I didn’t fall in love with Varanasi at a first glance. Rather, like so many newcomers, the experience was one of being swept away, overwhelmed by the velocity and colour and energy of this fabled river-city.
Disembarking the Shivganga express at Varanasi Cantonment train station, I looked around in awe. Unending streams of people, crimson-shirted porters carrying 50kg loads on their heads, the screech of metal wheels and, hanging over it all, the smells of rust, urine and jasmine incense. Outside the station, the cacophony seemed only to increase. A parade in honour of a local politician had slowed the traffic to a crawl, with the common reaction seeming to be: ‘Let’s hold down our horns for as long as possible and see if that makes a difference.’
From the back of the rickshaw, I could make out nothing of the dignitary as he passed in his white Hindustan Ambassador with tinted windows. After him came a motorcade of police, then a flatbed truck loaded with speakers pumping out Bollywood tunes and, finally, a beautiful, lumbering female elephant.
“Is this normal?” I asked the rickshaw-wallah, who was passing the time by shooting livid jets of paan (a tobacco leaf-based mixture) out of the corner of his mouth, onto the road. “How on earth do you handle driving in these conditions all day?”
“Actually sir, it’s not easy,” he confessed, with a shrug of his shoulders. “But every morning, when I submerge myself in the river, I ask Ganga-ji to help me through another day. It’s how I survive.”
Those words would resonate, again and again, as I got to know the city over the years to come. They seemed to express something elemental about Varanasi: homage to the divine and the notion of worship and work as two interlinked pursuits. I was fascinated by these things, by the ways people conducted their lives in the medieval alleys of what may be the world’s oldest inhabited city, and how a normal discussion here could happily merge the latest Test match scores with metaphysical speculation.
On that first trip, and for many subsequent ones, I left Varanasi in exhaustion, my mind and stomach mutually overwhelmed. But on each occasion, I found myself missing the place. I missed the broad crescent sweep of the river with its temples and ashrams. I missed the masti — love of life — which is said to be a defining characteristic of the citizens. Unable to resist this gravitational pull, I finally returned with the intention of staying for a full year. I wanted to know what made the city tick. I rented a simple room in an ugly custard-yellow house at Assi Ghat. I walked the streets every day with a notebook in hand. I was determined to break through to the other side.
One place, in particular, captured my attention. A chai stand in one of the old galis or alleys not far from my house. Its owner Balashankar, named after one of the many avatars of Shiva, combines a great passion for his metier with a boundless generosity of spirit. When I’m away from Varanasi, it’s this place I think of more often than anywhere else: Balashankar lighting the coal brazier just as the first rays of sunlight strike the river; the buffalo herd arriving with two full pails of creamy milk; smells of ginger, green cardamom, black pepper and cinnamon — a secret massala combination that the chai-wallah’s father taught him, and his before him.
Something about this place encapsulates what I love about the city like almost nowhere else. The quiet camaraderie of the locals sipping hot tea from clay cups, sounds of Vedic chanting from the nearby temple, the lowing of the neighbourhood cows and occasionally the ‘Ram Nam Satya Hai’, which is the mantra of a body being carried to the cremation ghats.
From here, the city makes sense at last. The clockwork rhythms of life and death, ritual and devotion, worship and commerce, and celebration. All those who pass by the chai stand are moving either to or from the Ganges which, at only a few metres distance, is one of the most auspicious places in the Hindu world. Some go to conduct the funerals of family members. Others go, with the dust of long journeys on their feet, in search of the salvation that’s said to come to those who submerge themselves in her waters.
“I have walked a thousand miles to get here,” a holy man told me one morning. “But I can say that nothing prepares you for the sight of Ma Ganga. Now that I’m here, I don’t plan to leave her again.”
Piers Moore Ede is the author of three books: Honey and Dust, All Kinds of Magic and his most recent, Kaleidoscope City: A Year in Varanasi. piersmooreede.com
Published in the September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)