(February 2011) Mark Twain once said of Varanasi, “It is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. It is also dirtier then all other places put together too! That aside, it is an iconic city that pulsates with life and is spiritual to the core. Varanasi is a city situated on the banks of the holiest River Gangas. It is regarded as a holy city by Buddhists and Jains, and is the holiest place in the world to Hindus. The city has been a cultural and religious centre in North India for several thousand years and many prominent Indian philosophers, poets, writers, and musicians resided or reside in Varanasi.
In my youth, I was in Varanasi ‘hanging out’ and watching the monkey steal bananas from our dilapidated hotel balcony overlooking the Gangas. It was so hot that ten minutes after showering we would be ready for another. But my memories of this place were good and I was delighted to return, this time with the additional huge pull of the Dalai Lama teaching in Sarnath, just 10km from Varanasi. In order to further ignite the Varanasi love in me, I had just finished reading Geoff Dyer’s recent novel, the wonderfully entitled ‘Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi’, and so I was drawn to return to this germ-infested, vibrating city! He had stayed at a hotel that is near impossible to get a booking in. ‘The Gangas View’ at Assis Ghat. Varanasi is positioned along the river and the ghat represent the funeral pyres where the bodies are burnt. To be cremated and your ashes deposited in the River Gangas is regarded as the ultimate culmination of life and death. So death is everywhere; you are constantly confronted with differing coloured tin-foiled bodies on their not so merry ways. This is not a holiday for the faint hearted and is a million miles from a week in the sun in Lanzarote. After some hard email wrangling, we got the booking and up the steep steps we went. Prakash, the main man, greeted us with no great enthusiasm, but the warmth grew as the days went on.
The hotel is from another time. In the main dining room was a movable antique fire, which warmed the heart and the toes after a 24-hour train trip from Delhi. The hotel sits proudly over four floors, with the top floor bedrooms richly decorated in a ‘Maharaji chic’ way. The art and furniture throughout is period Indian and impeccably sourced; you get the sense that the wonderful owner, Shashank, gets first dibs at all the best antiques around. Shashank drinks chai and chats while his merry three daschshunds, bedecked in maroon woolies, trail around his legs. He is delightful to engage with and you become aware that he is central to the fabric of the Varanasi cultural and intellectual life. Throughout our stay, there were art exhibition openings, documentary evenings and a wonderful series of lectures in the hotel on ‘Aspects of Varanasi’, which he co-ordinates and facilitates. Gangas View is a hotel like no other; a bit like being invited to a private party where you get to access and enjoy the cultural peaks of this intoxicating city through its protective embrace.
Gangas View had great kudos and this attracted the most interesting of people to stay. Tabla or sitar music classes, early morning boat trips on the Gangas just before dawn, a trip ‘to the other side’ (the far bank of the Gangas, an almost purgatory place where you can ride bare back horses for a euro), a frenetic night at the main Ghat, where you feel like you are crashing the craziest of parties, are just some of the most interesting things to do. Trips to the tailor to get apparel made with the famous Benaras silk is a must, as are walks along the riverin the morning to witness the ablutions of the people and the joyful coloured washing of clothes.
There is so much to do in Varanasi - all you need is to stay healthy, which will be your greatest challenge. If you can do this, you will be richly rewarded. In fact, as a photographer, I doubt there is a place that will reward you so richly, nor is there a place in the world that will deliver such a fantastic sense of frenetic life. The 14th Dalai Lama was teaching in Sarnath, the birthplace of Buddhism, for four days during our stay. Sarnath turned into Tibet central with hordes of adorable Tibetan woman selling welcome woolly socks and ornate shawls. Sarnath, normally an antidote to the bustle of Varanasi, was now busily teeming with maroon-clad monks, thousands of Tibetans from all over India and a fair share of devoted Westerners. Transistor radios were given out for the simultaneous translation of his holiness’s teachings and a general sense of conviviality prevailed. Crisp cold days warmed up to sunnier ones as an uncharacteristic ‘cold snap’ lifted and the heat was welcome on the long days of teachings. Towards the end of our stay, we delighted in a festival of kites that engulfed the city with brightly colored home made kites lighting up the sky above the Gangas as the children and adults delighted in this affordable and endlessly fun pursuit. For me, this was a wonderful sight and on a lazy afternoon we sat on the highest roof of the Gangas View and watched this theatre of colour unfold, far away and protected from the madness of the place, sanitized by distance from the overpowering masses and softened by a series of papers playing in the wind. Varanasi is difficult and challenging; it’s India in full throttle and overload in all its good and bad incarnations. It’s also hypnotically beautiful and otherworldly. It’s a once in a life time must see, like the Rio carnival or the Burning Man festival in Nevada - teaming with life, death, cultural and religious intensity and filth. But it’s a place you’re not likely to forget; it will influence you and affect you for a long time afterwards