One of the essential stops on most Indian itineraries is the holy city of Varanasi. It is such a holy city that it is venerated by Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Buddhists, and Sikhs alike. Supposedly founded by the Hindu God Shiva, Varanasi is the holiest of India's seven sacred cities. Over the centuries it has been referred to by many names including Benares and Kashi and it remains one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
By the time we got off the train in Varanasi from Khajuraho, I knew something wasn't right with me. A few hours later I was running a high fever and very very sick. After about three days in this condition, I was around 15 pounds lighter but once again feeling kind of like a human being. There is no doubt in my mind that the lack of love and hygiene in the food in Agra and Khajuraho was the chief culprit. The daytime temps in Varanasi were topping 40 degrees so we usually retreated to our room or a restaurant during the hottest hours (there are some good eats to be found in this town), but every morning and every evening we walked along the ghats from Assi, where we were staying, to Marnikarnika (the main cremation ghat) or further. Before Varanasi I found myself getting down and frustrated with India- mainly due to the constant feeling of being on-guard. Maybe it was the sickness followed by the wellness, but I felt a rejuvenated optimism toward it all again and we really ended up enjoying our time in Varanasi- even more so than 10 years ago. But from a photography perspective, the ghats are not nearly as picturesque as they once were. The main bathing ghats are now postered or painted with advertisements for cellular networks, guesthouses, and the like and boats have been parked in front of them to give bathers and puja participants some privacy from the hordes of tourists getting rowed down the Mother Ganges. You are also now not allowed to photograph the cremation ghats unless you are willing to fork-out an astronimical amout of currency to the local mafia for the privilege.
But the energy remains enchanting and enigmatic. Even walking through the organic and disorientating laneways of the old city is a feast for the senses. But this is where Varanasi's chief shortcoming should be pointed out… it can be utterly filthy! The narrow lanes are shared with cows, dogs, goats, and people. You really need to watch where you step or you're bound to step in the excrement of any of the aforementioned animals- people included! Then there are the restaurants and businesses who dump their waste into the same paths and the mystery seepage that runs onto it from each and every building. The smell can be unbearable at times and the stench attracts swarms of flies just as the waste attracts scores of rats. A stroll is never dull in Varanasi. But with all that said, Varanasi is a beautiful place that needs to approached head-on and with a healthy sense of humour. But always remember to mind the crap!
184 hours on rails and roads.