VARANASI IS A PROFOUNDLY DIFFERENT PLACE, spiritually bombastic and alive. Chants echo through dusty stone alleys and schoolchildren, in striped ties and checked skirts, sing and tease each other in the backs of colourful rickshaw trucks. The walls surrounding everything have been crumbling for so long that it seems unlikely that they have ever seen better days, and now stand plastered and re-plastered with old Bollywood posters held up by cheap sticky glue, giving an anachronistic air of modernity to what is heralded as the oldest living city in the world.
And the cows, my god, the cows! Turn a corner and they’re there, trotting away, horns menacingly poised and mouths stained with garbage and shit. They’re everywhere, rummaging through trash piles on streets and leaving behind swirls of soft brown poo. This is to say nothing of the goats, chickens, rats, dogs and monkeys that freely roam the streets, transforming residential neighbourhoods into filthy petting zoos.
There’s shit and piss everywhere, and dead bodies in the river.
But for all the purported “cultural capitals” we’ve seen in Asia—Luang Prabang, Laos; Ubud, Bali; Melaka, Malaysia—none have felt quite so much like travelling back in time as Varanasi. The freewheeling cows help, but so do the broad stone walkways, hazy sunsets and oarsmen plying the river. If the areas surrounding the ghats, the ancient steps leading into the Ganges River, are indeed maintained for tourists, then at least the locals had the common sense to realise that what kept tourists coming was the spiritual authenticity. (Which is not a phrase I use lightly, or even at all, but the absurd complexity of these Hindu cremation and prayer rituals which breathe the omnipresent feeling of holiness into every corner of the river and its surroundings lead one to the inescapable conclusion that this is a very spiritually important place in India and, it must be said, the world.)
Plus, the dead bodies floating in the river. Not to dive into the murky brown waters too deeply, but in essence, Hindus from across India travel on pilgrimages here to die, to be cremated and have their ashes strewn across the river. Others, like pregnant women, children and people bitten by snakes, are merely tied to large rocks and dunked in the river. Sometimes, after enough decomposition, limbs or full corpses will float to the surface and frighten or delight lucky tourists on sunrise boat tours.
But you know what’s great? Freshly squeezed orange and pomegranate juice for under a dollar, rickshaw cyclists who charge you whatever you feel like they’ve earned, and crummy cheap guesthouses maintained by wizened locals. Our accommodation, the Ishan Guesthouse near Assi Ghat, is run by a scraggly and large-bellied man of maybe 60 who moves at a painfully leisurely place and talks with grandfatherly self-assurance. By the end of our three-day visit he called us “like family”, and treated us as such, for better or worse. (He asked me: “When you will shave? You will look smart. Now, you look not so smart.”)
It says something that we did virtually no sightseeing in Varanasi. We were burnt out on temples and hate yoga. Instead we walked around. We ate local desserts. We watched the monkeys parading by the river at the cordoned-off Shiva Temple. We bought some scarves, but only because the man earned our money by speaking seven languages; that was the most touristy thing we did.
Mostly we were content to relax and let the city be itself, to indulge those after our money by listening to them explain their proud heritage. On our boat tour, we motored off from shore for three minutes before Sonook, our 13-year-old driver, turned the engine off and just steered through the tide. The falling sun draped the clouds in an orange glow behind old stone pillars and domes while we moseyed along the river, giving ourselves up to the strength of a tide that has been flowing for thousands of years.