I stared intently into the eye of the cow, hoping the sheer intensity of my gaze would convince her to back down and consent to let us make our way past in the narrow, pungent alley. Her normal cow-like bulkiness was further exacerbated by her bulbous, distended right side which was ballooning out in a way that seemed decidedly unhealthy, yet fairly unsurprising considering her daily diet likely consisted of rotting fruit, discarded plastic wrappers and sewage water. Despite her physical oddities and dirty off-white colouring, however, she maintained a festive air about her, thanks to the colourful beaded necklace draped around her neck and the pink Holi festival powder sprinkled liberally as though in preparation for a high school dance. Nonetheless, despite our obvious admiration and my rather hypnotic glare, she wasn’t having any of it, grinding us into the wall as she lumbered by as though we were of no more consequence than the epic traffic jam she would surely soon cause wandering through the tumultuous streets of Varanasi.

The cow is considered a sacred animal in the Hindu religion and, as a result, throughout India they enjoy the freedom to go where they please, eat what they want, and defecate wherever they see fit (although that will be quickly scooped up by some impatient housewife to be dried and burned as fuel). Of course, these dim-witted strays are just one small part of the maddening chaos and riveting insanity of Varanasi, one of India’s most spiritually important cities. Located on the banks of world-famous Ganges, the holiest river in the Hindu religion, Varanasi is massively popular as both a pilgrimage destination and the number one place in India to be cremated, especially if you’re looking for a top pick in the reincarnation draft. Meanwhile, the steady stream of bodies burning in “ghats” along the riverbank creates a constant haze, the smoldering corpses often looking surprisingly lonely and forgotten once the initial funeral rites have been completed. And those who can’t afford the whole cremation ritual often simply dump the bodies of their loved ones in the river to float downstream into their next life.

While even bathing in the Ganges is believed to cleanse you of your sins, actually dying in Varanasi is said to bring salvation in the afterlife, just as each evening brings a multitude of colourful customs and rituals, and each of these ceremonies brings an eager crowd of tourists in search of their next great profile photo. In fact, throughout the day and night the west bank of the River Ganges teems with people going about their regular routines, for the Ganges is not only a sacred final resting place but also a focal point of daily life. fishermen head out early with small portable televisions perched on the benches of their tiny skiffs, small wiry men make token efforts at discretion while bathing, children swim, jump and squeal without a care for the questionable contents of the filthy water, tourists embark in small wooden boats to enjoy a small taste of this extraordinary city, and women collect water to prepare tea and breakfast for their families, although how any amount of boiling can make such foul muck suitable for consumption is a great mystery on par with whether a classic Indian head wobble means yes, or no, or simply “You lost me at hello”.

Of course, the cultural frenzy is by no means limited to the river. Hopelessly attempting to navigate the cramped, winding alleys optimistically referred to as “streets” provides a fascinating look at the jumbled shops, random laundry lines, feckless animals and seething mass of humanity. There are more than a million people in Varanasi, making it a large city by the standards of any country not named India or China, but roaming its crowded confines on foot is still the best way to get a true feel for the ageless anarchy of this place that so easily slides back and forth between amazing and awful, but never stops being unforgettable.

Five Things

  1. Sunrise boat trips on the Ganges are not to be missed, unlike sunrise bathing men.
  2. So-called “Delhi Belly” is a common problem for most travellers to India, so I would suggest taking precautions by washing your hands at least once a week. With soap.
  3. Those still harbouring unrealized dreams of celebrity status will be thrilled with repeated requests to join Indian family photos.
  4. From April to June the average daily high is 39 Celsius so I’d suggest an extra shower towel.
  5. The smells of Varanasi are as numerous as they are varied. But they are all pretty terrible.