[Varanasi Red, the red from neon light reflects through the gullis of Varanasi's complicated core]
Dazed from the heat, groggy from my seventeen hour journey on the train, I look across the street to a crowded market in the direction of a row of cycle rickshaws. I stood there hunched under the weight of my backpack, bathing in sweat, dwarfed by a giant billboard of Amitabh Bachchan that couldn’t help making me smile. It read “Uttar Pradesh mein dum hai, kyonki yahan jurm kam hai. (UP is strong because there's less crime here).”I tried to decipher the place, take it in slowly, process the sights, sounds and smells from all I had read about it. This is Varanasi-the Hindu holy city, the place to die, the home of the Ganga, a place to bathe and be purified.
[A old man put up his dhoti up to dry after a dip in the ganga. ]
Many go to Varanasi in search for ‘Kashi’, the luminous abode of the gods, one of the holiest tirthas (literally a "crossing" or sacred place where mortals can cross over to the divine, or the gods and goddesses come to bathe on earth), where many return to die in the hope that they may achieve moksha, the salvation of the soul from the cycle of birth, where it is said that Shiva himself whispers the mantras of salvation into the ears of a dying person. It is a place that is believed to have been in existence since the time of the Mahabharata, a city where Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath or where Adi Shankaracharya taught Hieun Tsang,the Chinese traveller. It has an ancient history that Mark Twain once famously described as "older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."
[Orange, Dyeing by the Ganga.]
I walked across to what looked like a farmer’s market with women in faded sarees sitting on their haunches selling produce – those huge things had to be pumpkins and oh such lovely pink guavas. But there is no time to look, not until I have found a hotel and checked in; and then I will be free to roam.
A rickshaw-wallah stood there patiently, coaxing me with a smile, tempting me to unburden my luggage and rest my feet on the steel frame of his rickshaw. As I sit there on the worn out rexine seats of the cycle rickshaw I fidget from side to side cramming my hand deep into my pockets searching for the piece paper with the address of where I needed to go. “Dashashvamedh”, I finally announced after locating it. My first impression of Varanasi is that it sounds like the hundred tinkles of cycle bells gripped up in a mass of humanity.
[Cycle-rickshaw wallah on the streets of Varanasi ]
[Peddling shadows on the street of Varanasi.]
“Thees rupiah,” [30 rupees] the rickshaw wallah repeated. “Pucchees” I negotiated by habit. As he concedes his feet catch my eye and I realize that he is pedaling my weight and the weight of my luggage barefeet all for a cost less then a haircut in Bombay. I give him his 30 rupees and I disappear into the city’s complicated core, its narrow gullis and kopchas (lanes), a narrow labyrinth too small for even a cycle rickshaw to pass.
Vishwanath Galli smells of alu-kachoris, jalebis and marigolds. Long tailed green parrots came and went from the rooftops, flapping and squawking, while an armed paunchy policeman spat a stream of scarlet betel juice onto the broken pavement but I walked on with the crumpled piece of paper in my hand. I came across to a row of vendors along the front of the buildings on my right: there a girl in a blue school uniform stood at the open-front stall selling brass pots and pans.
“Ganga-fuji” I asked.
“Theeshra Gulli Right koh !” (third lane to the right), she said nonchalantly as she tried hard not to look me in the face.
[The old doors Varanasi's old havellis all clumped together in the giant maze that is the city]
I looked ahead and there squeezed between two buildings in a space less than 3 feet ran the gulli. The alleyway was no more than crevice- it appeared unthinkable to walk in it but as people entered and left I thought again. The light was dim and the cool damp air weighed down on my shoulders as I walk with others in a single file, often walking sideways to avoid the almost unavoidable rubbing of shoulders. The lane bends and is already blocking the entrance from sight behind me. Dodging a wet heap of cowdung on the road I walk on as the alley makes another bend and then meanders off to the right. There was a sign above the lane announcing my hotel and I double checked its name with the piece paper in my hand. With my hotel finally found I entered its curtained environ only to return a few minutes later luggage less with a camera in hand.
[Dashashvamedh in the morning]
[The ganga has an office]
It is now time to find the Ganges and when I do I sit myself on one of the many steep steps that make up Dashashvamedh ghat, the main bathing ghat that also bears witness to the aarti in the evening. Of the lakhs of pilgrims that come to Varanasi each year, many of them will stop to bathe here first. The city’s waterfront stretches out on either side, a long curve of the river bend made into a series (eighty or so) of stepped waterfront ghats, each with a tall fleet of steps from the Ganges to the level of the city’s winding streets. The ghats are the theatres of life that bring the magic of Varanasi to life; you can stroll the entire three kilometer stretch over a whole day and never be bored. As I sit here sipping on my chai(tea) in a kulhurh (earthen pot) watching pilgrims bathe, they stand in my sight, waist-deep in the glistening water at a distance of perhaps a few unwound sarees. In unison they cup the river in their hands and then let it stream down their face. I imagine it is lukewarm, filmed with soap, oil and Himalayan alluvial, water that both soils and cleans at the same time just like the city it flows in.
All the pictures on flickr.