The Spirit of Varanasi



There is no place in the world like Varanasi. The town on the river Ganga has been marked as one of the oldest inhabited regions in the world, and it shows. It’s not the Ghats, the water or the spirit that is most breathtaking, but the corruption and deception. Varanasi considered one of the Holiest cities in India, attracting hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each day to bathe in the river water.

Varanasi is a stark contrast from the mountainous plateau of Ladakh. The temperature was a humid twenty to thirty degrees higher, forcing Tina and I to shed all the clothing we could immediately upon arrival. The clear blue rapid waters of the Indus river were replaced by the centuries-old pollution of the relaxed Ganges. The picturesque mountain ranges were noticeably missing from the dirty and crumbling ruins of mass and ancient civilization. The deepest contrast was in our interactions with the locals, who really left me dumbfounded.

By the time we reached Varanasi, we were tired from long flights and dirty from spending eight days in a beautiful place with no running water. We were really looking forward to checking into the hotel we booked and just relaxing for a few hours. The flight was bearable, but the airport was not fit to land airplanes. In typical Indian fashion, as soon as the plane lands, we jumped from our seats to grab all our belongings, then pushed our way to the door. Tina and I managed to be first off the plane and into the airport.

From the tarmac, we were led into a room no bigger than a condominium with a scatter of carts and an exit to the parking lot. I raced to grab a cart and fought my way up to the baggage claim. It is especially important to be on top of the conveyor belt as the bags come out in Varanasi because the belt runs about five meters and drops bags into a pile on the ground. This was the only airport conveyor I had ever seen that doesn’t loop back!

As I tried to display my manly strength to fend off would-be baggage-claim spot stealers, Tina eyed the well marked pre-paid taxi booth, hoping to get us a car. When she came back, she exclaimed “There is something really fishy about that pre-paid taxi booth. They wanted to charge me five hundred rupees, which is a lot more than that ride is worth. I think we should try looking outside.” I collect our bags, and agree with her assessment. As we passed through the gate to the parking lot, the man from the pre-paid taxi booth yells at us to come back (usually a sure sign someone is trying to rip you off). Once we got outside, Tina spotted another pre-paid taxi stand. The man at this desk knew Tina by name because our hotel called ahead to notify them of our arrival. Tina denied that was her name, as she knew that the price would be double the rate to compensate for the driver having to drive to the airport to meet us. We paid the three hundred rupees or so, and a seemingly kind man offers to help our bags to the car. Before reaching the car, the man introduced himself as the car owner and explained how he runs his own value-added service of charging passengers a parking fee for his cars to park at the airport. We know we’re getting ripped off, but the owner continued to argue with us for five minutes after we were loaded and ready to go. We finally got out of the airport, only to have the driver stop moments later to put fifty rupees of gas in his car from the third pump he tried. Unbelievable! What could possibly happen next?



Top: 3 people hopped on our rickshaw randomly while we were in it. Varanasi, India.
Middle: View from the rickshaw. People and cows, typical Indian street.
Bottom: Street along the Ganges. Lots of owner-less cows, donkeys, and dogs.

We arrived at Hotel Buddha to a pleasant surprise; it actually looked clean and well kept! The bus boy came out to help us with our bags, and we were immediately escorted into the lobby. The clerk found our reservation and had the owner show us the rooms he had available. We found a room with a tub and a balcony, and chose it despite the price and the brown stains in the white tub. We settled in and took a well deserved nap.

Finally, a moment’s peace! After I awake, I turn on the water and prepare to take a shower. While I’m admiring the night-use-only restriction posted above the air conditioner, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a member of the hotel staff traversing the roof immediately outside our window. Both Tina and I were mostly undressed and he stopped to take a look, until he noticed me and moved on with his business. Tina frantically cried for decency in India, but got no reply.

The day passed and we decided to ask the hotel restaurant for something nourishing enough to fill our stomachs. We sat at a table in the back of the empty fishbowl of a restaurant, and order to our hearts content. We saw the kitchen on the way in, and they had clean metal tables, so we were in for an uncharacteristically clean treat. It wasn’t not long before the owner came in and started some small talk. “I organize Varanasi tour everyday. Start at five in morning. We give Ganga boat ride for hour and half, then four Varanasi temples. We show how silk tradition is made. Price is 250 rupees each.” A tour for the both of us at 500 rupees sounded hard to beat, and Tina absolutely could not wait to get her camera down to the Ghats. We accepted, and I grudging rolled out of bed in the middle of the night.

We made our way down to the main lobby and were carted into a rickshaw, which served as our tour vehicle. The driver took off down the minefield dirt roads on his “fastest” route to the Ghats. After getting lost only once, he arrived on a cow dung covered street, just as the city was being touched by the sun. Tina was in a hurry to capture the magic of India’s holiest city bathed in the morning glow, so we took off running down the street towards the Ghats. The buildings cleared and we got a glimpse of the mist rising over the endless flights of stairs down to the brown murky waters. Our rickshaw tour guide found the boat driver, who lead over a thirty meter swamp to his barely seaworthy vessel. He pulled a collection of rotted wood out of the floor for a foothold, secured his oars, and pushed us off. I offered gratitude to my scarf for protecting my nose and lungs from the terrible smell of death in the air.



Top: Many pilgrims along the main ghat doing their morning prayers and washings.
Middle: Some boats can carry many people.
Bottom: Many tourists and many boats in the Ganges, the most popular tourist attraction.

The glide down the Ganges was not as peaceful or spiritual as the tour books make it seem. Our boat driver couldn’t stop talking about how he barely makes any money and is being swindled by the man who owns the boat. When he’s not talking, he focused on hooking us up with the various tourist scams floating down the river offering flowers, candles and souvenirs. A large man, who was a much quicker paddler than our driver, placed a paper plate covered in flowers and flaming candle into my hand, suggesting that it’s free. He guided my hand into the water, then requested thirty rupees. I gave him ten and told him to get lost. Our driver returned to his docking Ghat after an hour, and yelled after us for a tip. We ran off in search of the rickshaw tour guide, stopping only to double check faces.

The famous Varanasi monkey temple had its monkeys, though there weren’t that many, and those that were there were very hostile. When we reached the temple, Tina and I were snarled at and nearly attacked by a larger monkey who could have bit my toes off. The temple itself was different, but not especially noteworthy. The next two temples, I found more memorable. The largest temple we saw was built by a son for his mother, in an uncharacteristically massive two story marble building. The idols depicted stories of the Hindu Gods so well you could read them like a book. This temple had the fewest patrons, and was the most peaceful, so Tina and I were able to enjoy a spiritual moment of self reflection and energy.

Another temple, I nicknamed the working man’s temple for men and women in dirty suits and sarees would pass though in a ritualistic manner, following a train of people around the temple grounds. We got the chance to enjoy a man and older women fighting over space in front of a deep black pit to perform their flaming pujas. The final temple was built in the name of Gandhi and featured a thirty meter wide carved topological map of India and the surrounding regions. On the way back to the hotel, our rickshaw tour guide chose the same potholed road, and Tina was swearing that she would never ride this road again. I was in too much pain to do any swearing.



Top: Adam and Tina taking a reflective photo at a grooming station by the ghats.
Middle: Happy groomers/hair-dressers servicing customers along the ghats.
Bottom: A man relaxing at a groomer’s service station.

When we got back to the hotel, we voiced our opinions of the tour to the hotel owner. “Our boat ride was half an hour short. We were not taken to the Hindu University’s Golden temple as promised. We were taken to a tourist silk shop instead of being shown how to make silk.” After a lot of arguing, he agreed to accept whatever we thought was fair. I put three hundred rupees down on the table. We knew how much the boat driver made, and how much the rickshaw is worth, so we knew that three hundred would easily cover his expenses. The owner was visibly disgusted, would not take my money, and stormed out of the room saying that he would pay out of his own pocket. I felt no sympathy for him, but neither Tina or I felt comfortable staying at his hotel any longer. We booked another room, packed our bags and immediately checked out.

We moved from Hotel Buddha to Hotel Surya, and wound up paying less for an even nicer place, though we were further from the Ghats. All the talk at Surya was about the upcoming Hindu holiday, Holi, a day designed by children for children. Except that everyone participates. The idea behind Holi is that everyone dresses up in their worst clothes and ventures out into the streets to have an India-wide color fight, throwing buckets of liquid chemical pigments at each other.

We met several exploratory foreigners who thought this holiday was the most exciting party they’ve ever been too, and ventured out to get their khaki cargo pants, white t-shirts and blonde or white hair all discolored. Some were embarrassed by their unnatural color like they disowned the holiday, but the younger tourists were wearing it proudly. Tina’s dream was to be down at the Ghats for Holi, though we were recommended by several not to venture out into the streets on this day. “The lower caste does not understand, and often throw harmful things like rocks, dirt and glass. Many people get injured in Holi every year.” We decided the compromise was to get another hotel room along the Ghats for the night before Holi, and hang out at the rooftop restaurant until later in the afternoon. We were safe and the entire ordeal was vindicated when Tina was able to capture a shot of a bum circled in white cloth against a deeply purple painted store. She tells me that this shot will win a National Geographic award.



Top: Local news anchor interviewing people at the ghats during Holi. Varanasi, India.
Middle: Husband pouring a bucket of red-dye down his wife during Holi.
Bottom: Outside a store after Holi, where a homeless man lays a sleep.

For the rest of the week, all I could think about was getting out of there. I hadn’t been negative about any place in India so much as I was about Varanasi. Tina adored the Ghats and had wanted to stay longer. It was finally her opportunity to get the pictures she came to India to capture; the babas, sadhus and pilgrims that collected at the Ghats everyday. We met some amazing sadus and Tina had a way of communicating with them without words. They exchanged food and smiles, Tina gave her fruit bars and sadus offered her seeds to nibble on.

There was always a show going on at the Ghats, and the show usually involved hassling the foreigners who come to enjoy India’s Hindu traditions. There are more touts and wallas per meter along the Ghats than anywhere else in India. I learned the fake sadhu smoke test; I would wait for them to request something from me, as a real sadhu is truly happy with what he already has. I was afforded a lot of opportunity to practice saying no like I really meant it. After a couple days, I was finally able to find some enjoyment in escorting Tina to the Ghats every morning and evening, just by releasing my hostility, relaxing and taking it all in.

One afternoon, we found a ride to Sarnath; a famous Buddhist pilgrimage site where Buddha supposedly gave his first sermon and met his first disciples. A middle-aged driver and his mate took us on the hour drive to the suburb for a reasonable last minute rate. Though we didn’t realize the price included probing conversation. “Are you married?”, the friend asks. The conservative Indian culture still has no concept of boyfriend or girlfriend, and offers no middle ground between friendship and marriage. Tina and I just told everyone we’re married because it makes the conversation easier and saves us of the disapproving looks. “As a matter of fact, we have been married about a year now.”, I replied. “How many children you have?”, he insisted. I’m a little thrown back by this question as I have no intention of having children for at least a couple years. “No children. Zero.” “How many children you have this year?” The man in the passenger seat is very persistent with the newborn questions. “Zero. No children this year.” “How many children next year?” Now, I decide to change the subject. “Are you married?” He is all too happy to answer this question. “No, not married. I have many girlfriends. Girls call all time. After work every day I go see girls.” I sat back smiling and nodding as he showed off his cell phone contact list, backing up his prowess with the ladies.

Top: Sadu peacefully sits during sunrise.
Middle: A homeless man, waiting for morning donations.
Bottom: Laughing grandma.

Our final days in Varanasi seemed to get easier. The rickshaw drivers, touts and wallas recognized us now, though they remained persistent in their objective. I was able to find my own peace in the chaos of the ghats and maybe even appreciated the place. I jokingly bargained with a comedic flute walla and ended up buying a semi functional bamboo flute for a hundred rupees, down from three hundred. Tina laughed while she flashing her camera at a gold loving sadhu whom I loaned my bright red sunglass for the sake of a picture. I flex my ribcage watching the famous hand masseur capture an unsuspecting tourist in his grip. I certainly wouldn’t want to stay in Varanasi any longer than necessary but I felt proud of myself for getting past the ruthless face of the town and appreciating what life has to offer. Being escorted by the most beautiful and energetic girl I could imagine is really the origin of the change in my personality. Her joy resonates deep within me, and warms my cold attitude, even in the time when I find it most difficult to be positive. Love is just the most wonderful thing.

Our Baba/Sadu friend who asked to try on Adam’s sunglasses for fun.

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7 Responses (7 Comments, 0 Trackbacks ):


  1. 1

    I would like to comment on a couple of things: you and your friend are VERY courageous! I would never strike out into the world and into a country like that! My hat is off to the explorers of the world who bring the rest of us news of what the world is like. I love the Discovery Channel :-)

    Also, as usual, you writing is great and descriptive and an in-depth accounting of your trip. For the next comment, keep in mind that I am not a courageous explorer… the only knowledge I have ever had of India was a comment on the Seinfield TV show where they were supposed to go to India for some friend’s wedding and when they went to visit the parents of the bride in New York, US. they parents told them do not go to India as it is a dreadful place… the only place where they still have the plague. This was meant to be a funny comment as it was the parents who were from India, and as it was, I didn’t really pay much attention to it as a true statement of India. Now your story of your trip makes it all seem so true and as they said, “dreadful”. I don’t think I will be going there any time soon.. then again.. I don’t really want to drive to my local metropolis, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as I hate crowded areas and traffic. You see, I am what is called in the U.S. a Baby Boomer Generation (born in the 1950’s) from the suburbs, which are neighborhoods of middle class Americans with neatly mowed grass lawns and nice houses, paved streets and really a mix of rural life but near larger cities, without having to live in the city itself. This is really a 1950’s invented thing in the U.S. and pretty silly if you think about it. We have created this kind of utopia away from as many problems of city life as possible and yet we have to get in our gas guzzling cars to drive about a hour away through congested traffic to get to our jobs, and in the process, help destroy the planet with our pollution NUTS.. I KNOW!!! We have been born and lived into this culture for the last 50 some years across our country and it is comfort, good or bad, much the same as any other nation. It is what we know.

    This is why explorers such as yourselves amaze me! You strike out on your own into new countries and make your way!

  2. 2

    A great account of travelling in India. India really seems to have such diversity. Thanks for sharing.


  3. 3

    David >>
    “a country like that” ….. like what?
    People like you make me sick, and I wonder how come one can judge “anything” just by reading one column, hearing one comment, seeing one program on TV.
    Learn to be open minded, not narrow, and learn to perceive the world with your own eyes.

    Adam and Tina>>

    Great and very interesting article. Actually, this time when going to India, I was thinking of visiting Varanasi, and you post made me even more. Pictures are indeed very colourful and lively.

    BTW, great writing style as well :)

  4. 4

    When my father passed away in 1981 I was between ships and I had to report on another vessel within 60 days. My mother wished to go to Varanasi to perform some rites and I could afford to take her so we went there. I am not into rituals but I went along anyway.

    I belong to Kerala, a state in South India which is also into rituals so the Varanasi trip should not have been a bizarre experience but it was. The pandas (priests) who haunt the burial steps on the banks of the Ganges are vultures in human forms. They will do anything to extract money from those who have come to do the last rites of their dead relations.

    They chanted shlokas (holy verses) in Sanskrit which were totally inappropriate and when my mother exposed them to those standing around they just laughed. One priest said that it ought not to matter as it is all to make us feel better as nothing really happens when these mantras are recited. I liked his honesty and gave him a hundred bucks, but he whined so much that I snatched the note back from his hands. He followed me all the way to our hotel where I gave him a fifty rupee note and a lecture on how he should be happy with whatever he got.

    All in all a very enjoyable experience even if we had gone to do something for my father. Even my mother lightened up after that.
    I guess it is no different from reading from the Bible or the Zend Avesta or the Koran; just a lot of words to console those left behind.

  5. Chandani Diaz


    I was born and raised in Sri Lanka and have had a plan to visit India with my husband when we are in our late 50’s or so…..the things about the TOUTS really puts us off. We went “back” (back for me, my husband for the first time) to Sri Lanka in 2004 and I was EMBARRASSED. I had wanted to show my husband what a great place Sri Lanka was – instead, we were approached by touts at every turn or tuk-tuk drivers who demanded double payment because we were going to THAT side of the road (it wouldn’t have mattered which side we went to!). Shimla, Mussourie, Landour and Ladekh have been dreams of ours – what do you recommend?

  6. 6

    Bravo to you for taking up such a courageous tour… there is nothing spiritual in Varanasi city and its full of hypocrite men !

  7. The Observer


    Wonderful hypocrytic writing.For sure you must be americans.

    All you people try to see the place through your western eyes.Bravo for scopping at others who actually could go a bit more deeper and see things as they are.

    Please stay where you belong and don’t ever go out to anywhere else.

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