It’s busy, really busy. Everywhere in town it’s busy; back behind the quieter more peaceful ghats the city is an almost overwhelming throng of activity, not surprising considering Varanasi is a religious hub with hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Its narrow streets are barely able to cope with the demand placed upon them, with many of the roads barely wide enough for 2 loudly horn-blowing vehicles in many places. It’s old, for sure, but it’s dishevelled and poorly maintained as well.
The narrow lanes that run parallel to the ghats and throughout the rabbit warren of the old town are barely wide enough for 3 people abreast. Thankfully it’s the narrow streets leading down to the ghats that take the bulk of the foot traffic, so these laneways are slightly less hectic. You still have an occasional half-hearted call out from a shop keeper, and if you venture to the ghats the boatmen of the river banks are still there calling out for river cruise trade. They ask, I refuse; the many hawkers just get the silent treatment and they fall away, the beggars, many children or of a religious nature get the same treatment.
With a guide to help explore these laneways I get to explore further than I would have independently – the narrow lanes of the old quarter in particular would have become a very confusing place without him. The marigold flowers lying in the dust, underneath another painting of an elephant headed god would have been missed and my experience of Varanasi poorer for it. The small shops and symbolism would have been unexplained, and I’d never have found the small hustling flower market nor enjoyed the experience I had in these narrow, filthy, cow shit-encrusted lanes half as much.