Our next stop was Varanasi, one of the holiest Hindu cities on earth, and also one of the oldest living cities in the world. It sits on the Ganges River, and according to the Hindu religion, anyone who dies here will attain instant moksha, or enlightmentment, so the city is said to be teeming with the old and infirm hoping for the fast-track to spiritual fulfillment.
We were a bit apprehensive about this destination, as it would be our first big city since our anxiety-ridden stay in Kolkata, but we were pleased to find the crumbling old metropolis warm and welcoming. We stayed near the city’s old part, beneath an incongruous Korean cafe restaurant offering Korean comfort food, helpful advice, and excellent music. Our neighborhood was set on the river and pleasantly away from the honking horns and gridlock that was so stressful in Kolkata, instead featuring a maze of crisscrossing pedestrian alleyways that reminded us fondly of our time in Stone Town.
The city’s focal point is the river, which is at its most lively around dawn and dusk, when you can’t walk on the bank without hearing dozens of men offer, “boat, sir?”. The river’s entire bank is covered in ghats, stone staircases leading directly down into the water, where the city’s faithful pray, practice yoga, and even cremate their dead; and where everyone washes themselves, their clothes, and their chai cups, questionably–but inevitably–just downstream from where a few dozens of the city’s bovine residents are relieving themselves…
To leave ourselves in a pleasant mood for our sleeper class overnight train, on our last evening we dropped in on a classical music concert and enjoyed a trio consisting of a lightning-fast tabla player accompanying a sitar player whose expressive face changed to reflect every nuance in the complicated ragas, and a stoic sarangi player who matched him note for note.
In the end, we found Varanasi to be as dirty as any other Indian city, but perhaps endearingly so. A city with a walking pace and a passionate and devoted community, it made us more comfortable with the country’s big cities, and excited to keep moving west to visit more of them!