Actually, Varanasi is very ancient. It’s the oldest continually inhabited city on Earth. People have been living here since around 3000 BC. So long ago that even Star Wars hadn’t happened yet.
Also called the “City of Light,” Varanasi is one of the most sacred places in the Hindu faith. It is believed the god Shiva bathed here on the shore of the Ganges, and pilgrims have been coming to do the same ever since. As a result, Varanasi’s economy has always revolved around visitors, making it perhaps the first tourist destination in human history. And believe me, the locals have tried to sell us everything under the sun. They are crafty and hard-working, but mostly dirt poor.
People of Hindu faith come here to walk down the steps (the “ghats”) leading to the Ganges and bathe in its water (which is, sadly, rather polluted). They come here to pray, to seek spiritual enlightenment, and also to die. It is believed that if one’s ashes are dissolved into the Ganges, one may escape the recurring cycle of life and death and achieve eternal peace. Each day, more than 500 bodies are cremated on the ghats. The funeral pyres burn night and day.
Neither the molten flesh (which we were not actually close enough to smell, thank Shiva) nor the relentless piles of cow shit in the narrow, crooked streets have been able to curb our appetites. We’ve had two of our tastiest dinners on the trip so far in this otherwise decrepit, overcrowded, fascinating place.