This is a place that can’t fail to have an impact on you. It’s a brash, loud, dirty, salt-of-the-earth city and on my first visit about four years ago, I hated the place. Somehow, despite my initial revulsion, I always had an inkling I’d end up back here.
A bumpy re-entry
Arriving to Varanasi is, I imagine, something akin to the feeling experienced by an astronaut re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere: bumpy, loud, hot and traumatic.
Sandwiched between another family in our shared tuk-tuk and with our backpacks on our laps, we make it to the city centre. Peeling ourselves off the seats and tumbling into the crowded streets. It’s not long before a local tout, there are many, latches onto us and insists he take us to a hotel. We can’t shrug him off and he continues to follow us into each of the hostels we visit. We end up arguing with him in the street. Why did I come back here again?
Fascinating and frustrating
The most fascinating things about Varanasi are also often the most frustrating things. It’s one of the world’s longest inhabited cities and so the streets in the oldest part of town are narrow and cobbled and throughly unsuitable for the sheer volume of pilgrims and tourists that grace these sacred lanes. But you’d be hard pushed to find a more atmospheric and characterful place.
People often talk of Varanasi in highly spiritual terms, as a calm and tranquil place. This opinion often spills out of the mouths of elephant-pant clad westerners, who think they should join in with the bathing rituals performed in the Ganges (I’d give this a wide berth unless you’ve got a thing for giardia). They sit along the banks of the Ganges strumming their guitar (of course) and smoking up a storm with a Saddhu. I’m here to tell you that, unless you’re a Hindu pilgrim, that’s crap. Calm it is not, but fascinating yes!
An undeniable allure
Varanasi’s allure is undeniable. Particularly if you wander along the ghats at sunrise, or take a boat out at sunset. It’s hard to describe the impact I felt wash over me the first time I was here and again on this visit. You don’t come here for a relaxing lie-in, the temple bells and rowdy pilgrims will put paid to that. There are cows (and therefore cowshit) everywhere so a walk around the city requires nimble feet. The touts along the ghats are more annoying than mosquitos, so you expend energy swatting them away. But in spite of all this, I will go back again. Because there simply is nowhere quite like Varanasi.
Here are 30 photos which convey the strange magic of Varanasi.