For 96 hours, I thought Kolkata was the filthiest city in the world. Then I went to Varanasi.

If you missed my first India post, you should read it. Kolkata was disgusting, but Varanasi was much worse. Garbage all over the place, all the streets smell of urine, mangy, flee-infested stray dogs everywhere, but now with the added benefit of lots of cows shitting in the streets. And people collect the shit to dry it and use it as fuel. So it may only be visible on your shoes, but rest assured it is also in your lungs. Oh, and lots and lots of human corpses. You read correctly.

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These are holy cows, so you might think they live in a nice holy pasture. But they don’t. They live in a holy garbage dump, where they eat holy garbage.

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River tour, very early in the morning, by small rowboat.

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Before dawn you might spot some women. But these will be older women. You won’t see 16 year old girls prancing around in the Republic of Rapistan (if you think I am being a jerk, read my previous post about the situation of women in Rapistan. I mean India, same link as before). BTW, India made Canadian news again this week. 15-year-old Indian girl dies after being raped, set on fire. 

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Later, you see lots of people, but mostly men. It is problematic for many women to go in the river, because the river is not in their homes, where their owners keep them all day long.

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If you take your dirtiest clothes and wash them in the Ganges, they are guaranteed to come out dirtier.

To Hindus, especially devout Hindus, bathing in the river is some sort of spiritual cleansing. But while the river may indeed be full of spirit cleanser, it is also full of raw sewage, rotting human corpses and industrial effluent. Unfortunately, for many, the religious significance of the river results in complete disbelief that anything could be wrong with it.

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This article in an Indian newspaper explains that 50 (unit missing) is the coliform bacterial count required to give water an “A” rating, meaning safe to drink. “B” means safe to bathe in and “C”, safe to use for agriculture. Beyond 5,000, you get the rating “D”, unsafe for agriculture. In parts of the Ganges, the count is 5,500. And those are the Indian standards! The level of bacteria is 44,000% higher than the safe limit for swimming set by American regulators! Not even fit to water your garden, and I saw many people brush their teeth with it! Some drink it. Kids take swimming lessons in the summer. Hospitals treat way more children with bacterial diseases in the summer, but parents never think to mention they were swimming in the river because that is a connection they would either never think to make, or refuse to make.

Without me even asking about the water quality, when discussing all the people who bathe in the river, my hotel manager volunteered: “A lot of foreigners say the river is polluted, but for me this is impossible, because the river is my god”.

You might think people must be used to it, since they keep doing it and it’s not like they are all dying. But are they? If you read my previous post, you know that shitting all over the place is the main reason why 1,600 children die of diarrhea PER DAY. When you read the next one, you will perhaps learn that the trains in Mumbai run with the doors open. Seems unsafe but it must work, or they would stop doing it, right? Actually, no. Close to a THOUSAND people die every year falling from moving trains. But this is amazing India. Life is cheap. Change is hard.

The honest answer is that I don’t know if people die from bathing in the Ganges, because if you Google “Ganges” and “death, bathing, dying, etc…”, you only get hits about using the river for funerary purposes.

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At two sites in Varanasi, 24 hours a day, corpses are incinerated and the remains are thrown in the river. When it is not done well or if the family runs out of firewood, a few body parts might go in with the ashes. It is very rude to photograph cremations in front of grieving families, so I only took this very distant shot to illustrate the situation.

Some people are not cremated. A local man told me pregnant women and babies have pure souls that do not require cleansing by fire. The same goes for the homeless, because nobody is going to waste money on firewood to incinerate a homeless person. Their bodies are simply lowered in the river with weights attached. Invariably, these become detached and the corpses wash ashore downstream.

If you want to see how inconceivably repugnant this is, look at the following article. Now, I often give disclaimer warnings, but this time I will be very clear, this will not expose you to a guy running around naked or someone getting punched in the face. For this you may need a vomit bucket. The article – in English but from China, I think – if full of pictures of semi-rotten, bloated human corpses on the shores of Varanasi. Many are being eaten by stray dogs and crows. You have been warned.

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Riverside temples. During the monsoon season, the steps are completely flooded and it is impossible to walk along the river.

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Tourists can contribute to the pollution by feeding the birds.

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Or buying these “offerings” from peddlers and dumping them in the river. Although compared to the billions (with a “B”) of litres of raw sewage going into the river daily, I doubt this makes much difference.

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In the evening, you can also take a little rowboat tour, or go the local way, in these slightly overcrowded boats.

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I was sold this not very expensive boat tour to see the daily ceremony taking place by the riverside, but it was a complete waste of time and money. The view sucked. I paid my rowboat operator and sent him home.

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Much better to just walk there. Of course the crowd is large, but so is the site. It is easy to walk around and get a good vantage point. However, during important festivals, this is almost certainly not true.

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A lot of fire is involved in Hindu rites. This certainly makes them spectacular.

 

If you are unlucky enough to ever be in Varanasi, this ceremony is well worth attending. Exotic and beautiful, but very, very loud. You may want to bring earplugs. And depending on where you are staying, you probably want to bring a flashlight, or you might have a lot of shoe cleaning to do back at your hotel.

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On top of being an important religious city for Hindus, Varanasi is also a very important pilgrimage site for Buddhists. This is the Mulagandha Kuty Vihara, a temple built on the site believed to be where Buddha delivered his first sermon. I don’t know if it is in Varanasi proper, but it is very close. Around it, nations with large Buddhist populations have each erected there own temples.

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The Indians.

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The “official” Chinese. Just my guess about the actual patron.

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The “Tibet” Chinese. It looks exactly like the temples I visited in Tibet. The scrolls, the hundreds of miniature Buddhas and the “throne” reserved for the Dalai Lama and a few other Tibetan Buddhism big shots.

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Japanese temple.

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The Thai went totally overboard with an 80 foot 9 inches Buddha. But I actually prefer the little one in front.

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I told my motor rickshaw driver I had seen enough temples, but he insisted I see one more, saying I would be missing the best one. He was right. This is actually a working monastery, hence the monk on the steps. A very beautiful site.

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All and all, there is absolutely nothing to see or do in Varanasi that could possibly justify setting foot in that disgusting place. Countless hordes of tourists would absolutely, completely disagree with me and they spend weeks there. I will not debate the question, because it is beyond my understanding.

#India

8 thoughts on “For 96 hours, I thought Kolkata was the filthiest city in the world. Then I went to Varanasi.

  1. I really enjoyed your posts on India and am so glad I don’t feel alone in that boat. I have been to poor countries as well, but this is completely different… and India has some very large concentrations of wealth that don’t justify the behavior. It’s also not just poverty, it’s really a way of thinking I cannot agree with. I am very open minded, but I cannot blindly see people trash the earth (they can afford plenty of cokes and chips), rape/oppress women, practice poor hygiene when they know better ( I know they do, they just refuse to care). Everyone I know loves India and fetishizes it. I am also very opinionated about my different experience and understand I have to respect theirs… but I think it’s crazy.

    • Thanks. I am sure some people love it – for reasons I can’t understand – but I also think some people fake it for fear of appearing bigoted or to avoid the embarrassment of admitting they spent a lot of money to go halfway across the world and had a terrible time!

  2. Hey Colin I’ve only been once, to the Himachal Pradesh (Himalayas). I hated it too, for the same reasons plus the caste system which I find deeply unacceptable. Never going back.

    • There were protests during my stay about the caste system. A group wanted to be considered a LOWER cast! (In order to get some government benefits) The protests didn’t make international news because only 12 people were killed, if I remember correctly.

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