This might be true for most places in India, but Varanasi in particular is a city that demands you to be present. All the time. If you get distracted, you will get lost on the narrow lanes behind the ghats. You will step on poo (dog, cow, monkey, human, goat, take your pick). You will have your fruits stolen by monkeys and peed on by street dogs. You will get harassed by vendors offering haxixe, flowers, boat and rickshaw rides for 3 times the local price. You will be “blessed” and asked for money in return. You will be conned by impressive looking “holy men”, with their long dreads, turbans, mala beads and naked torsos covered in ash.
It is intense and it can be overwhelming to stay constantly alert and have all your senses stimulated at the same time all the time: ears pierced by the loud sounds of horns, pujas, screaming children. Nostrils suddenly invaded by alternating smells of food, sewage, burning bodies, sandalwood. Eyes bombarded by an explosion of colours from the clothes hanging to dry by the ghats, the beautifully patterned saris of the large women walking around, the powerful greens, reds, yellows and blues of the building walls. Eyes that at the same time are blurred by the constant fog that gives an eerie. surreal touch to each sunrise and sunset. Tastebuds awakened by the sweetness of the street chais, the spiciness of the pickles, the pipping hot air coming out of a fresh roti and the sourness of the curds. You will be touched (a lot): on your forehead for a blessing, unsolicited handshakes from sadhus, tiny hands pulling your shirt begging for money, even surprising hugs from a mad baba dancing on the streets. And you will be pushed and shoved and squeezed in line to pay respects to Shiva, Durga, Ganesh. As if everybody’s devotion is more important than yours, as if you’re an alien in a sea of bright saris and extended arms, as if people’s lives depended on the 3 seconds they spend touching the lingham and bowing to the deities.
In the middle of this madness you will feel angry, lost, annoyed, sad, crazy, dizzy and out of place. So be alert. Be vigilant. Be present all the time. Otherwise you will miss the split second when the sun rises, fluorescent orange, behing the mighty Ganges. You will miss the colourful spectacle of the laundry extended along the ghats. You will miss the smile of a happy child and the penetrating gaze of a serious-looking sadhu. You will miss the rough gentleness of the chai wallahs and the snake on the side of the road. You will miss the moment a body starts to burn and the sense of respect, completion and impermanence it brings. You will miss the families bathing in the river, men in underwear, women completely covered, children naked, together in their daily cleansing ritual. You will miss the French doctors, diligently looking after and offering free medical care to those who cannot afford treatment otherwise, children and adults alike, all sitting around a couple of tables that form the improvised clinic under the shade of Harishchandra Ghat. You will miss the energy permeating the whole city, sometimes subtle, sometimes aggressive, that works its magic within you without you realising it. And suddenly you notice the beauty in all that is ugly, the silence in the middle of all the noise, the perfect sense and order in all the chaos. It’s not easy to be in Varanasi, but perhaps it’s even more difficult to leave it.