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Varanasi -Taking No Prisoners or Imprisoning No One?


Varanasi is littered with grimy, intricate alleyways that resemble a maze. You never know what’s around the corner, from heaving black and white cows to rusty old dogs eating last week’s garbage.

Someone leaning over your table at a desolate, dirty old bar in Delhi to inform you that the place you are about to travel to takes no prisoners is always concerning. But as two South Africans and one New Zealander discovered, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The destination in question was Varanasi, a.k.a. the home of the great Ganges river, a.k.a. a place we should brace ourselves for, apparently.

So, in the words of Journey, we took the midnight train from Delhi to Varanasi. Turns out the midnight train deserves the title takes no prisoners far more than the city does. This train orders you aboard, sleeps you at the mercy of the three or four other passengers in your cabin, and can’t be done without a small prayer.

We were in sleepers’ class (you could pay more and be a lot more comfortable), which involves signing a waiver to say you won’t blame the train company if you get ‘poisoned, raped or murdered’, and a hard bed without a blanket or pillow.

The journey’s a long one and we arrived in Varanasi after more than 12 hours traveling. Looking around Varanasi’s train station it seemed our cubical transported us back to India circa 1930. Beggars and hungry children congregated at the old, run-down station. As we ventured into the harsh light of day we were greeted by cows, dust, dirt, tuk-tuks and no roads in sight.

And there we were. Varanasi. A city of many names: the spiritual capital of India, the holy city, or, to quote the best one I’d heard so far, the oldest living city on earth. One can only imagine how many incarnations these cows had been through.

The first thing you notice upon arrival is that it’s nothing like the other parts of India. Oh no, Delhi and Mumbai ain’t got nothing on this spiritual being. Varanasi has a real yesteryear charm to it, and a spirit that rises from the ashes burning daily along the Ganges. It’s warm, inviting, and there is something spectacular about the stone buildings with their ever-present rooftop wash lines. At dusk, another name for Varanasi could be the City of Kites as you can glance up to the sky and see hundreds of them.

Varanasi is a place for the mind to wander, and for the fast pace of the western world to be mocked. These people are interested in spirituality, bathing in their beloved Mother (the Ganges), and finding comfort in the fact that upon death they will be returned to her.

Varanasi is littered with grimy, intricate alleyways that resemble a maze. You never know what’s around the corner, from heaving black and white cows to rusty old dogs eating last week’s garbage.

We attended a cremation ceremony at sunset. Once again, the familiar smell of incense and candles filled our noses as trails of smoke came forth from the flames of the ceremonial fire.

It’s a strange thing watching a cremation. Yet here, partly due to the primary faith being Hinduism, there is a very different attitude towards death. Bells, chants, and bright colors are a staple in India, and they were a staple this night as well, as attendees celebrated death rather than mourning it.

The following morning we were up before dawn to see something all visitors witness: a sunrise on the Ganges. A pulsating ripple of joy flowed through my body as I watched the sun makes it way up from the horizon against a backdrop of Indian men rowing along in their boats. Once the sun had risen, we were greeted by a barrage of sights. There were young men helping old ladies into the river to wash. There were old men and women praying. There were groups of ladies laughing and talking to each other as they washed. And then there were the men who left little to the imagination as they immersed themselves completely naked in the waters of the Ganges. Of course, we were the ones imposing on them.

We retired for breakfast at the superb Pizzeria Vaatika Café, a popular haunt for foreigners. We ordered paneer cheese sandwiches and famous Chai Masala tea. It is the staple drink here in India, and has a delightfully sweet-peppery taste. After breakfast, we strolled alongside the mighty Ganges. There we saw an old man sitting on a ledge facing the river, looking like an ancient watch-keeper.


It is all about birth and rebirth in this city. Every night smoke bellows from the cremation ceremonies, while every morning the city is revived and resurrected through the art of bathing. I met several tourists who had found themselves half way through a masters or PhD program only to discover that it wasn’t what they wanted to do any longer. These people had come to Varanasi to cleanse their minds of what they thought they wanted to be. We encountered a Canadian man that had found himself on the cusp of 27, halfway through a masters degree that was boring him to death. He spent his days drawing Indian gods and gurus on the rooftop of our guest house overlooking the Ganges. Most mornings he would wonder down to the Ganges river, and most evenings we would chat about life and our career choices. He surprised us one evening by informing us that he might even look into English teaching in Korea after he leaves India.

Our tuk-tuk driver was very obliging in Varanasi, and post-Ganges river our driver and tour guide took us to a temple that was plastered in ancient Hindi and Buddhist script. We were given flower necklaces and had some kind of powder pressed into our foreheads by a holy man. We were introduced to a stone cow, draped in necklaces, and told to whisper our most private wishes into his ear. A strange thing to do when you realize you are whispering to a fake cow, surrounded by intrigued Indian locals. We then checked out  a silk market where scarves, duvets, and table runners were flung in our direction. Much like Thailand or Cambodia these shops are all about the tourists and getting a sale, but they still showed us a bit of Varanasi’s culture. Plus, the delicate, smooth feeling of the silk is worth it. Silk shops are littered throughout the city, and young men spend their days working the silk in small shops, while cows lounge about outside.

In the end, I found Varanasi undeserving of its title as the city that takes no prisoners. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t. And it never will. You either take Varanasi as it is or you ship out immediately. But there’s also another train of thought you can dive into. That is Varanasi with all it’s dust and dirt, grime and slum-like charm, relaxed locals and at times confused foreigners, being a city that is not for the faint hearted.

Photos by Frances McAdam




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