I feel moved to share a few tips for innocent first time visitors to Varanasi, especially those, like myself, who have been to India several times and operate under the misapprehension that they’ve got it taped.
Firstly, be constantly aware of your feet. In Varanasi, the roads are plastered with shit—not mud, shit. Mostly buffalo, cow, goat, dog and donkey shit, but also human shit. I am told that natives develop a kind of shit antennae that allows them to walk, talk and find their way without landing smack bang in the middle of a steaming pat, but it takes time. The best advice for first-timers is to stop before you look up or over the Ganga, or whatever.
Varanasi is a city of tiny alleys and walkways that, these days, Indians don’t hesitate to motorscooter down. So not only must you beware of the shit, the buffalos and the cows, the street beggars (heartbreaking, every one of them), the pilgrims and the sadhus, but also be alert to the dangers of cyclists and motorbikes.
Some alleys are smellier than others. Here’s snap of the ‘smelly alley’ that leads from the main road to the lifesaving Aum Cafe on Assi Ghat. This one is relatively broad and spacious, giving the cows that extra bit of space to allows them to congregate (often small herds appear from nowhere) to do their business. The resultant aroma is unrivalled!
At the same time, there are so many things to see that are rare, if not unknown, to most of the civilized world. Yesterday, for example, as I fought my way down the main road, a corpse wrapped in yellow cloth and tinsel and suspended between bamboo poles appeared, carried by four men who were, obviously, taking it to the burning Ghat—a practice as old as Varanasi itself. I don’t think Health and Safety laws in the England or Germany would smile on such a tradition.