I’m not entirely sure that my body clock loves Varanasi as much as I do, especially since I dragged myself out of bed for a second sunrise. It’s so worth it though. A few of us wanted to head down to Assi Ghat to watch the morning aarti which is much smaller than the main one in the evening and, obviously, draws less tourists on account of them still being tucked up in bed where most sensible people tend to be at 6am. It’s a perfect time to take lots of stalky photos of people just getting on with their shit in a way that fascinates us foreign types. I love the ghats, they’re so alive and colourful. Everywhere you look there’s something going on; ceremonies, bathing, boat fixing, laundry. Not that I’d have my laundry done in Varanasi, you’d put your hand in your pockets and find someone’s finger or something. There are chai wallahs and barbers, sadhus and beggars. There’s the usual array of stray dogs, one of which attacked a friend as we were walking for no reason so make sure you’ve had your shots, kids. And of course there are cows and waterbuffalos, just chilling, casually munching on some plastic. I like the tiny ones. They look less like they’re trying to work out the horn trajectory required to move you several metres to the left with a brand new hole where your ribcage used to be.
There are the men that dress up and charge tourists to take their photo too but there’s doubt as to whether they’re real sadhus or not. I’m not one for pointing a camera at someone, I’m way too self conscious, but when I’ve been walking with people who aren’t I’ve seen how people here will let you take their photo then demand money for it, and usually more than the standard ₹10 an’ all, especially the blokes dressed as holy men. Until a chick I was with raised her camera to a man wearing an orange robe, with grey dredds piled onto his head. He stopped, smiled the most serene, calm smile, allowed her to take the photo and as I was cringing, waiting for him to ask for ₹200, he simply walked away, still smiling. My friend was proper happy! “Now that’s a sadhu!” she said. And she was right. But that kind of behaviour is so rare here.
But let me tell you about this little girl we met. Usually I hate kids, especially kids with a gob on them but when this girl approached our little group of foreign backpackers and instantly started being rude to us I thought she was awesome! She asked me “what is all this?!” indicating my piercings, then told me someone would cut off my ear for the silver. I replied that it wasn’t silver and she said, “That doesn’t matter, no one will know, they will cut off your ear!” Dim, an Aussie which we were with said something and the girl looked at her. “What did you say? I can’t understand you. What is this accent?!” Dim was taken aback, she wasn’t fond of the gobby little spawn at all, and when Boris asked her if she went to school she responded with, “Why should I answer any of your questions when you won’t buy my flowers?” At this point she hadn’t even offered us any flowers, she was too bust verbally abusing us. She only smiled when I offered her ₹10 to take her photo and she replied, “Yes. Possible.” That level of sass from a small Indian girl who is clearly very intelligent and speaks excellent English? I genuinely hope she gets a proper education and goes far in life! She’s a legend.
So if you keep walking from Assi Ghat, past the main ghat and onwards it starts to get much quieter. People are still around doing what they do but there’s much less of a tourist vibe about it. One day we walked quite far down then caught a row boat back for ₹100 each as the boatman pointed out a few things to us. There are palaces along the ghats and on one of them there’s a line marked MFH. Maximum Flood Height. The river rises significantly during the monsoon and this particular year it got over halfway up the palace. And try to imagine Varanasi in the rain. I didn’t have to, it pissed it down a couple of times whilst I was here and it makes you pretty glad that your face is really far away from your feet.
It’s not just the ghats that are interesting to walk around, there’s a network of narrow streets just back from the river, only slightly wider than a large bovine but they’re filthy, even by the standards of someone who’s been in India for a while. They’re full of shit, like literal shit, and litter and the smell can be bad at the best of times, but add a downpour which turns everything on the floor into a thick, black sludge which probably contains enough disease to wipe out Wales and you start to wonder what you’re doing with your life. I still adore it though, there must be something wrong with me, I should probably get therapy or something when I’m home. It doesn’t matter how gross this city gets I could still walk around it all day, get lost in the back streets, get harassed on the ghats, get a thick, delicious lassi from Blue Lassi which is packed full of fresh fruit so I can pretend like I’m getting one of my five a day and totes justifying the fact that everything else I’ve eaten that day has pretty much been deep fried. There’s plenty of street food to keep your arteries in check and you’ll be invited into so many shops because looking is free, madam.
Everywhere you go in India it looks like minor stabbings have taken place. There are red splashes up walls and on floors. I think it’s called paan and it involves putting a load of stuff in a leaf and chewing on it. It turns your spit red and if you chew habitually you tend to go around looking like you just ripped someone’s throat out with your teeth. The people of Varanasi love this shit. Elsewhere in India I’ve seen people putting a betel nut with either a paste or a white powder in the leaf and chewing that but here they just go all out. I went on a mission to get some, it shouldn’t have been hard on account of the fact that every other shack, stall or hole in the wall is a paan shop here but the challenge was finding a wallah who spoke English. I couldn’t, but when I asked in one place there was a customer who did and he helped me. I don’t think they put the nut in it but he put about ten different kinds of sweet things including, and I shit you not, those little silver balls you use to decorate cakes. I shovelled it into my chops and instantly regretted it. It was a huge triangular parcel of leaf and diabetes. I could barely chew it and when I did it didn’t taste unpleasant, I just didn’t like having that much stuff in my mouth. The small audience that had gathered thought it was hilarious and one bloke said I could swallow it, it wasn’t betel nut or tobacco so it was ok. I couldn’t. I just gobbed it out onto the street because this is India and no one will judge you for it here. And that was my foray into the world of paan, but I still wanted to know more about it so I went on Krishna’s market tour.
The first stop was the paan market which was basically a massive room full of people selling leaves. Now, I could be totally wrong because in true Krishna style the explanations were roughly as clear as the sludge lining the back streets, but I think these were betel leaves. On the streets outside of this market there were stalls selling the chopped up nuts, and guess what? They’re not called betel nuts at all, they’re called areca nuts. All those betel nut trees we saw in Kerala and Goa? Areca nut trees. They’re just commonly referred to as betel nut on account of the leaf they’re associated with. And then there were blokes selling the sweet stuff to put in there. Jars and jars of candies. I get the feeling that the whole turning your paan into a dessert is a Varanasi thing. I’ve seen people chewing everywhere but only here have I noticed the sweets going in, and it only seems to be Varanasi where they stuff their chops so full of paan that it makes talking difficult. When you try to get directions or haggle with a tuk tuk driver you can’t tell what the fuck they’re saying because their words are trapped in enough crap to decorate a wedding cake. Anyway, I wasn’t much wiser by the time we moved on to the other markets.
We were lead through the pasta market which sold pasta (obviously) but in colours that looked like they contained enough E-numbers to keep the whole country’s toddler population bouncing off the walls. Who the fuck needs bright pink pasta in their lives?! Then there were the powder stalls and we got to a place selling these little snacks that look like thin, deep fried worms. A bloke was pushing dough over what looked like a massive grater and the little dough worms were falling into the oil and my god, I have no idea why they were so addictive but they were. We were taken to a sweet stall but Indian sweets make my teeth recoil in horror so I didn’t buy anything from there, then we stopped off for a chai in a traditional disposable clay pot. And then the last stop was the flower market. Mmm. That awkward moment when you have to stop yourself from jumping into piles of marigolds and rolling around in them. Way too tempting. They’re big business here, probably on account of all of the funerals that take place. In India, marigolds are used for pretty much everything including weddings, blessings, that sort of shenanigans.
But Varanasi. It’s a total fucking sensory overload, from dead bodies being carried past you as you casually sip your lassi, to the boatmen by the river trying to convince you that you need a jaunt on the Ganges in your life. Just spending the day walking around is utterly exhausting. It requires so much concentration in order to avoid ending up ankle deep in cow shit, or knee deep in a pile of rotting garbage, and you have to navigate your way around stubborn bovines, cyclist and people on scooters or motorbikes. Everyone wants your time or your money and if you say no it means maybe. It’s loud, people blast horns in alleyways and you have to spend the next ten minutes scraping your eardrums off the wall. It stinks, several different kinds of animals use the streets and the ghats as a toilet. It’s polluted, you’re essentially breathing in crematorium fumes near constantly. It’s busy, it’s dirty, on paper there’s not a single thing to like about Varanasi but the reality is that it gets you and you become addicted to it. I was only meant to stay for four nights and it’s one week later than I’m finally packing my things, and the only reason I’m leaving is because I really, really don’t want to be here for Holi. I love it here and honestly, I hope I can come back some day.
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India
Stayed at: Stops Hostel Varanasi