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What is Banaras?

March 17, 2015

I have lived in Banaras for five weeks, and I need to ask: what is this place?

It’s the simple idea that spirituality is something you can pin down, and that you might find it in an ancient city in India.

It’s watching the tainted and holy Ganges river flow by and trying to comprehend that 600 million people, eight percent of the humans on earth live on the Ganga Plains.

It’s seeing hundreds of carefully constructed goddesses made of straw and six feet tall all waiting to be burned once they dry out from being dumped in the river eight weeks ago during the Saraswati festival.

It’s the goats wearing sweaters eating leftover chapatis and dal and aloo gobhi in the street as the only  waste disposal system.

It’s the cows who back you into corners and head-but you in the alleys.

It’s the woman mashing up cow dung into patties and slapping it into a wall like a modern art installation.

It’s the chai-wallah who takes down a dried cow dung patty to burn as fuel and boil the milk from the very same cow.

It’s the tiny single-use clay chai cups that begin dissolving as you drink your chai and the satisfying smash when they fall to the earth to be recycled dust to dust.

It’s the smoky chai stall near the cremation ghats where you can’t be sure if you’re breathing wood smoke or incense smoke or cow poop smoke or human smoke.

It’s walking along the ghats to see the people bathing in the river, people burning in the river, people washing clothes in the river, people floating in boats on the river.

It’s the peace in the early morning when the river is still and the bells and the conch shells are the only sounds on the water.

It’s the breaking of the peace by the bam-bam of the tractor engine that’s hauling dirt and bricks to the construction site at 6 in the morning before the traffic starts.

It’s the hum and the bells and the horns of the bikes and the motor bikes and the cycle rickshaws and the cars and the auto rickshaws that are really just glorified motorized tricycles with a back seat and a yellow tarp on top.

It’s the fact that walking or driving or biking to anywhere in the city could all take the same amount of time on any given day.

It’s the place on the road where the old Hanuman temple takes up two out of four of the lanes and traffic is always backed up.

It’s the traffic that’s always backed up everywhere because there aren’t enough rules and there aren’t enough roads.

It’s the sense that there’s no personal space allowed in Banaras when the motorcycles beep past you in a cobblestone alley.

It’s the canons that explode you awake at midnight as their wedding processions crawl through your alley.

It’s the people who live under the plastic tarps in the alley next to the five-story houses with marble floors.

It’s the restaurants serving fancy food to south-Indian and foreign tourists next to the samosa stand and the cart full of fresh vegetables.

It’s the millions of pounds of fruit and vegetables that come into the city hand-pushed carts to feed the people.

It’s thinking about who grows the fruits and vegetables and the hoards of farmers who feed the city.

It’s the staggering density of the 3.4 million humans living in a city with no traffic lights.

It’s trying to find the center of the city and realizing it’s just unplanned life sprawling out from the 84 ghats.

It’s the scholars who try to make sense of the millennia of sprawl by overlaying sacred images onto maps of the cities and trying to find the center.

It’s the dark alleys that parallel the river and are full of tourist shops for the wandering visitors trying to find the center.

It’s the googlie-eyed white people trying to avoid eye contact with the other googlie-eyed white people because they’ve come to Banaras for one day on their spiritual journey and aren’t sure which universe they’ve stepped into.

It’s the overwhelming sense that this place is more raw and real than anywhere else in the world, and I’m not sure I’ll ever understand.

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