By Nick Neumann
There is one moment that stands out when I conjure up images of my gap year journey through South Asia. During my five month trip I lounged on empty Sri Lankan beaches, cruised the crowded streets of Dhaka in colorful rickshaws, and conquered the Thar Desert by camel, yet it was the crooked alleyways of Varanasi that left the most vivid and lasting impression.
It was hottest time of the year because monsoon season was just around the corner. The pungent 120 degree air was thick with humidity, spices and smoke. Gusts of fiery wind did nothing to cool my scorched face. Walker and I found our way to the Ganpati Guest House located deep within the labyrinthine Old City near the banks of the River Ganges. From the rooftop terrace you could see smoke billowing up from the Burning Ghat and hear the clamor from the Main Ghat a bit further up river. The debilitating midday heat made it impossible to do anything other than spent hours on the terrace sipping bhang lassis, an age old Sadhu yogurt drink infused with weed, chatting with grizzled backpackers, and taking in beating heart of the Hindu universe from above.
Almost inevitably, every time I left the hostel I would get lost in the maze of ancient alleyways enveloping my hostel. Initially, I was overwhelmed, hot, and claustrophobic, however after a few days passed I began looking forward to getting lost. I realized that in the serpentine passages of the Old City, strewn with trash, cracked clay chai cups and the occasional dead animal, I could avoid the onslaught of beggars and touts who were more persistent and annoying than anywhere else in India. These alleyways were home to impossibly small silk, ivory, brass and gold shops. Many of the storefronts were simply small windows in thousand year old homes; in my favorite such window was a chai shop I often stumbled upon.
When I close my eyes I can immediately transport myself to the wooden chai shop bench. In my hand is a warm cup of delicious, sweet chai. I would sit for hours simply watching Raj, the chaiwala, mix and pour chai while life unfolded in the alleyway. Every so often the relative calm would be broken by stampeding water buffalo heading toward the Ganges for their cooling afternoon bath. As I finished my first cup of chai, I was not ready to leave just yet, so I tossed my biodegradable clay cup and asked Raj for another.
The buffalo were followed by a more solemn procession headed in the direction of the Burning Ghat. A group of elderly men shuffled past with a body draped in colorful silk, billowing beautifully in the breeze resting on their shoulder. The silent procession soon faded back into the maze. As more time passed, and more sweat dripped, I zoned out to the lonesome movements of Holy cows and Sadhus until the buffalo returned triumphantly.
While observing life ebb and flow in the unrelenting chaos I imagined myself being transported back in time. Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities and it feels like it. It occurred to me that I could have sipped chai in this very same alleyway thousands of years ago and my experience would have been very nearly the same. I wondered how many cups of chai had been drunk in this very spot and how many pilgrims had passed by to wash away a lifetime of sins in the sacred waters of Ganges.
Varanasi is a enchanting city, but it is not for the faint of heart. If you can handle the dirt, smells, and chaos, then go lose yourself in the ancient alleyways of Varanasi and you’ll discover a strikingly beautiful amalgamation of Hindu and Muslim faith, man and animal, and above all life and death.