After Agra, I went to Delhi to meet Helene who was flying over from the UK for two weeks. I didn’t see much of Delhi because we flew to Varanasi on the same day that she landed.
For some people, Varanasi represents real India. All the icons are here: snake charmers, people begging (with and without disabilities), cremations on the Ganges, bazaars in labyrinthine narrow streets, noise, pollution, dirt, spitting (sometimes red paan saliva), bathing in the Ganges, and sadhus.
Years ago, this is what I imagined India to be like. It was one reason I didn’t come to India earlier: I thought I would find it a harrowing experience. However, from what I’ve seen of India over the past few months, Varanasi is now the exception not the norm.
For Helene, returning to India after twelve years, Varanasi was an assault on the senses. The dust, dirt and noise that we saw on her first full day overwhelmed her. Being used to it, I had not realised how hard India can sometimes be to newcomers. I had forgotten what my first few days were like. Subsequently we paced ourselves better. Walking along the ghats (the steps by the river) was especially tranquil. However, even the ghats had a flip side. There are some aspects of Varanasi that you cannot avoid.
Death is a visible part of everyday life in Varanasi – whether it’s locals dying or those who have specifically come to Varanasi to die. This is no bad thing but it is gruelling to witness. For some people who come to Varanasi to die, there is a place they can stay. They have two weeks to die. I don’t know what happens if they’re still alive after two weeks. You see people dying on the ghats. You see dead people fully wrapped in cloth being stretchered through the streets to the ghats. And you see the dead being cremated on the ghats throughout the day. Wood is stockpiled ready for the next cremation.
We went on an early morning boat ride and were not discouraged to take photos of people being cremated. To many tourists, this was an unfamiliar sight. It triggered the usual flurry of photographs.
It’s easy to become voyeuristic unless you remember these are real people dying or being cremated, sometimes alone, sometimes surrounded by loved ones.