ON his first trip to Varanasi two-and-a-half years ago, Seiji Shimada, 24, from Kobe, Japan, shelled out Rs 3,000 to "learn" hath yoga and sitar in 14 days flat. Around the same time, Larry Philips from England coughed up some Rs 4,500 to pick up "pieces of astrology" in a week-long crash course. Both of them, now on their second visit to the earthly abode of Shiva, are a lot more guarded. "We have nothing against the city," says Philips. "The problem is with the people here."
With documentaries, travelogues and guides mystifying one of the world's oldest living cities and snaring backpackers from around the lonely planet, Varanasi, over many moons, has transmuted itself into a big freedom formula. The city thrives on this mythical aura of continuity, but it's not as immutable as the average starry-eyed backpacker would want to believe. Change dots it all over, precipitated mainly by the ever-increasing tide of visitors in quest of moksha, or release from the cycle of birth and rebirth. And in this land of the holy where god business is good business, the tourist in search of instant karma falls easy prey to the salvation army of touts, shamans, dubious gurus and pandas.
Pandas or servitors along the famous Kashi Vishwanath gali have made a living out of religious exploitation through the ages. The ghats abound with children selling kitsch divine: merchandise and empty liquor bottles to carry back the holy water in. Masseurs and boatmen simultaneously vie for attention with greenbacks in their eyes. Residents scarcely bother about touts offering to exchange dollars, provide hashish and heroin or supply good virgins. "They will tug at your shirt and follow you for miles," says an exasperated Stacia Crescenzi, a backpacker from the US. "It's hell for a woman to travel alone."
Bedazzled by the great Indian experience, foreign tourists continue to flood the city as ever before. Out of some 2.5 million foreign tourist arrivals in the country last year, Varanasi alone welcomed 1,12,171; it has received 70,000 foreign visitors till July this year.
What draws them to Varanasi, saddled already with one of the highest population densities in the world? Perhaps it is the kaleidoscope of ethnic images—a vermilion-smeared cow defecating beside a pehalwan in his 140th push-up, or an Aghori sadhu raking up a burning pyre while a tonsured man offers libations to a shivalinga.
Each to his own experience. Says Eran Zur, a 34-year-old product designer from Tel Aviv, raising his voice above the humdrum of the Dasaswamedh Ghat: "If India is a stone, then Varanasi is its centre." "Too many cows," mumbles 29-year-old Richard Lemon from New Zealand as he eats a banana. "Disgustingly dirty" to some, mystical to many and mind-blowing to almost everyone. If Delhi is "hectic", Calcutta "poor" and Goa synonymous with "raves and beaches", then Varanasi is "holy with a capital H", quips 27-year-old Fiona Simpson, a student of natural medicine from Brisbane and an ardent Hrithik admirer. "It is the only place linking the ancient and the modern in a temporal continuum."
Moksha, though, comes at an unholy price. The rip-off begins at the local shops crammed with leftovers from foreigners' rucksacks or smuggled foreign brands. The prices are wildly inflated and vary from shop to shop: you could get a pack of 20 Marlboros for "just Rs 125". But it's the ubiquitous yoga and music classes along the ghats that are doing brisk business. They shock purists because of their short duration; the longest ones last no more than two weeks. Take, for example, The International Yoga Centre. The 'centre' is actually a terrace. Spewing heady rhetoric, "instructor" Raju exhorts his stupefied pupils to "raise their Kundalini to feel one with the cosmos". Just a few blocks away at Mansarovar Ghat, yoga 'teacher' R.C. Seth sits pretty in his Yoga World, a place "for holistic health and spiritual growth". His 'special programme for foreigners' offers "hath yoga, kundalini, ashtanga, mantra yoga, kriya yoga therapy, banda mudras, shatkarma". All 'learnt' in just a month and for Rs 1,400. "This regimen ensures the purification of your whole psycho-physical psyche," says Seth. Whatever that means. Seth had reportedly "fled" the city after an American pupil filed a sexual harassment case against him two years ago. He's back and making money like never before.
A sign at the Modern Vision Guest House advertises courses in "Dental Meditation". Oblivious to the transcendental one, Amar Tewari, its lodging landlord and proprietor clarifies how "dental" meditation is the perfect recipe for moksha. For foreigners putting up in a few poky rooms with shared bathrooms in his three-storey home, he peddles this peculiar variety of meditation for a fee, which "can vary from person to person".
Moksha was never any better. Just attend a Monday evening classical concert at the Triveni Music Centre near Pandey Ghat. Dim lights, pictures of Hindu divinities, classical instruments hanging from a damp ceiling and a motley crowd of 14 provide the setting for this eve of musical nirvana. Thirty minutes later, sitarist Monilal Hazra builds up a crescendo over which his companion Nandalal Mishra blurts out: "Music is a meditation. It'll help you achieve inner peace."
Monilal claims he has performed in Japan, France and Italy. His trans-Atlantic conquests have made him "the master with a divine-touch", avers one of his foreign 'pupils'. They also lend him a touch of authenticity. "Indians can't master the sitar within a short time, but foreigners can because they consume 1 kg of butter and honey every day," says Monilal. "This makes them pure in body and mind." A music course at Triveni comes from Rs 50 per hour to Rs 1,500 a month. Other academies like Swar Sansar and the New International Music Academy provide instruments. For a 10-day routine, a South African tourist was reported to have paid Rs 36,000 for a tabla.
It's money naive foreigners are willing to pay if it gets them the karma cola they're seeking. Twenty-something Nobu's trip to the famous burning ghat of Manikarnika has led to an emotional turmoil. "We use the electric crematorium, which is so impassive. But here I saw a son light up the pyre to make the bond eternal. That's when I learnt from my guruji the significance of muktibhoomi," explains the dazed student from Tokyo. The crematoria, say locals, remain the eternal hotspots for they cater "to every single need of an individual, be it spiritual, transcendental or otherwise".
Much of the traditional solemnity of Manikarnika has vanished under the constant gaze of western eyes, seeking a surrogate understanding of mukti. Greedy guides and doms feed on their sentiment to carry the "sight of pain and suffering" to morbid extremes. The sound of clicking shutters in the stench of burning flesh moves Anirban Dutta, resident of the nearby Bangalitollah, to say: "Tourism has subverted the traditional values and beliefs of Varanasi.It is now a brothel." Agrees Mark Dyczkowski, a tantric scholar from England: "If these dollar-chasers in their frenzy continue to peddle such mock-spiritual fantasies, Varanasi will eventually lose its inherent aura."
It's already grappling with the curious schizophrenia of being both mystical and commercial to the hilt. The apathy of the authorities has helped the operations of the drug mafia. Narcotics are intrinsically linked to the salvation experience; panchamukhi chillums are as pervasive as the roadside cows. But often the trip goes awry. Deaths due to overdoses, drug-related murders and extortion are nothing new in the old city. This year, 490 people have been arrested for peddling heroin, hashish and marijuana. And grim memories of the alleged rape and murder of Diana Claire Rotley, a young tourist from New Zealand by her local "guide and friend" three years ago are still fresh.
Yet the five-headed Lord of All continues to beckon pilgrims and tourists alike, while dollars and devotion co-exist in uneasy harmony.And quiet flows the Ganga.