“What is the Most Exotic City you have ever visited?” is a question I am sometimes asked.
I always say Varanasi, India.
Also known as Benares, the city is ancient, one of the oldest in the world.
No other place, in all of my extensive travels, is like Varanasi. Holy to the Hindus, what Mecca is to a Muslim. A fascinating destination, spiritual experience, surely top of the bucket list for literally hundreds of millions across the traveling world.
The crowded streets will assault all of your Western senses: Sights, smells, chaotic traffic, rickshaws, scooters, cows roaming the dirty streets. Other than modern technology, you’ve stepped back centuries. Which is why I directed a tv story for Discovery Channel on this colorful city back in the 1990s.
Varanasi is not Kansas.
In the summer of 2001 I returned to Varanasi, situated along the packed, dirty banks of the Ganges River. Scores of shrines and temples stand cheek by jowl along the long ghats, steep steps where Hindu pilgrims gather to bath in the polluted waters, light candles, scoop water into their brass bowls. Varanasi is where dead bodies are burned, finally completing, according to Hindu belief, their reincarnated circle of life.
On assignment for multiple clients, I checked into the Taj Ganges Hotel, a once proud establishment that had seen better times. Because of the intense Indian summer heat the price @ $45 a night was more than reasonable. The place was nearly empty, devoid of visitors. Or so I thought.
The Taj Ganges became my home for 4 nights, the place to return to after a sweaty day wrangling boats, pushing through pilgrims, then shooting documentary and travel footage along the murky Ganges.
Over the course of these long, hot days I quickly discovered that I had “company” in the hallway leading to my room. Whenever I would head down to breakfast, a small handful of Indians would be waiting by the elevator. Come back for lunch? Men and women sitting on chairs and couches nearby. Back at night, more people. It was like a doctor’s waiting room.
Eventually, curious as ever, I asked the hotel staff what was going on in my hallway.
“Oh, we have a famous Indian mystic staying here. He is on your floor. The people waiting outside his room are here to meet with him, to have their fortunes told. He is very busy with appointments.”
Our paths never really passed, and I only glimpsed him from time to time as he greeted people by his hotel door. He didn’t have the look of a fabled “swami.” Rather average, as I remember.
But imagine for just a moment, morning til evening, people lined up outside your door ready to meet with you. These are pilgrims arriving in Varanasi searching for their future, past, even their present…looking to a “holy man” for wisdom, the meaning in their lives.
Soon I discovered from others that his fee was $50 per session. Which seemed like a lot of money in India for 2001. Maybe even today. The quick math was that the mystic was making a small fortune everyday giving people exactly what they so desperately wanted: Answers. Truth. Comfort. Peace.
I believe in the Bible, the Word of God. That Jesus is exactly who He said He was: The Way, Truth & Life. Son of God. Died on a Cross. Risen Savior. Ascended to Heaven. My salvation.
In a vast country with more than a billion Indians, lines of people were descending on the Taj Ganges Hotel, patiently sitting outside a mystic’s door…desperate, devoted seekers.
Wish (and pray) that modern people here in the Western world were lined up too, parked outside our Christian pastors’ doors seeking truth too.
The Truth of Jesus Christ.