28 July 2009
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Varanasi - a city of two tales
Posted By joseph
The city of Varanasi or Benaras (no relation to Ben’s arse as mistaken by a few British travellers in 1998) happens to be one of the world’s oldest cities. Yes, that’s right - the world’s oldest. So it is no wonder that this 3000 year old city also happens to be one of India’s major tourist destinations and the heartland of hippies high on happiness-inducing-substances.
To me, Varanasi is a city of two tales. No, not of Varuna and Assi, but of Now and Then.
Now: In the geographical core of Varanasi lies the city itself. Inhabited by the Benarasis of today, the Now of Varanasi is characterized by two full-fledged malls (IP and JHV with their own multiplexes), unholy amounts of dirt and garbage on the roads, enough cows on the road to make you shout “Holy Cow!” everytime your rickshaw brakes, traffic-jammed streets, tons of coaching institutes, big old universities teeming with “fashionable” students in their bright Bollywood-inspired clothes and the airport which holds the world record for the smallest conveyor belt in the world.
The Varanasi of Now belongs to the Benarasi who is drawn to the glamor of urban India and relates to the hectic lifestyle of the big cities but is still heartwarmingly simple enough to be awed by an escalator in a mall. The only public mode of transport is rickshaws and shared autos which ensure the feel of a small town remains intact in the looming presence of the “phoren” McDonalds and Pizza Huts.
The streets of Varanasi are mostly narrow which get narrower as you move down to the ghats. It is in these wide roads, in the modern part of Varanasi, that you see the true Benarasi while the oldest parts are filled with tourists. As a city, Varanasi does not have much to offer to the Indian tourist in terms of convenience - lacklustre roads, horrible traffic management, very few hangout spots etc. But what it lacks in convenience it more than makes up in character; foreigners who’ve known India to be a land of turban-ed bearded folks, with cows roaming on the roads and rickshaws being pulled by men will never be disappointed with Varanasi. Infrastructure development is painfully slow and there’s an overall reluctance to move on with the times. In the end, the Varanasi of Now is hell for the resident Benarasi but a delight for the tourist.
But a tourist’s true delight lies in the Varanasi of Then.
Then: This is the world that lies on the banks of the Ganga - the Ghats. The moment you step away from the city and into the narrow lanes leading to the Ghats, Varanasi transforms from 2009 to 1709, taking you back to an age when handcarts and feet were the best transport.
No car would fit into any of the narrow gallis that line the Ghats. It is easy to lose yourself in the labyrinthine cobbled streets, while finding a new discovery at every turn; an old swamy with matted hair, cowdung, a family staring at you for invading their privacy, little curios from centuries ago, people who’ve lived their entire lives from sundown to sunset watching the tourists go by, hoardes of Indians from everywhere in search of religion and faith…the discoveries never end. The gallis go on and on leading you further away from modern times to something that everybody who comes to Varanasi seeks…
Your first steps onto a Ghat will be nothing special, they’ll just be simple “steps”. You step down innumerable stairs and into the ganges. But then, the true beauty of the places sinks in when you walk along these steps. Most of the ghats hark back to the times of the kings and queens, each one named after a conqueror, a saint or a prophet. The build of the ghats seem impregnable and they have an eternal look to them. Built of pure stone in some places, the ghats seem to have weathered centuries of abuse, lasted millenia of stories and lives while remaining alive to tell us all the tale of what used to be.
Along the way you’ll find many temples, idols of all shapes and sizes for sale, german bakeries, japanese eateries, buddha lounges, coaching centres, dancing schools, music academies, pottery classrooms, happiness-inducing substances, saffron-clad beggars, “guesthouses”, massage parlours, music stores selling cassettes, jewellery stores, saree shops, copper art, electronics and much much more.
I spent 10 months in Varanasi but I think writing this post has taken longer than that.
For Varanasi, in a lot of ways, is a tale best untold. It is easy to crib about the dirt, the pollution, the apathy of the municipality and the localites, and it is all too easy to mock the foreigners shooting pictures of cows on roads and of sadhus performing their penances. But it is very very difficult not to be charmed by the place and the people. To realize that this is a life so far removed from what we see in our concrete jungles and yet so contemporary. A culture and environment that has taken millenia to build and sustain, and weather the storms of change…and stay true to the times still.
The people and the experiences of Varanasi taught me not to trust anyone (whether a rickshaw wallah or a filthy rich business lord) but at the same time to value the virtue of giving people the benefit of the doubt. A study in contrasts and a tale of two cities, Varanasi will forever be embedded in my memory. Lets catch up over a peaceful walk on the Ghats at 2AM to talk about it.
A nostalgic Joseph
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Fresh out of college, we were thrown into the dust bowls of U.P and the jungles of M.P. Sneaky trainees that we were, we took full advantage of the available resources to explore. Whether the pine trees of Almora or the ruins of Khajuraho, a Bhojpuri film shoot or some gun-laden, mustachioed dudes in the Chambal areas of Bhind - our travels always had added flavor!