Varanasi Old Town, India

Oh the guidebook is having a definite laugh with this place. One of the ‘ancient, holiest & most spiritual’ places on earth? Oh my god, it’s like being in a surreal dream where it’s the END of the earth. Only rabid dogs, opium fueled vagabonds and lost hippies have survived.

It’s a truly awful place. It feels quite menacing too with its miles of decrepit, dark alleyways and rumors of organized crime dens hidden behind the Silk shop factory facades. Guesthouses lock their doors at 10pm nightly, as rumor has it the streets are not somewhere you want to be. Which, coming from India, is quite the scaremongering.

The famous Holy Ganges River stretches the length of the city. I say river, but ‘large narrow filthy toxic puddle,’ might be more accurate rather than a place to come to bathe away your sins and discover higher being. We walk the East bank at sunset across a dozen or so ‘Ghats.’ These are the huge steps you see for the washing, wringing, and drying of laundry.

Most people come here to see that colorful postcard image that resonates India; that of local’s bathing in their bright multicoloured sari’s. Let’s be fair though, the more disturbed of us come to see the famous Harishchandra Ghat , and the famous cremation of dead bodies. Yep, side by side to where the daily washing takes place.

Now I don’t want to imply that thousands of people across thousands of centuries can be wrong, but I’m just not convinced that having your corpse burned by the side of this mangy river, is that grand a send off. It’s around 5pm in the evening and there are handfuls of locals hanging around 3 or 4 small campfires. Everyone looks a little lost, but no one particularly mournful. Two men are busy shaving the head of a poor 18 month old baby, apparently a tradition which signifies it’s the boy’s father that is being cremated. There’s smoke blowing into your nostrils but not the fleshy smell you would expect, nothing to mask the normal India smells of urine, cows, dogs, and spices anyway.

Maybe what shatters the illusion for me is that there’s trance music playing in the background. Apparently it’s one of the local guy’s birthdays, which would explain why there are also a pack of opium fueled young men looking dazed to the world, but still leering sadly at women. By 7pm like hundreds of others, we reach Dasawamedh Ghat, for the nightly rituals of dance & prayer for the day’s dead. Amongst the sea of sari’s and orange flowers that are scattered on platforms and lit by fire-light, there seems to be a mass of confusion. No one seems quite sure why they are there or what they are looking at. Perhaps I’m missing the point, but it’s not a particularly nice place to be. I can’t shift a slight feeling of voodoo. Creepy.

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An.an.tas.in : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

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