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Varanasi

A complicated place

Story by Rupert Marlow January 7th, 2016

Off to a bad start

I have been dreading writing this post since we left Varanasi for two reasons. Firstly, it is going to be impossible to explain how my interpretation went without writing about my feelings on religion and I don’t want to upset some of the Indian people we have met on this trip who I know will read this and also, looking back I am irritated that I let the place get to me in the way it did, making me feel I had wasted a day. However, I am sure my feelings on this astonishing place are not unique and people have felt similarly before and will do in the future.

The first part of this post outlines my initial, admittedly very negative responses to Varanasi. Later I realised that I was at the beginning of what turned out to be a very steep learning curve. Please bear with me.

To begin with, I really struggled with Varanasi. It was hot, smelly and full of people intent on flogging us a boat trip, a tuk-tuk ride or anything else. Some of the food stalls had worrying amounts of flies in residence. There was no peace. Anywhere. It was not possible to make it ten yards without the offer of a ‘boat trip sir’, all the way along the ghat-lined bank of the river, always followed with a ‘no thank you’ from us but unlike previous cities, the frequency was astonishing. The hawkers could see and hear you coming up the Ghats.

‘Boat?’, ‘no thank you’.

‘Boat?’, ‘no thank you’.

‘Boat?’, ‘no thank you’.

‘Boat?’, ‘no thank you’.

‘Boat?’, ‘no thank you’.

‘Boat?’, ‘no thank you’.

And one one occasion; ‘Boat?‘, ‘no thank you.’ ‘How about some weed my friend?’ This took me by surprise! ‘No thank you’.

I eventually pointed out to one (presumably well-meaning) hawker that he had just seen and heard us say no to the man before him and asked the me thought we may have changed our minds in the last 15 seconds. This was all within a matter of less than half a mile’s walk up the site of the Ganges from Assi Ghat at the southern end.

Having been reprimanded by Sarah for being rude, I decided the best course of action was to just ignore them and get on with photographing and leave the politeness to her.

Varanasi is probably the most surprising place we have visited so far. It certainly takes some getting used to. The streets are narrow, but that doesn‘t prevent people from driving their motorbikes (way too fast) down them, often just holding the horn down indefinitely and passing dangerously close and with one tiny mistake, a nasty end just could easily be the result.

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Cows

To Hindus, cows are sacred. They have free rein to wander as they please. Given that we grew up in Gloucestershire where farmers exercise their right to graze their cows and horses (and a few donkeys) on the common land it is not that much of a strange sight but to have a family of them standing in the side of (or right in the middle of) a main arterial road into a city is a little more unusual. They wander the narrow streets of Varanasi, passing intimidatingly close at times with mean-looking horns but are largely harmless and happy to be gently patted or stroked as they pass.

I personally don‘t understand attaching religious superiority to an object, whether it is books, people or animals. In the case of books, like the Q‘uran or Bible, I’m mystified as to how a copy on kindle works? Is it sacred while it‘s stored there and how can you ever justify deleting it!? Anyway, that‘s beside the point. To Hindus, the cow is sacred and no doubt they don‘t care what I think!

Given their sacred status, it is odd to see them often tied up on ropes so short they cannot lift their heads or get much movement at all. A huge number are so malnourished it is amazing they are still able to walk. We saw cows eating plastic, cardboard and any manner of revolting waste. We have since learned (although this hasn‘t always been the case) that only the female cows are sacred. From memory, the tied up ones were mainly male or water-buffalo (not sacred). It wasn‘t until we were 7 weeks into this trip that the details were explained to us - by an extremely knowledgable guide. We were under the impression that all were sacred so, in hindsight, I suppose, my irritation here was partially borne out of my own ignorance - not something (my wife reminds me) I admit easily!

It just seemed to me that if something is sacred, would this not include an element of care? We still saw shop keepers hit cows, regardless of sex, as they passed and one man (though not in Varanasi I might add) hurling rocks at one to get it away from his house. It seems to me that they are likely to have a better existence on a farm where they could, instead of rubbish and discarded curry, eat grass - which they and their 5 stomachs are designed for and where while their end might be a little premature, it‘ll be a damn-site quicker than starving to death or being hit by a car or bus.

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The Ganges

The Ganges is the Hindu holy river and Varanasi is the centre of the Hindu Universe. However, that doesn‘t prevent people from openly defecating and/or urinating within meters of the shoreline where 10 minutes later, another man or woman will be washing themselves or their children, or for that matter, their water-buffalo. At one place, two urinals have been bolted to the wall of a ghat, with no plumbing whatsoever, rendering them completely pointless. The waste simply had nowhere to go but into the river.

There is an issue of pollution from heavy industry upstream - an issue the government is attempting to improve. This is a huge concern for the Hindus and rightly so but the industries aren‘t accountable for the plastic, effluent and general mess that it tossed on the ground by all and sundry and washed into the river on a daily basis.

The water is foul. It has a scum floating on it that collects in the calm nooks and crannies in the bank, punctuated by bottles and other refuse that is casually discarded.

I’m mystified as to how, if the river is sacred, much like the cows, ignoring the upstream-industry, again, part of the responsibility of the people who worship it is not to wilfully contribute to its deterioration. I was, at one point, carrying a crushed water bottle in my pocket waiting to find a rubbish bin (they do exist - but seem optional) but our guide (moments after explaining how the squalor is an issue), took it from my pocket and chucked it down on the ground with another pile of rubbish simply on the street corner.

All religions come with an element of hypocrisy, and truly inexplicable reasons behind many of their beliefs, disregarding plenty of rational explanations for many events. It seemed here that there was an element of colossal disrespect for the entire place while hoping to die there to have ones sins purged immediately - implying that one’s actions while alive are irrelevant.

My proof reader (a highly qualified academic and talented photographer, Alex Rotas, who ‘gets me‘) warns that at this point I sound a little like a ‘British army officer on a soap box.’ With my wife choosing the phrase ‘miserable git‘ but in my defence, this was only on Day 1. On Day 1 I was a miserable git. My intention is not to offend or alienate anyone but simply to explain an admittedly naive introduction to a complicated experience.

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Learning to Understand

I had read (somewhere) that of the 1.2 (or so) billion people now living in India, 40% exist on under $1 a day (approx £250 a year). This sounded high to me by we asked a few of our guides on the way round northern India and they all said that it was accurate and likely a little low due to large numbers of unregistered citizens.

It is easy to see how with such poverty, there may not be any choice in what we consider such basic actions.

If you die in Varansi, as a Hindu, they believe it guarantees passage on to the next bit so the population of the city is both transient and by the very nature of the place, sick, old and dying. There is one Ghat that performs cremations 24 hours a day where you can pay for specific woods (of varying price and quality) and your pyre is evaluated based on your body‘s bulk, with the leftover skulls and spines thrown into the river when not burned through, making space for the next.

It is impossible to understand Varanasi without the wider context of religious importance, coupled with crippling levels of poverty and the inevitability of death.

One day, sitting in a Lassie shop, we had a single drink, for perhaps 20 minutes, but 3 processions passed carrying bodies towards the Holy River to be washed before their cremation. It is amazingly frequent.

If a family cannot afford the wood, the body is wrapped up with stones and pushed out into the river. It is not uncommon to see bodies that have lost their ballast, floating in the Ganges.

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Appreciation

Our second day in the town, beginning with a sunrise boat tour, where we found the experience extremely tranquil. This gave out guide a chance to explain in more detail about Varanasi as a whole without having to compete with the horns from passing motorcycles and shop keepers asking us in for ‘just looking’! We learned of the industries and significance of the various buildings and temples. The stories behind the symbolism and while Sarah loved Varanasi from the beginning, I was only just starting to appreciate it for what it was.

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After lunch, we had another, lengthy walking tour ending up in the Muslim quarter - where the saris and fine cloth is loomed, by hand in some places - we could hear the ‘clickerty-clack‘ of production and from what we saw, the craftsmanship was exquisite. Many garments being made for an individual‘s final, one way trip to the side of the Holy River.

We met the local wrestlers in their quadrangle, dressed in orange sumo-style nappies, who were only too glad to pose for photos. We bought a bunch of kites - a popular toy - for the children who ‘ruled‘ parts of the riverside.

By accepting the place as a whole, I began to understand what The Treasurer (Sarah) could see all along. Varanasi was intense, beyond belief, but also beautiful in its simplicity and up-front honesty. There were smart palaces and hotels but unless inside the gates, you had no choice but to get stuck in.

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in hindsight

A good gauge of a place (for me) is the imagery I end up with both in terms of quantity and standard (by my own personal judgement). Once we left Varanasi, the images I have kept show me, on reflection that I was unfair to react so badly to the place. I have some of my favourite images from our few days there.

It is filthy, smelly, rammed and uncomfortable but that is how it is, it is also beautiful, calm in places (they do exist) and above all, whether I agree or not, of extreme importance to the Hindus (like Mecca is to Muslims) many of whom make the pilgrimage and if they are ‘lucky‘ die there.

The infrastructure simply cannot cope with the massively fluctuating numbers of people.

I actually miss it, and regret being so judgemental on our first day. For me, as a man with the emotional depth of a teaspoon, to have to confront death so openly was hard. I really struggle with funerals and the idea of death. Having had my grandfathers funeral only a few months earlier, I was probably just retreating into my emotionless ‘defensive mode‘ rather than accepting the place for what it is, which led to picking faults and being argumentative with and about things I cannot change.

From a comfortable rooftop restaurant Udaipur - where I am finishing this post, both The Treasurer and I agreed that if you want to see genuine India and only have 24-47 hours. Varanasi it the place. You can experience everything there from each end of the scale, from palaces to slums and all within a few kilometres.

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Footnote: All images were shot on Fujifilm’s excellent X100s, X-T1 or iPhone 6s Plus between 30 November and 2 December 2015. Property of Rupert Marlow. All rights reserved.
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India