Cow pats and incense

“Why is it that every foreigner goes to Varanasi?” a well-travelled Delhi local asked me. At the time, I was in the car going to the airport.

“Beats me, I’ll let you know when I get there.”

I have decided it’s not the cow pats, slammed on narrow alley walls to dry then stacked in elegant, symmetrical  towers and burnt in place of expensive firewood. Nor is it the heaving, polluted streets clogged with bicycles, pedal rickshaws, auto rickshaws, cars, 4WDs and trucks, all leaning on their horns.

I have decided it’s the half-naked sadhus, with their crazy eyes, saffron-coloured loincloths, their matted hair and beards, the ropes of beads around their necks and the little metal tridents they carry signifying the three main deities of Hinduism.

This morning, after watching the sunrise prayers along the riverbed, I was having a cup of tea sitting alongside a few old buggers and Lalla, who was desperately trying to get me to visit his uncle’s silk shop, when two picturesque old sadhus approached me, offering a photo in exchange for money. The old men booed them till they left.

“They’re not sadhus,” Lalla translated for me. “The men are saying they are just dressing up to get the tourists’ money, which they spend on alcohol at night.”

Such devout Hindus as sadhus don’t beg for money, Lalla added, and they sure don’t drink.

But it just proves: you can be whoever you want to be here: you can cast off your old identity and create a new one – want to walk around in a sarong, barefoot with tingling ankle bells at your every step? Tattoo, pierce, go rogue? Don a sari or pashmina and live out Jemima-Khan-style beautiful-veiled-woman fantasies? Clad head to toe in army fatigues, PLO scarf and jasmine necklaces? Grow your hair long, learn Sanskrit and yoga and dub yourself His or Her Holiness? In Varanasi, it’s all possible, and the show is playing 24/7/365.

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