Planet Benares

This ain’t no Bollywood, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around.

Not that I spent much time trying, but nothing I could have done would have prepared me for this place. From the moment one steps off the train in Varanasi, to be greeted by the full frontal assault to all senses, every living second is an eternal struggle to survive. The mere act of traversing a single city block, if completed without being killed or driven insane, feels like the most monumental of accomplishments.

On the street, the vehicles’ horns are blaring every second of every day – and they’ve apparently been modded in some way, because they’re frickin’ louder here than anywhere else. Sidewalks? Forget about it. You take your chances in the street, along with the bovines, the mountains of rubble and trash, and every kind of wheeled contraption the imagination can conjure – the latter all coming at you as fast as they’re able; giving no quarter, taking no prisoners.

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Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in Hinduism; the place where kings come to be cremated, their ashes strewn to the Ganges. It means, among other things, that the cows are free to come and go as they please. In practice, you’ll find them eating out of streetside garbage heaps.

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The people also show their reverence to the sacred cows by throwing bricks at them, beating them with lead pipes, and grabbing them by the horns and violently torqueing their necks. Yay, religion!

Indeed, if there’s a Garden Of Eden, Varanasi may be the place it’s furthest from. In no place I have ever been is humans beings’ unceasing war on Mother Nature more obvious. Sure, I’m well aware that the U.S. of A., accounting for 5% of the World’s population, produces 50% of its waste. But, we’re good enough at burying it underground and offshoring it to “vastly underpolluted” Africa, that we’re kind of sort of able to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Varanasi’s in-your-face waste disposal may be more honest than the Americans’ out-of-sight-out-of-mind solution – but that doesn’t make it more palatable. When one’s nose is beset by the smoke of one of a million fires of burning plastic, it’s only to hope and pray that the next step will bring a return to the relatively benign waft of human/animal faeces.

And when one chances to see a moment of tenderness amidst the raging turmoil – a single flower mounted atop a vendor’s Snap Peas, for example, or a puppy having a nap on a bed of leaves – it’s almost enough to make one believe that there actually may be a god up there.

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Already surly thanks to my train’s having arrived six hours behind schedule, by the time I’d run the one-hour gauntlet from the train station to my hostel, I wanted with every fibre of my being to turn ’round and march my dimpled ass right back to Kathmandu.

Not that there hadn’t been some endearing moments: Seeing a line of ladies carrying duffel bags full of stuff down the street on the tops of their heads, say; or a little girl making a delivery from her parents’ restaurant, being very careful not to spill a drop. But if going out to explore a city requires one to first attach a pair of plugs into the ears, a clothespin over the nose, and a breathing tube down the throat…kinda takes away the allure.  I’d promised some people in Kathmandu, however, that I’d not judge India by Varanasi. And I did want to check out the ghats, of course.

When the hostel’s owner pulled out a map of the city and started marking off cool places to see and awesome things to do, and told me a bit about the its history – apparently, Varanasi vies with Marrakesh for the distinction of the World’s longest-standing city of continuous occupation – I purposed to give it a chance. “So, the cremation ghats are in operation from sunrise ‘til sunset?” I naively asked him. He responded that the cremations have been ongoing 24/7/365 for centuries! That bit of trivia elicited a gulp or three.

So, I set out to see the city in a different light. And…while it may be the most stomach-turning place in which I’ve set foot, it might also be the most compelling. But for that, it’s completely impossible to adequately describe or portray. The most apt way of  putting it might be to say that if Terry Gilliam and Werner Herzog in their primes had collaborated to make a picture, the result might have been something like Varanasi. Think, e.g., Brazil and Munchausen mashed up with Fitzcarraldo and Stroszek — but that still doesn’t even begin to give the impression.

The wonderful, shocking, fantastical, disturbing images arrive in such flurries of abundance that one is reluctant to even reach for the camera, in fear that so doing will result, in the blink of two eyes, in one’s having missed a half-dozen indelible moments. That said, I have managed to cobble a few snaps from Varanasi, and uploaded them to the old Flickr page. Have a look — but just know that this place is 10,000 times more intense than the pictures might suggest.

The people (especially the menfolk, with their impossibly beautiful crops of hair — they keep making fun of me for not having any — and/or headgear) couldn’t possibly be more fascinating to look at.

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The street art is phenomenal.

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The temples are magnificent (though non-Hindus aren’t given full access to their glories).

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The music is nothing short of staggering. The hostel has nightly activities, and Saturday’s – just happened to be the day of my arrival – is a trip to the International Music Centre Ashram’s twice-weekly concert night. This performance pegged in at a whopping 100 Rupees (about $1.80).

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And if you think witnessing those fingers of fire couldn’t possibly be topped, on the way back to the hostel, I broke off from the group to go check out a wedding celebration happening down a side-alley.

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Uh, could I get a, “Holy god damn”? First night in India (not counting the seventeen hours spent in the train station in Gorakhpur): A scant few hours before, I’d wanted to turn tail and run; now, I thought I could spend the all of my remaining days on Planet Earth right here in Varanasi. I was completely in thrall to the Indian experience — and I hadn’t even yet paid visit to the city’s main attraction, the riverside ghats.

That would have to wait another day, it turned out, as my second day in the city was given over to a free music programme celebrating, in the words of its advertising poster, “the auspicious occasion of the centenary of the birth of Sarangi Maestro Pt. Hanuman Prasad Misra”. Seven stunning performances (actually, one of them was a more modern, synth-poppy kind of a deal which I could’ve taken or left), spread over two sessions, which left my jaw permanently affixed to the ground.

Didn’t take much footage, as they were being kind of buttholes about recording, and I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact of my audio recordings. These clips are neither from the best of the performances, nor are they the best passages of the given performances. Still, you’ll like what you see.

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Will attempt, over the next days, to get my audio files uploaded, and then share them in this space.

And, even yet, we’re not finished with the musics! Had to make another trip to the train station, this time to book a ticket for Agra. The attempt to secure train tickets in India can be a most exasperating experience – I’m beginning to suspect that trying to book tickets and waiting on late trains will end up consuming a good 80% of my waking hours here. However, when celebrations such as this one (if I understood correctly the gentleman who explained it to me, marking the visit of the president of Uttar Pradesh) can certainly help to take the edge off.

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Moreover!, a few nights after that first experience, I chanced to spy a second wedding down a second side-alley (I hear that it’s wedding season right now) – and this one, rather than winding down, was just ratcheting up. I don’t know whether guidebooks list Indian weddings as must-see attractions – but if not, they fucking well ought to. I spent so much time hanging ‘round this one, taking photos and footage, that I was invited inside to hang out in an anteroom with half-a-dozen other gents — including the groom, who was a few minutes away from going to get on the horse and begin the procession.

That was pretty thrilling — though, because of not wanting to be a cultural dickwad, I ended up eating some pastries which were offered to me. The portions were small enough that I didn’t get too sick – just a scratchy throat for most of the next day. But I’m realising that I must be more resolute in declining celebration foods here on the subcontinent, as this is now twice that I’ve succumbed. Just gotta tell ‘em, I guess, that it’s doctor’s orders: I’m only to consume fruit.

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As is the case everywhere, kids are just the best. These ones were very insistent that I ought to check out their kite-flying skillz (which, indeed, were most impressive).

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One hears so much of the Indian predilection toward cricket; but seems to me that kite-flying is well the overweening preoccupation – at least in Varanasi. It appears that any kid’s two most prized possessions are his kite and his bicycle. This little boy here offered to let me try my hand. When I declined, his reply of, “No problem, my friend,” was so astonishingly genuine that my heart just up and melted all over the floor. A few days later now, I still can’t stop thinking about how wonderful that moment was.

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On that walk back from the train station into town, rather than angrily telling the pushy rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers to stop pestering me, and pointing at and shouting down especially egregious hornsmiths, I was instead shaking hands with any and every person who said hello. Walking through a backroads area, these schoolkids, much as had those in Kathmandu, hammed it up for all their collective worth.

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A few days later, walking through another backroads area, the kids down at the Aryan Sporting Club were very friendly…

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…but in a shocking turn of events, all but these two were too shy to line up for a photograph. Well, these two are dashing enough for twenty, so I guess it all works out in the end.

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If I told you how much I love this photo, you’d call me a damned fool j-jackass. Be that as it may, I think my all-time number-one travel tip is to make sure one sets aside time in each place to simply walk around the local areas of cities and towns, off the beaten paths. You’ll know you’re in the right areas when you don’t see any other white faces about. Not saying to avoid the tourist attractions; just don’t rush away without having mixed it up with the locals as well.

Meanwhile, this Chai Master is clearly hopped up on something – and I don’t think it’s his own tea.

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And a visit inside the Old City’s narrow and winding alleys is another adventure unto itself. Witness here the magically persistent rhythm of a print job in process.

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…And then there are the ghats. While the polar opposite of the streets’ chaotic turmoil, visiting the ghats is an even more overwhelming experience than walking the city. When seen from a boat, the Ganges lives up to or even surpasses its dirty/polluted reputation. But when viewed from the ghats, it’s a sight so beautiful that when taking it in it requires actual, physical effort to hold back one’s tears.

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While this may be especially true while observing the cremations and the evening puja ceremonies…

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…it’s not exclusively true then. Even though it’s more a carnival atmosphere down there than spiritual – kids playing cricket and flying kites and breakdancing…

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…goofballs dressed up like “holy men” and asking for donations, people pissing and cows shitting all over the steps, hawkers selling trinkets or hash – it’s just about impossible to be in that place and keep oneself from bawling one’s fool head off.

Nobody despises the major religions more than I (and the Hindus’ self-righteous bullshit money-grubbing masquerading itself as piety puts them right up there near the top of my shitlist), there is something undeniably powerful about being in this place – much like the upwelling of emotion one feels while visiting Chiang Mai’s temples. In addition to the river, it may have something to do with the enormity of the architecture. It certainly does feel as though this place was built by and for gods – or at least giants among men.

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Whatever the cause, it’s impossible to overstate the effect — at least upon yours truly.

Varanasi’s treasures beggar the imagination…but so too do its ecological profanities. So which is the real India — the shithole from Hell, or the endlessly fascinating Fantasia of Being? Which image, one wonders, is the more appropriate, the former or the latter:

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One would love to believe in the latter. The people so friendly and funny and interesting and fashionable and cool, their artistic endeavours so stirring of the soul, their creations and ceremonies so powerful and intense, their foods so pungent and flavourful. The heart pines for these moments of wonder and beauty to be always and ever possible. Life’s pageant is nowhere, in my experience, so rich as it is here in Varanasi. But, ultimately, the mind knows that the heartful Varanasi, like the whole of the failed human experiment, is a chimera.

Life during wartime? In Varanasi, there is no distinction: Life is wartime. Humans cannot and will not — until they’ve killed each and every living thing, including themselves — cease making war upon the very mother from whose womb they have sprung. That’s the only real truth, in all its ruthless brutality — and in Varanasi, that truth is laid bare for all to see and feel.

Still, should one ever want to know what it is to be truly and fully alive on Planet Human, come pay it a visit. You’ll not be disappointed.

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