A day or two after the worst of the effects of food poisoning had subsided, i was stumbling along the twisty narrow alleys of Varanasi’s labyrinthian old city, cursing the hand-pulled carts, wild cows and occasional motorcycle when i looked out at the flickering lights being lit along the cobblestoned street to the sound of a thousand bells being run at a thousand shrines. Smoke from crude charcoal ovens of street kitchens selling chai, samosas, dosas and other bits and pieces had begun to choke the still street-level air but the occasional brightly coloured kite could still be seen darting between the narrow crumbling terraced houses high overhead catching the last of the sunlight.
My mood lifted then. Sure the lanes are full of rubbish, cow manure, mangy stray dogs, the occasional dead animal and stinks of piss and it’s almost impossible to walk more than fifty meters without being accosted by beggers, touts, scammers and drug dealers but that’s part and parcel of the whole thing, that’s part and parcel of visiting Lankhmar.
It is a bit geeky comparing Varanasi to Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber’s creation but it’s the only way I can concisely convey what Varanasi feels like at least to fellow geeks who have read Leiber’s sword and sorcery series. For those who havent, Erickson’s Darujhistan or Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpock might have to do as pale shadows – the Ganges is not quite as bad to look at as the river Ankh but is quite as deadly in microbacterial count.
There’s a thriving backpacker community here even if it seems that all the backpackers are dreadlocked hippies. The town is popular for its classical indian music and dance classes and of course for its marijuana. Part of that could be that Varanasi is a town dedicated to the god Shiva and Shiva’s favourite food is apparently bhang lassi – a yoghurt drink spiked with hashish. We were here during a big Shiva festival and there was a lot of that floating around, bhang lassis being apparently legal for religious reasons with hashish and dope being illegal still. The regulations doesnt make that much sense to me, and not it seems to many of the drug dealers here either – they deal quite openly and are persistent in trying to sell hashish. I’ve had to tell a number of them that I am Buddhist and hence do not take any drugs before they got the idea. It seems that religion makes a good argument either way.
Seeing as I have little interest in drugs or music lessons there’s not much for me to do in Varanasi but it’s surprising how easy it is to fall into a routine of meditating before dawn, having a chai by the Ganges watching the sun rise, then in between eating at various places, wandering around the alleys or along the river taking in the markets, the people, the temples and how it is all cramped into a tiny multi leveled space.
There is stuff to see: the burning ghats where for centuries hindus have been piling up bits of wood and burning their dead on the river bank under the open sky, the buddhist pilgrimage site of Sarnath some kilometres out and the main temples on the river itself but that takes a couple of days at the most. It’s the pushing mess of life in the maze that is most interesting.
We’re heading on now to Jhansi and a small town called Occha in Madhya Pradesh and then on to Khajuharo before back to Jhansi. It’s a little bit of backtracking as the trains going in our preferred direction were full but it’s just a few extra hours on the train. I will miss Varanasi though and the strangely comforting enclosed world of its old city.