roulette with cancer.  For the rest of us, merely getting splashed with a few drops from the oar of your boatman is justification to bathe in hand sanitizer.

"Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."
Mark Twain on Varanasi. (1897)

"Wow, this place is a proper shit hole!"
Me on Varanasi (2011)

Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world.  People have been living here along the banks of the Ganges for thousands of years.  No one is really sure how long exactly.  Varanasi is a pilgrimage site considered so holy to the Hindus that just dying here guarantees instant enlightenment.  There are a few hospices next to the river full of sick and elderly just waiting for their day.  After death, getting cremated at one of the public, riverside, burning ghats (stairs) is the ultimate way to go if you can afford it.  This is a mesmerizing display for outsiders as a dozen bodies are burning simultaneously at the river’s edge, 24 hours a day.  Close-up photography is taboo but respectful observation is accepted.  It takes about three hours to cremate the corpse, consuming 350kg (770 lbs.) of firewood in the process!   Somewhere, there is a forest screaming for mercy.    The pieces-parts that don’t incinerate completely like the skull, pelvic bone, and part of the rib cage are ceremoniously thrown into the river along with the ashes … which then float a few meters down river right into someone doing their laundry.  Circle of life they say.  For some, getting cremated is not an option.  These individuals are already considered pure at their death and burning is not necessary.  Instead, they haul you out to the middle of the Ganges, tie a heavy stone around you, and throw you into the river to be consumed by the "fish" that can no longer survive here.  Circle of life they say.  This obvious list of lucky souls includes children, pregnant women, lepers, small pox sufferers, cobra bite victims, and Sadus (priests).   What I secretly suspect, however, is that the Ganges River is accumulating one hell of a pile of rocks in the middle and some poor village 100 miles downriver gets a lot of new “visitors”.   

Among all the trash, crap, and cultural weirdness, Varanasi does have a few bright spots worth mentioning.  Umm…....
You can buy bottled drinking water everywhere… that’s nice.  I saw a cute Indian girl here (photo included).  And stepping through the door of Megu Café is like crossing the border right into Japan.  Clean, modern, and the best Japanese food ever!   (note to self;  go to Japan)

Despite all the sarcasm, Varanasi was one of my favorite places in northern India.  You just have to see, hear, smell, and even feel this place!  This, in Nora’s case was all too real when she stepped in a huge cow pie wearing flip-flops one morning while on the way to the river for the obligatory sunrise boat ride.   Normally, one would say “just wash it off in the river”, but not here.   My advice: bring your hand sanitizer and get lost in this amazing place!    
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Eleanor Duncan on

Everything you have said and experienced while in Varanasi I agree with and have experienced. My personal story is this: When an Indian friend learned that I was going to Varanasi she asked if I would get her some water from the holy Ganges - of course I agreed. She had given me a rather large plastic bottle and as I bent over to get the water I shuddered - for all the reasons you have given. I returned the bottle to her and before my eyes, and before I could do anything to stop her, she opened the bottle and drank deeply from it! I think I was more affected by her actions than she was - to this very day - some 10 years later!

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