Varanasi: Shit-Hole of the Gods

Ghats on the Gnaga, Varanasi

I’m posting this from the tarmac of the airport in Delhi (I no more enjoy calling it “Indira Gandhi International Airport” than I would willingly refer to National Airport in Washington, D.C. “Ronald Reagan Airport”), on my way to the 7th Annual International AIDS Conference. India is playing host to this year’s gathering of leading scientists, doctors, and NGOs working on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the venue for the conference is Varanasi.

I am looking forward to the conference, at which I will be representing an innovative biotechnology project that provides unique sample preservation tools to enable the diagnosing HIV infection through analysis of DNA. Still, I am dreading being back in Varanasi. Rather than recount my reasons, let me attach the text of an email I sent following my previous visit in 2002.

For those of you who do not already know, Varanasi is the holiest city in Hinduism, sitting on the banks of the sacred, if toxic, river Ganga. You may know it by its former name, Benares. According to the Vedas, one who dies in Varanasi will attain instant moksha, automatically escaping the cycle of death and rebirth (or is it birth and redeath?). As a result, the city is awash with the aged and dying, as well as Sadhus, hippies, and lesser pilgrims.


Leaving Varanasi was not easy – an arduous 45 minutes to go the 17 km. to catch our onward train from the neighboring one-dog town of Mughal Sarai – but very satisfying. Varanasi was such a crushing disappointment, the dingy waiting room of the Mughal Surai station seemed like paradise, with gecko races along the walls as added entertainment. When our train finally arrived, it was like salvation, freeing our spirits much as the funeral pyres at the Varanasi ghats free the souls of the dead.

Once aboard, I was able to reflect on the Varanasi experience with a bit more equanimity than one can muster while they are in the midst of the heat, pandemonium, and filth.

Varanasi is singular, and can accurately be described in superlatives. It is the holiest of sites, inarguably one of the most culturally significant places in human history. Its dramatic ghats flanking the sweeping Ganges, filled with pilgrims and priests, are supremely atmospheric. The countless sick and the aged who have come to die in Varanasi, and its incessantly burning funeral pyres, give death a feeling of immediacy, familiarity, and tolerability that I, for one, simply have never experienced before.

But it is also the filthiest place I have ever been. It takes extreme care to get from one end of the train platform to the other, upon arrival, without stepping in human excrement; and this is par for the course on the city streets and on the ghats, as well. Trash is to Varanasi as sand is to the desert – it drifts into dunes here and there, to be rummaged by pigs or cattle or dogs; but it is ubiquitous, filling every void, finding every corner, touching everything. Then there are the diesel fumes, the incessant noise, the breezeless heat, and the nauseating stench. Against this backdrop, we, as foreigners, are also treated to the aggressive touts, drivers, rickshaw wallahs, and shop keepers who are constantly in our faces, with the standard opening line, “Hello, which country?” That line ceased to sound like a friendly greeting long ago.

The problem of Varanasi is not simply that it is horrible, although its perfect horribleness is problem enough. My disillusionment stems from the fact that this, of all cities in India, should be well cared for. How is it possible that a place that is so venerated could be so utterly defiled?

As upsetting as the day had been, I would have felt I’d missed out on something important had we not gone. I’d have been wrong, of course; and Yoo-Mi is quick to point this out.


85 Responses to “Varanasi: Shit-Hole of the Gods”

  1. 1 James S. Robles 22 March 2007 at 9:55 pm

    It is most unfortunate that you choose to see only the superficial aspects of Varanasi, rather than also considering the intense spiritual nature of the place. It’s as if you see, and are disgusted by, a leper, without talking to the person or seeing into the heart of the man. Varanasi is not Seattle, with an antiseptic Starbucks at each corner; it is so much more. Varanasi certainly has civic problems that must be addressed. However, to give the impression that it is ONLY a garbage dump (or a shithole, as you call it)reflects an all too common and typical Western- tourist -superficiality. Perhaps if you had actually spent some time talking to the pilgrims on the banks of the Ganges, your impression might have risen out of the tour bus mentality.
    You should return there and ask the devout why they journey there from all over India.

  2. 2 mbjesq 23 March 2007 at 1:47 pm


    It is most unfortunate that you read my comments only superficially (if I may paraphrase your condescension), and overlooked the point I make quite explicitly:

    The problem of Varanasi is not simply that it is horrible, although its perfect horribleness is problem enough. My disillusionment stems from the fact that this, of all cities in India, should be well cared for. How is it possible that a place that is so venerated could be so utterly defiled?

    My essay says: Varanasi is in bad shape, and that is a crime against cultural history. To disagree with my thesis is to argue that the filth of Varanasi is somehow appropriate to its role in Indian culture. I cannot imagine anyone – even the most hate-filled anti-Hindu – staking out that claim. I don’t think you are taking this view. Rather, you seem to say the spiritualism of Varanasi is more important (in some way you do not define) than its physical debasement. Maybe you are right; but spiritual merit is something I’m not well qualified to assess.

    I readily concede that I fail to see the spirituality so many others find in India. I have never experienced a more ego-driven, me-first culture anywhere in the world – although it manifests somewhat differently than in the appallingly ego-driven, me-first culture of, say, America. People in India talk a good spiritual game, of course, quoting aphorism after aphorism like so-much bad poetry. But then, they’ve had five thousand years to get their lines down. How many of these spiritual poseurs even attempt to live by the principles they espouse, much less actually live by them? Few; and the burgeoning swami-ji profession appears largely a con-game to my eye.

    India, of course, is also home to hundreds of millions of deeply religious people – from these ranks come the pilgrims on the banks of the Ganga, to whom you refer. But their mindless superstitions and blind ritualism do not impress me as a worthy manifestation of the complex and brilliant philosophy reflected in the Vedic tradition.

    To be blunt about it, I see spirituality in India as 90% well-meaning small-mindedness, 9% self-delusion or outright fraud, and perhaps one-percent (or less) of something authentic, meaningful, and impressive. As for this final one-percent: it is something I take on faith, rather than anything I feel capable of judging for myself.

    Let me be quite clear: I have a strong anti-religious bias. Still, the one thing I loathe more than religion is religious intolerance. It is this latter disposition, or something quite akin to it, that motivates my outrage about the pathetic condition in which Varanasi is maintained. I believe that the defiling of Vananasi is tragic precisely because it is one of the world’s most important religious sites. This is no way to treat such an important symbol of cultural achievement.

    You denounce my essay as the “superficial” views of a “tourist”, who longs for “Seattle, with its antiseptic Starbucks at each corner.” I do not think this is a fair or honest reading of my ideas. I am neither a tourist in India (although I suppose I was at the time the essay was first written), nor am I the germ-o-phobic Westerner you suppose me to be (I am quite comfortable sorting trash with ragpickers, for example). You may disfavor my observations, and the in-your-face editorial strategy I employ for making them, but I bridle at the notion that they are superficial. Varanasi is not superficially a shit-hole; it is a through-and-through shit-hole. And that is a profound tragedy, not a superficial one.

    • 3 JoAnne Braley 14 December 2015 at 1:47 am

      I do not think he was fair to you, either. I’m very concerned after watching World TV Program showing pilgrimages. They spoke of the place you speak of as holy, and how cremations are put in the same water they bathe in, put over their heads, and how excrement and other disposals are there with some willing picking it up and burying it. The TV seemed to glorify it.
      My well traveled Chinese friend, whose grandfather was a General in the Chinese war of the Nationalists and the Maoists told me she visited and it was “a garbage dump.” She was so disappointed. I think the problem starts with their believe in the various crazy gods and goddesses. And, some Westerners swoon over them, but if they had to live there in the lower case, which I thought was gone, they would change their minds. People were on Pilgrimage from all over, but one woman was so happy it was ridiculous…she has a romantic notion of it all, but she isn’t mired in their misery. You see, the story starts with an idea, as does a country. I figured out they love that reincarnation thing, because this way they think the ones in misery DESERVE it and must work their way out of it to be in a better re-incarnation. That takes away the guilt. I thought of this in college when studying the situation. The English brought some civilization and order but yes,k they took advantage. The writer of many articles seem to want communism there. To take away from the rich and redistribute. Well, if they had one good God, who wished for people to be kind and share, and could redistribute some, but not all, as that kills incentive, that is one start. Then reproduction education is essential,even though I’m pro-life, I’m also pro keeping your sexual contacts under control,(AIDS in Africa spreads because the man wants to have sex with many women, and they didn’t know they were spreading it) having provisions to raise a child. Some of the children are used for workers, or sold…These Indian people are still put into caste by their assignment of being SC, ST, OBC…Castes, tribes,and Other Backward Cases, or something like that. How in the world do you expect to turn India into Sweden? Having all those “gods,” makes the people susceptible to giving money to swindlers, in fact,even giving their hair. And, sacred cows, now really…How can this country still be so backward? Corruption in government is a good start…look into that. I’m really sick about some Westerners thinking it is so wonderful to look for gurus over there, and saying Christianity has too many rules. Look at the results of “rules,” over wandering around in the desert of garbage!

  3. 4 Jenn 30 March 2007 at 6:28 pm

    My mother is the first to acknowledge that her kids are not perfect and is, as most mothers are, the first to let us know it. However, when someone out of the “fold” makes a negative comment about one of her kids – mother bear comes out of the bushes and defends at all costs. Even when the attacker was totally on target. It doesn’t matter what was said, how observant and factual the charge, you do not love her children and cannot even pretend to know the inner workings of their minds the way that she does. You have not seen their determination when they took their first step, the pain YOU felt when they had their first fall, the pride you felt when they picked themselves up. If someone implies that her kid is a lost cause or not all they should be, the memories of those triumphant attempts or dizzying defeats comes rushing back and there is still the hope that all will be well. And the next thing a mother does is to get back home and address these issues with the kid, hoping to make a dent in their thick skull.

    The same can be said of the love one has for their country. No matter how much chaos there is, no matter how many negatives one can come up with from observing general life somewhere, there are still those that do not like someone from another place attacking their home. The assumption is that you cannot even pretend to know the beauty of this place unless you have it imbedded in your soul, know it left and right, love it to the core.

    You are an observer of the world and your blog is a place for you (among other things) to voice your opinions, show your concern, and maybe even wake up a few people and remind them that home needs to be cared for continually and not just accepted “as is.” People don’t have to like what you say, don’t have to agree with it, don’t even have to read it, but if they are reading it, maybe in the quietness of their home they will think about what you’ve said and wake up to the fact that changes should be made, that homes need maintenance, and maybe tomorrow when they are walking down the street, they’ll throw that dreaded plastic cup laying on the curb in the garbage can two feet away. Whether it is in India or America.

    I’m not defending you, you do that pretty well all by yourself, but I have read a number of these “how dare you” type replies and I just wanted to say that in the end, it’s the “I dare YOUs” that get people thinking. And that’s a good thing. Thanks.

  4. 5 Miguel 11 August 2007 at 7:20 am

    I was looking for pictures of Varanasi and came across your website. I read your essay because it caught my attention for the worse possible reason: “Varanasi: Shit-Hole of the Gods”. Do you have any idea on how many people are you deeply offending? I have no idea on why do you travel. For me the point is to learn, observe, grow. There is nothing constructive about your comments, your “defence” to Jame’s reply is pathetic. I grew up in the immaculate western world, spent 4.5 months in India (including Varanasi) and would go back at any time. There is more than garbage. Read again Jame’s answer and return.

    • 6 JoAnne Braley 14 December 2015 at 1:51 am

      Yes, there is more than garbage, Miguel, if you have the money to step over it. How can you enjoy yourself seeing so many in desperate poverty? I help fund nuns, The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (home in KY) and they go to the places, start missions, feed the hungry, educate the children, dress them, They have many missions in India and in Nepal.

  5. 7 mbjesq 12 August 2007 at 12:57 am


    To answer your question: I cannot quantify the number of people I am offending. But I can certainly describe them. They are generally well-meaning spiritual-seekers or those, like you, interested in “personal growth,” whatever that means. Typically, their desire to embrace the exotic and to indulge themselves in superficial empathy far outpaces their intellectual capabilities and causes them to ignore the things that fail to conform with their pollyanna preconceptions. Almost always, their habitual political correctness sublimates their honesty. And one more thing: they need to learn how to read.

    I love the give-and-take of ideas about the things I write. But to have sanctimonious lightweights like you and James – who are too lazy or too challenged to read and comprehend my actual words – react to the risible language rather than address the ideas that I have advocated is really a waste of blog space.

    For anyone else who needs the Cliff Notes version of the essay, here’s the punch-line: I am saddened by the shit and trash of Varanasi precisely because the place is culturally and historically important. It is not that I require Swiss cleanliness to feel comfortable; I don’t.

    It is a matter of objective verity that Varanasi is a pig-sty, a garbage dump masquerading as a city. You and James lamely argue that it is not a shit-hole, as I delicately put it, because there is more going on there than people crapping and throwing their garbage in the streets and on the ghats. You fail to grasp what any child knows: things can have more than one true characteristic. James is condescending and wrong in his assumptions about my life and lifestyle. You are self-righteous and inarticulate. Varanasi is a shit-hole and a place of profound cultural significance.

  6. 8 Shraddha 22 August 2007 at 2:47 pm


    It is very easy to say about anything, but it is very hard to make a difference. The situation of solid waste management may be bad but for that reason you can not say “I see spirituality in India as 90% well-meaning small-mindedness, 9% self-delusion or outright fraud”. Before coming to any conclusion, have u ever seen positive points of India. There are very beautiful places in India where you might not have visited. Holding one bad point in hand, it’s not good to blame any country’s situation this way.

    If you really had to do something for the pathetic situation in varansi, you would have approached the civic authorities & had recommended your views to them. The same had to be highlighted in your article Try to be fact-finder rather than fault-finder.

    My suggestion to you is visit India again & see some very beautiful places. I promise you that it will definitely help you to change your mindset towards India.

    – Ms. Shraddha
    National Solid Waste Association of India

  7. 9 mbjesq 22 August 2007 at 7:05 pm

    Ms. Shraddha:

    You urge me to be a fact-finder, rather than a fault-finder. I suspect you make this distinction only because I’m picking on Varanasi, a place that should be treated with the utmost respect, one would think, given its cultural significance. My findings may be stated provocatively, but they are reasonably objective and easily distinguished from my opinions (equally provocative). I’m afraid I find milquetoast writing pretty dull, and particularly ineffective to energize people about real problems, like garbage in a purportedly holy city.

    You also take me to task for not stepping-up to try to make a difference in Varanasi. We all pick our battles; and Varanasi is certainly not mine. One would think that one-or-more of the 800+ million Hindus, who profess to revere the place, would take it on.

    And do you really think the “civic authorities” of Varanasi really need to be told that they have a garbage problem? Do the eskimos need to have someone point out that they live in snow? Have I for once under-estimated the ineptitude of Indian bureaucrats and the corruption of Indian politicians?

    I have a great plan. If you really think the folks in Varanasi need their garbage problem called to their attention, why the hell doesn’t your National Solid Waste Association of India do it? You’ll probably be paid a fine salary for writing the letter.

    You make the ugly insinuation that I have done nothing to improve India, but merely criticize. Obviously you haven’t read more deeply into my blog. I write extensively about garbage (a subject which I know interests you), have worked with ragpickers in several parts of India, and work extensively with Shuddham, an NGO that is pioneering solid waste solutions in Pondicherry, where I live. You can find some of my pieces on garbage by clicking the “Environment” category on my blog (or simply click here).

    I am not, as you suggest, a one-time tourist visitor to India. And everyday I am here, I am working to make it a better place. Varanasi, however, is on its own.


    p.s. My name is Mark. James is the other idiot.

    p.p.s. I was actually being (unusually) diplomatic about spiritualism in India. While it is, indeed, my true feeling that genuine spirituality runs about 1%, I think I was being far too generous on the 90:9 split between well-meaning small-mindedness and self-delusion or outright fraud. I think the Indian littering habit is a perfect litmus test; but if you want others, I certainly have them.

  8. 10 winston 31 August 2007 at 9:27 pm

    Thanks for having the honesty to state the facts. Miguel asks how many people are you offending? If the truth offends so be it. I would rather hear an offensive truth, than a beautiful lie.

    James said if only you had seen the pilgrimage to the Ghanges you would see the beauty of the area. Is this the same pilgrimage the BBC filmed where feces were floating by due to the many cities that dump raw sewage into it upstream of the pilgrim areas? Where rotting bodies are dumped by those to poor to afford cremation first?

    Trash everywhere, but somehow its suppose to be a spiritual place? The locals don’t respect the land, but western tourists think its nirvana.

    Don’t worry if you offend the ignorant masses. They will never be swayed by rational discussion or facts.

    Keep on preaching the facts my brother!

  9. 11 winston 31 August 2007 at 9:38 pm

    BTW seeing as many Indians use cow shit and urine as sacred medicine known as Panchgavya , maybe they wouldnt feel insulted being called a shithole.

  10. 12 mbjesq 31 August 2007 at 9:40 pm

    Ouch, Winston!

    No one loves a good provocation more than me. After all, I was the one who dared to call Varanasi a shit-hole in the first place.

    But this is a bit whacked, don’t you think?

    And just to be clear on my message: I am calling Varanasi a shit-hole (and I will admit to having said the same of Kolkata). I am not calling “them” a shit-hole, whatever-the-hell you mean by that incoherent remark. I have great affection for India and for an extremely large number of the people I’ve met there. I am not shy about dishing-out insults, where merited; but I like to do with some degree of precision.


  11. 13 winston 31 August 2007 at 9:43 pm

    The root causes of the desperation, rampant poverty, and environmental disasters in India lie in its absolute lack of any programs to address their overpopulation. Their views towards women and their caste system also play a role. The root of this lies in their religion. Until this is addressed there is no hope.

  12. 14 Nilesh Rathi 18 September 2007 at 3:36 am

    wo wo wo…. Mr Winston….. desperation, rampant poverty, and environmental disasters in India has nothing to do with religion you idiot. This shows you know nothing about Hinduism (oldest civilization on the face of earth). Reading regular articles from masala newspapers and magazines won’t give you any knowledge about how this religion request you to treat everyone.
    Just like POPE of Christians doctored so many things taught by Christ, many idiot leaders in India also changed things for their vested interests and that is what you know as reality. Do some reading mate and you’ll come across the reality.
    Anyway… you guys will never understand…. your so called religion is only 1900 years old and that too adulterated by many devils like POPE.

    India is in such condition today due to their politicians and bureaucracy they learned from Britishers.

    If Indian culture is so bad, why do you westerners are embracing YOGA, herbal and ayurved.

  13. 15 mbjesq 18 September 2007 at 6:14 pm


    I’ll not defend Winston in all respects, but will comment on his condemnation of Indian religion for contributing to misogyny and casteism.

    You and I both assume the religion to which Winston refers is Hinduism; but the interesting thing is: it may not really matter. Sadly, there is astonishing syncretism among major religions in India when it comes to promulgating these particular social evils.

    Hinduism has certainly never been lacking its own misogynistic elements. But there is no question that, in many regions, Hindu culture was quite quick to adopt variants of the Islamic practices of purdah following the Mughal invasion.

    Likewise, the disgusting concept of caste, though Vedic in origin, has been adopted with ferocious, if somewhat less visible vigor within Indian Islam and Indian Christianity, as the “elite” converts to those religions eschew notions of egalitarianism.

    So you are right on this point: religious norms and rituals change over time. Ultimately, the moral culpability lies not only with those having authority within a particular religious orthodoxy, but with the followers themselves, who unthinkingly sublimate their own ethics to the prescriptions of the faith. This is the principal evil of religion, though subtle and grossly underappreciated. Those who conduct themselves well because they simply follow religious teachings, without applying their own ethical judgment, are not, in my view, impressive moral agents. Those who follow pernicious religious dictates are given a dangerous absolution for immoral behavior within their specific cultural context. In the best-case scenario, religion yields well-behaved sheep; in the worst, it produces sanctimonious, socially acceptable fiends.

    Religion may play a somewhat harmless role in supplying people with comforting metaphysical fairy tales; but its prescription of normative behavior is insidious.


  14. 16 anonymous 23 December 2007 at 3:18 pm

    MBJ… you are comments definitely are provoking may be they ca also be caled direct insult. However none of the guys who speak with prode about the so caled ancient religion and sounding very offended stop for a moment and think about the situation today. Applying rational thoughts in opposition to ancient ( read twisted ) religios beliefs is something you can least expect from Indians. And one more thing to note is that all the so called patriots only choose to follow the rules of religion/culture to an extent of what suits them; sheer hypocrites.
    With bulging population and self centered attitude it is time to lay the “false pride” of religion to rest; it does no good to alleviate the suffering of a comman man.

    My view would be take a moment and think why someone made such a nasty comment about varnasi. Think about is this picture what it conveys to a tourist. Think of the behaviour of the people surrounding you before you go to defend and start attacking the person who commented against you, your religion or your land. The biggest mistake anyone can proabably commit is to think they are always right and to think that goverment is responsible for providing everything.

  15. 17 BOB 7 July 2008 at 8:34 pm


  16. 18 mbjesq 8 July 2008 at 10:49 am

    Wow, Bob! Thanks for that piece of wisdom. Who knew! What is god doing in there? You’d think god could afford a condo, at least.

    I’m afraid my grasp of theology isn’t quite as sure as perhaps it might be. I get the whole omnipresence-thing; but I’ve never been able to understand why the notion of god was somehow essential to it.

    Maybe you didn’t mean to say that god “is in the shit”, but that “god is the shit!” You know: the whole hipster lingua. Bad is good. Thin is fat, or phat, or whatever. We used to say “hot shit” to denote a super-cool something or someone. But the phrase has transformed since my (bygone) era.

    This interpretation of your comment seems to make sense. It puts you well within the mainstream theistic traditions. Those who are into the whole god-thing tend to be pretty impressed with their invisible friend. Praise the lord, and all that. And, if you follow one of the inane traditions which believes that god has some kind of stake or interest in your particular life, then I guess you might say that god thinks you are the shit too. Or wants you to be shittier. Or whatever.

    I guess my grip on hipster-talk isn’t so great either.



  17. 19 SH 9 August 2008 at 8:09 pm

    Spiritual beliefs and devotional traditions are part and parcel of a civilization, no matter which civilization we pick. These rituals are sometimes signified by some geographical feature and /or art and architectural heritage. These physcial manifestations of spiritual and devotional belief systems are created by ruling bodies, patronage of elites, by communal and individual inspirations. The traditions and spiritual aspects don’t change, but dynamics, demography of the population change, the governing bodies change. When these centuries old rituals along with their geographical package enter the modern times, with its population outbursts and environmental issues, it is not the common man who will think where to throw his garbage… it is thrown on the street if there is not a place assigned and cleaned up regularly. It is up to the ruling junta to sustain that built environment and give due respect to these rituals that are tied and dyed into the souls of the beleivers…those who come to places like Varanasi to find solace and peace from their own set of problems.

    It is a serious injustice to the culture, belief system, heritage of a country when the governments donot think of the common man and donot create any sustainable infrastructure to enhance the serenity of such rituals and support such profound spiritual journeys within their country.

    More the governments dodnot give a shit (pun intended) more the shithole fills up. VERY SAD :(

  18. 20 Harish 10 August 2008 at 9:50 am

    Yeah. India is a shithole all right. I’m a real Indian waiting to get the hell out of this country at the first available opportunity.

  19. 21 David 31 August 2008 at 11:50 am

    I have been to India, spent four months there and have visited everywhere from the Himalayas to the backwaters of Kerala and it seems the problem in India (with trash, poverty, caste system, the list goes on….)resides wherever Hinduism and Islam are concentrated. I went to Ladakh, which is Buddhist, and it was one of the most beautiful (and clean) places I had ever seen. I went to Kerala, which is very much Christian,and it was very clean, modernized, and actually holds the honor of having the highest literacy and education rate in the country. Most of INDIA, however, is a shithole. Places that could be beautiful are ruined by its people. They claim to revere the cow but the cows on the street look malnourished and eat some of the trash on the street. Also, the lack of sanitation that goes along with using their hands as toilet paper needs to go also. Its just plain filthy. Every Indian in some economic position i met treated those below him or her like shit. One fucking Brahman asked me “why did you come to India to volunteer, we don’t need your help” Well, she wasnt doing it, I was, an American. I spent some of my time cleaning up the heaps of garbage on the street but the locals didnt follow my example. I saw Indians throwing plastic bottles on the ground at a monument like the Taj Mahal. Some cities I visited, like Chennai, didnt have a single visible nice place anywhere. The whole city was a pile of shit.

  20. 22 smita 31 August 2008 at 12:49 pm

    Hi David,

    Much of what you’ve seen in India is undeniable, but I have a few nits to pick: Your line about “Indians using their hands as toilet paper” is unwarranted. It’s the washing of the hands after that matters and I think Indians are probably better about that than many Americans.

    Also, Kerala happens to be majority Hindu, so it is just as likely that the high level of education, the fact that it is a tourist destination, and the community government can take credit for it being relatively cleaner than other places. As for Ladakh – it’s remote and hard to get stuff there (and fewer people), so naturally there is less to throw around.

    I’m sorry to hear you had such a bitter experience in India, though. It can be an aggravating country, and people are slow to change. But for those very reasons, the change you can effect is so much more powerful and rewarding.

    Look again. There are lots of people doing remarkable things for others, often at great personal cost. Talk to some kids – you’ll be amazed at how idealistic and eager they are to improve their communities. They’re already doing it and would be eager for some encouragement and guidance.

    Don’t give up on us just yet.


    • 23 abhishek 23 May 2012 at 11:29 pm

      Hi Smita thanks for your reply to all this nonsence, i am from varanasi see the people how they live and care to others, this all foreigners come here and talk rubbish about indians i will shoot them if they will speak in front of me thanks smita cheers.

  21. 24 David 1 September 2008 at 12:39 pm

    Smita, I agree with you on the toilet paper thing, I just combine the best of both worlds and use water, soap, and toilet paper (dont mean to get into details). I just think that it is a little more sanitary to put a barrier between your hand and waste, especially when it can get in places (like your fingernails) that wont get clean and could spread infection. Dont get me wrong, there is still something about India that draws me, I do love the food. I spent 2 and a half months volunteering which revealed to me much more of the country’s problems then I would have seen as a tourist. But why is a place like Agra, the most touristy destination in India, one of the worst? I forgot to mention that Rajasthan was also nice and Chandigarh was somewhat put together ( I have a friend who’s family I visited there). Yes I know Ladakh is remote but I was in Madhya Pradesh, which is also very remote, and the same cannot be said ( wonderful wildlife and temples though). Everyone I seemed to meet from Kerala was Christian with all my Malayali friends in America also Christian. However, I have been all over the world and have been to places like Africa, which are supposedly poorer than India, but the poor are clean and places visited by tourists are given good attention.

  22. 25 smita 7 September 2008 at 10:40 am

    Hi David,

    I like the best-of-both-worlds approach too, but imagine all the trees it would take to provide TP for all of India’s 1 billion + people. :) (Besides, since paper is easily permeated by water and therefore germs, it’s not really much of a barrier and may lead to less assiduous hand-washing if people think otherwise.)

    But seriously, your point about the dirtiness of India is totally valid. Forgive me for leaning on a hackneyed and dubious analogy, but I think it is a perfect case of the frog-in-boiling water concept, i.e. if you drop a frog in hot water it will jump out but if you heat the water very, very slowly, it won’t notice.

    When I was a kid in a small village in Gujarat (not that long ago) we had lots of open space and very little that was not bio-degradable. My family was particular about cleanliness – clothes were washed every day, the entire yard was swept each morning, the house was swept and mopped multiple times.

    But there were no garbage collection services (except for the stray dogs and cows) so people would put leftover food (no fridges either) out for the animals. My aunts would sweep the dust out of the homes and deposit it in the big dusty lane beyond our gates. Any plastic bags that made their way to us were carefully washed and put away for future use. If you were out and bought pakoras or some other snack, you got them in a small piece of newspaper. If you dropped that on the ground it would wash away with the next rains or be eaten by a cow.

    For big functions, such as weddings, the guests were served on plates and bowls made of leaves stitched together, which would first be cleaned of food by stray animals and then burned. My cousin and I would walk across the village every morning and evening with a steel container to get milk from the cowherd community. (I remember watching children walking behind the animals collecting the dung in baskets so it could be dried and used as fuel.)

    Now most people use gas stoves to cook their food and milk is delivered to villages by truck in small plastic bags. Big parties are catered, and Styrofoam and plastic and paper are replacing clay, glass, steel, and leaves. Plastic bags are second in ubiquity only to my biggest peeve: the little sachets of “pan masala” that now litter the paths of even the most remote parts of India.

    As both the concentration of people and the amount of non-degradable increased somewhat gradually, most people didn’t see the need to adjust their behavior. So they still swept their houses clean every day and dumped the garbage just outside their gates, except now, along with dust and leaves and straw it includes plastic and foil. In a village of a hundred people, they may still have been able to get away with that. But now a couple of thousand people live in that same area, exacerbating the problem exponentially.

    It’s starting to change a little. There is a sweeper who goes through the village each morning collecting garbage and sweeping the lane, but unfortunately that only encourages people to continue littering because they know someone will eventually remove it. People still see their responsibilities for sanitation as ending at their front gate. When I stopped my 20-year-old nephew for throwing a bag out of the car window, he responded with a riddle: “A poor man throws it away, a rich man keeps it in his pocket. Who is better?” The “it” is snot.

    Ultimately it comes down to mindset. Those of us who have lived abroad where littering is seen as a social offense cringe at the thought of dropping even the smallest scrap of paper on the ground. The folks in Kerala have no doubt imbibed that inhibition from all the Christian churches and because so many of them live and work abroad. So it obviously can be learned.

    I do wonder, though, how much of it is cultural. Americans have a far more active sense of civic responsibility, as demonstrated by the wonderful public university systems as well as the ordinances that dictate what kind of trees you can plant in your front yard and what color you can paint your house. I’m curious to see whether simply raising awareness can create a similar sense of responsibility among Indians in India, or if it will take a deeper “cultural revolution.”


  23. 26 mbjesq 7 September 2008 at 8:47 pm

    I really hate to interlope in the conversation between Smita and David about personal and public hygiene in India — the former of which is fetishistic and the latter more of a rumor than an accomplished fact — but I think Smita concedes too much when she characterizes toilet paper and a good post-wipe hand washing “the best of both worlds when it comes to cleaning one’s ass.

    No argument from me — or hopefully anyone else — on the hand-washing thing.

    Frankly, I think the use of toilet paper is a wholly unsatisfactory after-shit procedure, both from the standpoint of unjustified resource consumption and hygienic efficiency. The water-based approach leaves me feeling April fresh and none the worse for wear. I do, however, favor the European bidet, Jetsons-like Japanese car-wash-for-the-ass toilet automations, or simple hose-like butt-sprayer to the try-to-clean-your-ass-with-a-spoutless-cup-of-water approach, which requires a practiced deftness not unlike learning to eat with chopsticks.

    This topic probably deserves a thread of its own. Or not.



  24. 27 smita 7 September 2008 at 9:47 pm

    No, silly. “Best of both worlds” refers to wipe as well as wash (and then wash hands). Despite all my years in America, I’ve never been able to do without the “wash” component. In fact, even the babies in our family get their bottoms cleaned with wet wipes and are then hauled onto the pot for a good wash.

    (And if this is all too scatological for you, you may want to reconsider the use of “shit hole” in future post titles.)

    As for the rest, I think we’re unanimous in acknowledging that “public hygiene” is still an oxymoron in India. But you’ve not responded to my question: Is there something unique in the American character that has made people public spirited and civic minded or is it just something that comes with education, awareness, and prosperity. In other words, is there any hope for us poor Indians?


  25. 28 mbjesq 7 September 2008 at 10:54 pm


    I think David might do a better job tapping into the American zeitgeist than I can. After watching the utterly exotic and unfathomable Sarah Palin and being dumbstruck to hear that Americans “relate to her”, I’m not so sure about my instincts. But here’s how I explain the differential between public hygiene in America and India: shame.

    People forget that, as recently as the 1970s, America was quite the litter-box. Perhaps the level of trash in the streets and open-spaces was not quite on a par with today’s India, but that was before the ubiquity of plastic carry bags and, after all, India accommodates a billion people in approximately one-third the space. Grass roots environmentalism found its legs in the late 1960s; and shame was its tool of choice.

    Let’s face it: littering and otherwise defiling the shared environment is immoral in some fundamental and non-relativistic way. There is no one on the planet who would defend the practice — or could. With such an unambiguously evil target, it wasn’t hard to make people feel badly about poor public hygiene.

    The approach was epitomized by the famous “Crying Indian” television commercial, which debuted on the second annual Earth Day celebration in April of 1971.

    Can the same transformation take place in India? If so, my guess is that shame will not be the motivation-of-choice. Indians are far too busy feeling shame over a myriad of other things — mostly senseless, like the fact that their perfectly happy daughters are not married off to some moronic, abusive, and otherwise useless man — to spare any remorse for defiling public spaces. I think national pride is a far better bet. Indians do jingoism exceptionally well.



  26. 29 David 10 September 2008 at 7:38 am

    Smita, I think that America isnt too much different than India than many people think, and while the population and poverty may be a challenge to reaching the goal I dont think it makes it impossible. I am not sure who mentioned the US being “dirty” in the 70’s, but I cant vouch for that since I was born in 1985 and am 23 years old (Although I think Detroit is a shit hole). Anyway, poverty doesn’t mean one has to be dirty. I currently live in Bangkok, Thailand and while there are many poor people here, the country is amazingly clean and put together. The same can be said for East Africa and South America, other “poor” places I have visited. Personally, I havent noticed a population density less than India, even when I visited the rural areas. Now, just to let everyone know here, I went “Indian” while I was there and used the bathrooms like the locals, maybe I wasnt doing it right but not many people were up to elaborating the idea for me.

    In terms of the litter toilet paper would produce, I am not so sure. I think the modern world clash with India that produces the already existing problem is a far larger threat. Plastic bottles and unnecessary packaging is creating much of the filth. Perhaps India should rethink their use of such items. Older Indians told me that years ago, India didnt have the same trash problem because most of the poor didnt produce heaps of trash, everything they consumed decomposed rather fast. God only knows whats going to happen with air pollution now that Tata has introduced the Nano.
    I do think Indian homes are very spotless, but many behave like I did as a young teenager where I would “clean” my room, but really just throw my trash in the closet.
    I think the modernity factor is a serious contributor, with the countries new found economic growth being too much of a shock. The United States grew over a very long period of time. I havnt been to China, but I have heard their country is similar to India with the trash problem. India also has great systems of education dont forget, IIT is one of the best engineering schools in the world. America has a great university system, one of the best in the world, but our primary and secondary systems are shit. I attended private school almost all my life as a result.
    I think much of the hygiene problem has to start with the eradication of the “caste system”. The key foundation of America’s success is that a poor child can grow to be successful, if he or she works for it. That isnt the case in India. Many of my poorer friends while I was there, however much I got to know them, would never tell me their last name because they know that is an indication of their caste. My upper class friends seemed like they were trying to be too western in their appearance and movement but didnt display the mentality. Wearing name brand jeans and carrying an Ipod is fine, but treat your neighbor well, even if he doesnt make the same amount of money or if his skin is darker. On the other hand, they treated me like one of their own. Also, the north – South hatred has to go as well. The Aryans need to stop looking down on the Dravidians and vice versa.

  27. 30 mbjesq 10 September 2008 at 11:56 am


    Thanks for the thoughtful commentary.

    I’m not sure what to make of your remark that America and India are not so different. The observation is a little to broad for me to wrap my head around. I live half of each year in India and half in North America and, if I can respond with the same generality as your statement, I’d say they couldn’t be more different. Sure, people are people the world over, with the same brilliance, ingenuity, innate morality, aspirations, stupidity, greed, and venality. But things just manifest differently in the two places. These are legacies of history, geography, and culture that cannot be effaced by a few decades of modernity. The world may be homogenizing rapidly, but not that rapidly.

    The implication that poor public hygiene is the exclusive and necessary product of poverty is a straw-man of your own making. India’s wealthy are among its worst offenders. While it is true that poverty puts constraints on the ability of people to handle trash and human waste in an appropriate way, the overall dysfunction of public hygiene systems in India, throughout the entire social spectrum, means that the poor really have no opportunity to rise above their handicap, even if they had the awareness and desire.

    You may or may not have seen my essay Garbage. Shit!, which, among other things, compares the cleanliness and beauty of Lahore to the filth of Amritsar, which sit equidistant across the India – Pakistan border. To me, it shows that the inclination to better or more neglectful public hygiene is a matter of nurture, not nature. After all, India and Pakistan are the perfect twins-separated-at-birth experiment so favored by behavioral psychologists.

    As for the caste system, we can agree that it is ubiquitous and hideous, but will have to disagree about the prevalence of its role in inhibiting India from moving toward a healthier regime of public cleanliness and overall successful development. While pernicious casteism persists, I think that economic status, which is increasingly independent of caste factors, is the principal driver of the poor direction India is headed. I think you concede this very point when you begin by talking about “caste” and wind up speaking of “class”. Perhaps this isn’t a distinction you intended to make; but it is certainly one I draw. A good analogy might be with Tokugawa era Japan, in which the strictures of the Confucian social hierarchy gave way to the new economic realities of the peace-time, mercantile economy.

    Thanks again for your perspective.


  28. 31 smita 10 September 2008 at 9:22 pm

    David and Mark:

    I enjoyed reading your views. They seem to highlight the fact that this problem is the child of many parents (1 billion or so).

    But I’m sticking to the boiling frog theory. Except that I don’t believe the frog will allow itself to get boiled alive, though it might let the water get unbearably hot before finally trying to get out. So I’ll wager that in another 10 years India will be very much cleaner – we, too, will soon be piling our garbage high on ships and trying to pay off some poorer country to take it. (Though being Indians, I fear we are as likely to dump it in the ocean if we think no one is looking.)

    My other theory is that as India strives to emulate America, the US is becoming ever more like India. Thousands dying in a single storm, politician bought and sold on the open market, regulatory agencies unable to regulate for lack of resources and fear of political pressure are just some of the most obvious examples.

    Sarah Palin may be the next one. Forty-some years ago, cynical Indian politicians lifted a young women into the spotlight because they thought she would be charismatic vote magnet while they held the reins of power. Indira Gandhi sure showed them. If we end up with Sarah Palin as president within the next four years, I’ll consider my theory vindicated.


  29. 32 mbjesq 11 September 2008 at 6:40 am


    Ten years is an eternity in today’s world. If India does not reverse its downward spiral with respect to public hygiene by then, the subcontinent will probably not support one human life, much less a billion of them.

    The big difference between Indira Gandhi and Sarah Palin is that Governor Palin comes by her scary ideas honestly; that is, through ignorance and lack of big-league intellect — much like George W. Bush. No one would claim that Indira Gandhi was stupid, only that she was evil. Which is the more dangerous? Hard to say.


  30. 33 Amit 11 September 2008 at 9:44 pm

    (Though being Indians, I fear we are as likely to dump it in the ocean if we think no one is looking.)


    You’re being too charitable to the first-world “developed” countries with that comment. :)

    I remember reading about a waste-filled barge (from the US or France, I forget) that was simply dumped into the ocean by some unscrupulous owners when they couldn’t find any takers for them. Another recollection is reading in Reader’s Digest about a scandal in Europe 2 decades ago or so where radioactive nuclear waste was dumped in the ocean.

    So, dumping in the ocean is not unique to Indians alone – there’s precedence, and after all, that’s what developed countries do. ;)

  31. 34 smita 11 September 2008 at 10:57 pm

    Wow, Amit!

    That’s an amazing article. Curtis Ebbesmeyer’s description blew my mind: ‘”It moves around like a big animal without a leash.” When that animal comes close to land, as it does at the Hawaiian archipelago, the results are dramatic. “The garbage patch barfs, and you get a beach covered with this confetti of plastic.”‘

    And you’re right. Indians have only been following the trail carved out by the “developed” countries. The plastic bottles and unnecessary packaging that David mentions are certainly derived from western influences.

    The funny thing about most Indians is that peer pressure is probably the most powerful motivating factor in our lives, but despite the fact that the risk of social disgrace is omnipresent (or perhaps because of it), Indians are extremely ready to flout the rules if they think they can do it without being caught. It’s a funny combination.

    Thanks for the reality check!


    p.s. MBJ: I imagine IG was every bit the wide-eyed “must…not…blink…” ingenue that Ms. Palin now portrays. The dreams she had for the country must have been quite lofty. I imagine struggling for survival against manipulative, cynical, sexist men (and the profoundly corrupting influence of the power she managed to snatch from them) is what led to her ultimately despicable actions.

  32. 35 jai 16 September 2008 at 9:40 pm

    really enjoyed reading this post and the discussions that followed. someone had mentioned to me that during the British occupation, defiling public places by the “common man” was a sign of protest…meaning that it belonged to the raj and hence not to be respected. this then allegedly remains as a bad hangover into the present day. i personally don’t know what to make of that assertion. however if it were true, then mbj’s comment that indians respond to jingoism could be used to move things in the right direction.

    regarding ms. palin – she scares the bejeebers out of me! a real picasso moment in the making if she gets elected. get the tp and the high tech japanese jet sprayer and the fire hose. we are going to need them all!

  33. 36 smita 17 September 2008 at 8:14 am

    rotfl, Jai!

    A shit in?

    I’ve got my pink plastic “mugga” on the ready and am prepared to do what it takes in service of truth, justice and the American way.

  34. 37 Tourist from the east 24 October 2008 at 11:15 am

    This is one of the most discussed posts in China right now. It’s in Chinese, but you can check out the pictures on the page. I’m honestly speechless. The pictures were taken by a Chinese tourist, who spent 6 months in India. It’s fair to say that he went to India with an open heart but left with disgust and disappointment. Cannot blame him.

    India used to be the mystic country on the other side of Himalaya to the Chinese people.. Not anymore, I don’t know if it’s fair to call a country or a city a shithole, but damn, it’s hard to look at those pictures.

  35. 38 smita 26 October 2008 at 8:54 am


    I’ve so far managed to avoid visiting Varanasi. But if those pictures are for real, I’ll endorse the “shithole” appellation.

    Yesterday at a family gathering, someone talked about a new power point called India 2020 that shows the city of Ahmedabad vaulting into the new millenia with the third-largest airport in the word, huge buildings, fancy roads, etc. All I could think of were the pictures I saw on that Chinese blog. I agree with Mark that India’s going nowhere fast until we clean up our act.

    Thanks for the stomach-turning eye-opener.


  36. 39 Tourist from the east 26 October 2008 at 9:06 pm


    I looks to me that those pics are for real.

    As for an Indian city in year 2020.. seriously. I have read enough “India the next superpower” predictions from mostly Indian pundits in the past 2 years. I’d like to bet my 100 dollar against it. I hope Indian friends can get some basics done in their country, before boasting on India’s potentials.

    I didn’t intend to make anyone’s stomach turn. So, before you go see those pics, be warned it’s not very pleasant.

  37. 40 anony 12 December 2008 at 6:03 am

    bahut bade chutiye ho tum sab kasam se

  38. 41 india is crap 5 February 2009 at 9:10 pm

    Well i have been to India many times and it is THE WORLDS SIT HOLE! FILTHY and disgusting full of people with such abysmal manners and habits. Totally disgusting with a Billion maggots.

    India and everyone in it should be cleansed….NO I am NOT RACIST I have Indian friends and still i tell them what i think of India.

    Indians in General have NO reason to smile or feel proud of there country..I mean look around you dear Old India..Look at REAL CIVILIZATION!

  39. 42 Sonali 15 March 2009 at 6:11 pm

    Although I do not approve of the language used to describe people ( maggots by india is crap does make him or her sound like a racist and having Indian friends doesn’t make him or her less so) or a place, I have to generally agree that India can do with some serious cleaning up. While in some cases it is a recent phenomenon ( Delhi, North East, some of the hill stations), in other places it has largely been a culture( Mumbai, Varanasi). And people can be trained to have civic sense. The beaches in Mumbai were the crappiest that anyone could have seen in ages but some serious dedication by the Indian armed forces and enforcement has helped it to be in a better shape than what it was in the 1990s.

    The problem with the Ganges is exactly what you have said. Most people will not listen to criticism of how it is maintained. I do agree with you that a place of reverence must be cleaned. Some of the villages used to have very well established garbage disposal system until “urbanization” set in. I guess people didn’t know how to get rid of the more “western” created waste of plastic bags.

    Also, please be aware that many Developed countries actually export their trash to Africa and Asia and hence your back yard looks as clean as it does now. With nearly 240 million tonnes of garbage generated every year by Americans alone, do you honestly think they just all miraculously evaporated into thin air? Pick up any National geographic from last year to understand what I am saying.

    So before you blame their religion, culture and what not on their massive piles of waste, you may want to know where your trash is headed.

  40. 43 India is CRAP 8 July 2009 at 10:43 pm

    Great post. As an indian living in india, I absolutely endorse your views. India is easily the biggest shithole democracy. We spit and shit on the streets with total disdain for hygiene and expect the world to consider us a superpower.

    A shithole country full of people with no manners and the worst infrastructure one could ever imagine. Reservation is destroying whatever little quality we could have expected in governance as all politicians endorse caste over anything else and are corrupt to the core. Just take a look at the mugshots of all leading politicians and you’ll get the picture.

    Just walk with your mom/sister/girlfriend on the streets for a few minutes and you can see the filthiest men on the planet (indian men) exercising their right to freedom by leching/catcalls and staring. Absolute disrespect to women excercised in all parts of the country.

    I have only respect for all those who choose leave this goddamn country and emigrate to other places coz they respect themselves and would rather live anywhere than this shithole.

    And for all those who respond by saying “boohoo..its the developed countries fault or india was looted for amny years… ” just take a look at your pathetic excuses and &^%$ off.

  41. 44 Pranesh Bhargava 21 July 2009 at 4:21 pm

    First of all, I thank you for a frank evaluation of the city. Sometimes we Indians need an outsider to point to us what our faults are. I agree that the city is dirty. And you have problems with the dirtiness.

    But just because the city is dirty does not mean you start using dirty words for it. How is calling a holy city a “shit hole” going to solve the problem if not aggravate it? Are you not at fault in spreading verbal dirt just as much as the people who are physically littering the place?

    For a person who has written such a thought provoking article, I would expect that he would be careful in using the four letter words. May be you don’t believe in gods, and may be you don’t believe in Hindu gods, may be you don’t have such attachment with the city as Indians do. (And no doubt that despite being holy, the city is dirty). But you should not cross the line of decency of language by using swear words for a city that is not yours, and is not associated with your religion.

    It would not clean up the city to use swear words with its name, nor would it make it any more dirty. But not using the swear words would certainly be respectful to people’s feelings, and be an evidence of your good intentions.

  42. 45 mbjesq 23 July 2009 at 1:55 am


    Your point of view is entirely reasonable; it is just not one to which I ascribe.

    First, my aim is to provoke, not merely to describe. I happen to think that the application of profanity to a discussion of a such holy place provides just the right touch in furtherance of that aim. You will note, I am sure, that there are two aspects to this deployment of language. First, it think it strikes exactly the correct emotional chord and conveys the devastating extent of Varanasi’s problem to label it “a fucking shit-hole.” Second, this use of language helps to convey the deep irony of the place. It is both a revered, sacred city and a city utterly defiled. It is precisely my respect for Varanasi that motivates my explication of this inherent conflict. The juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane (in the nastiest sense of that word) helps me make the point. I’d say my good intentions require no further evidence than what should already be apparent from the essay.

    You suggest that people’s feelings may be bruised by my language. To the extent that this is from its application to Varanasi, Hinduism, gods in general, or any one-true-god in particular, I think I’ve explained my motivation; and I think a smart reader will apprehend my intent and quickly come to appreciate the deliberate application of rough-hewn language. To the extent that you mean that people’s sensibilities will be offended, irrespective of the rhetorical value of this discursive strategy, I couldn’t give a shit. In other words: fuck them. They can take their hurt feelings and shove them up their respective asses. (Not to put too fine a point on this.) I have no interest in pandering to prudes.



  43. 46 Kaffir 4 August 2009 at 8:59 pm

    Pranesh, you don’t tell the white man what to do – and especially an American, it’s the white man who says it like it is and tells you what to do, with his crude words – don’t forget that atithi devo bhava. It’s the white man’s burden (or something) that MBJEsq carries, and comes to India for six months to expiate a bit of it – or maybe to lord over the prudes to make himself feel better, or to prove to himself that he possesses intellectual heft.

  44. 47 Pranesh Bhargava 18 August 2009 at 5:31 pm

    @Kaffir : Ha ha ha ha. atithi devo bhava. And add to it, “Nindak niyare raakhiye, aangan kuti chavaaye/ bin saabun paani bina, nirmal kare subhaay”.
    I do not like bad language being used for a noble cause. Still I think MBJ has a very valid point to make. Using abusive language is not going to clean up the city, that’s all I added.

  45. 48 Kaffir 2 September 2009 at 10:11 am

    Pranesh, it’s easy for some people to point at shit in Varanasi, but difficult to recognize their own verbal diarrhea. Such is life.

  46. 49 J 7 October 2009 at 2:08 pm

    I will wholeheartedly agree that Varanasi shouldn’t be treated in the way it is (major companies polluting the river, sewage poured into it etc etc), but I still feel like several other people who have commented that it’s shame you didn’t enjoy the place more. I visited earlier this year, and I am neither a well-meaning spiritual-seeker or interested in “personal growth”… *shudder*. And yet despite the filth, the noise, the incessant hassle, I found myself loving the place. I’d go back like a shot. Did you only spend one day there? I personally always enjoyed places in India more once I’d been there for a few days.

  47. 50 A.S.Mathew 19 November 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Since I have in the U.S. for the last forty years,
    when I visit India, I feel shocked to see the filth and garbage.

    If the people are not motivated to be clean minded, then the
    whole country is going to be dirty. When I paid a visit to a
    cabinet level official in New Delhi, I was quite surprised to
    see his room, and the roof over him. Even the cheapest office
    room in the U.S. will be far greater than that.

    When I visited Himachal Pradesh, it was the cleanest State I
    have ever visited. Their population is very low, and they won’t
    allow people from other states to migrate.

    When I visit the slums of Delhi, for the first few hours,
    I was in a shock to see the dirt, poverty and the smell,
    but when I started to appreciate the blessings I have in life,
    then my attituded was totally changed to look at them with a
    heart of compassion, not condemnation. There is corruption,
    nothing will move without kick backs, and the system is
    in a total disorder. It takes a lot of patience to handle that
    lifestyle for a westerner, if not fully dedicated to sacrifice
    the whole life for certain divine purpose. The greatest mistake
    India has ever done was following the socialistic system from
    day one of India’s independence. In every service or project
    which is being undertaken by the government, there is greater
    corruption. India has to turn everything to private hands, then
    there will be a change the speed of operation.

    Kerala has 20% Christians, but that State (my state) has a lot
    of influence of Christianity even among the non-Christians.

  48. 51 mbjesq 20 November 2009 at 8:11 am

    Mr. Mathew:

    I follow your comments right up to the utter non sequitur of the last paragraph. It may be true, as you say, that Kerala “has a lot of influence of Christianity even among non-Christians”; but you don’t want to give people the wrong impression. Kerala is a very wonderful place anyway.


  49. 52 Abhyaan 10 January 2010 at 9:22 pm

    I’m Indian and have no qualms in saying this. Let’s admit it: Varanasi is a shit hole. It was purported to be the most holy site of Hinduism, but untended cremation, pilgrimages, an impotent garbage disposal system, and a lackadaisical culture that says “I can throw anything anywhere, and it will dissolve into the dust” have made sure that Varanasi is one of the shittiest places on earth. However, Varanasi is much more than that, it is the world’s oldest living city, with a culture that has unchanged through the times- from the age where there was no toilet paper and no cattle pens. To change that culture in any significant way, is to invite the ire of a sizable number of the Hindu majority. Which is why, Varanasi, or atleast the Ganges banks on the city, are kept in antiquated condition. The problem lies in the sheer volume of people that travel or visit the area. Everyone wants to have their ashes immersed in the river, just as every muslim wants to make “Hajj” to Mecca, or every devout Christian wants to visit the Edicule of the Holy Sepulchre. But for a country with a billion-plus population, and the subcontinental size, that is simply not possible. When that happens, you have Varanasi.

    I also like to berate the sheer lackadaisicalness of the authorities- in terms of constructing amenities for the visiting like waiting stations and toilets, despite the obstructions. But, to add to that, the citizens have taken the initiative to clean up the Ganges: a youth volunteer organization organized a massive clean-up in Nov 2009, and a group of NGO’s have come together to clean up the banks under a common banner, under governmental support.

    India is on the cusp of change- great change. With an economy that has started to expand at an explosive growth rate, hanging on to an old lifestyle simply won’t do. It has to change, and it has to change now. It will take time, but it must change.


  50. 53 nadrojrwilson 5 February 2010 at 5:15 am

    Of the 40 odd countries I’ve had the pleasure of visiting over the last couple of years, I must say India has definitely become the most thought provoking. All that has been said and argued has been great to read, and to a certain extent has placed people in categories I had pondered during my 6 months attempting to find “Incredible India”.

    Everyone has their view (myself included): Realists, brain-dead, drug fucked, down to earth, educated, spiritual etc. Everyone reacts to the filth and stupidity in different ways – much like coming out of a Quentin Tarantino film.

    The huge difference is that India (and therefore Varanasi) has not been created as some thought provoking piece of art, or music that people can disregard if they wish. It is indeed part of the amazingly stunning place we call home (Earth). Granted, I have escaped back to my paradise and left the putrid smells and filth behind. But without complete memory loss I can’t say it’ll ever be possible to rest, assured our world will survive. The knowledge that a 5000 yr old culture can produce a nation housing one of the world’s most spiritually significant cities, and treat it as such, definitely keeps me up.

    What’s next? Does Varanasi just continue existing as it is? I think not. Population increase in India means that for the last 10 years there have been, on average, 24 million extra Indians added to the already insane population each year. That’s a new Canada every 12 months! Sure the economy is booming and GDP is increasing but the reality is; standards are not, and neither is GDP per capita. Schools, hospitals, infrastructure and government all need to be expanded to accommodate for these increases. It is not happening fast enough and nor should it.
    Why should anyone on this earth want to support India on its self destruct path? Pity, I think not. It’s been 63 years since the English left – that’s more than an Indian expected life span! India needs to get humble. Loose the attitude and get realistic about smaller families, education and standards.

    There’s that word again “standards”. I remember vividly looking at a graph of countries separated by their standards of living which was portrayed as a number, and thinking, all they need to do is increase that number and they will be fine. After my time in India I realised there are actually individuals involved in that magic number, and if they are ever going to change the world they live in, it will have to be turned upside down by one of the many gods on offer.

    Religion, caste and culture.

    These are all hard wired into most Indians from birth – regardless of education, God will always win over logic or science. Faith in whichever deity suits is not going to save the real world. God does not recycle plastic, nor does he provide education. Actually he does nothing physical. The thought of god may well provide sanctuary to those in need, but they will still need to eat sleep and shit. Reality definitely hurts when you’re doing it wrong.


  51. 54 mbjesq 5 February 2010 at 1:05 pm


    Superb commentary. I wish I’d written it.



  52. 55 David 24 May 2010 at 3:24 pm

    I visited India for two months. I was in Mumbai, Goa, Kerala, Chennai, the Andamans, Varanasi, Bodhgaya, and Kolkata.

    Now, and I am no expert on anything Indian, and all I know is what I saw over 2 months and a little that I have read, I would like to say that I can’t understand a few things about India.

    I can understand that India has a population problem. The people (particularly the men) think that having a large family is a sign of status. I can see that. I think the government should more aggressively combat the population problem like China has done, but at least I can understand why there is a problem in the first place.

    I can understand that the vast amounts of uneducated people are hung up on ritualized versions of religion because they haven’t heard about any other way to express spirituality, even though India has one of the largest and most vibrant histories of spiritual expression in the world. Yogic philosophy, Buddhism, Sikhism, along with more secular and contemporary teachers like Ramana Maharshi and Osho, are all widely known and part of the national consciousness, even though the chances that you will find Indians participating in “authentic” spirituality these days close to nil. I know that taking the leap from ritual to more esoteric understandings is tough, and I know that attempting enlightenment when you have to mostly worry about feeding yourself and your family is a little silly. I can understand it.

    And I can understand that a culture that has gone through as much as it has, from invasions to colonization to just being around as long as it has as a culture, could lead to a little bit of corruption, bitter tensions, and general malaise.

    But the things I can’t understand:

    I can’t understand why the average person in India, hell most people in India would want to disrespect their own country the way they do. The piles of trash. The lack of decent sanitation. For example I can’t understand why a man would take a shit in the middle of the sidewalk in downtown Mumbai, even if he is homeless. Bums in America have at least enough self respect to go elsewhere. Does he consider himself an animal? Is this what the society has done to him.

    I can’t understand the disregard for human life, in this passive “that’s just the way the world works” manner. In Somalia there is constant war. People die every day from fighting. But it is universally assumed to be a bad thing, the blame just gets conveniently placed anywhere other than the perpetrator. In India, people treat each other in abhorrent ways, for example Dalits are killed if they so much as draw water from the same well as someone in a higher caste (actually technically if they are in a caste at all!) And this is considered good! Even normal! It is normal to have 16% of the population to be considered as worse than slaves. 260 million Dalits (worldwide; 170 million in India)! Almost the entire population of the US. Most of whom do not have homes, or work, or much of anything. The government tries to help but it is not enough. I can’t understand how one person, who when stripped of all the accoutrements of civilization and placed to another similarly stripped person, one being a Brahmin and the other being a Dalit, they would very likely be indistinguishable! They even belong to the same religion. How many religions let you subjugate members of your own religion? I think Hinduism is among the few. I cannot understand, and I realize this may sound hopelessly naive, why Indians believe this, practice it, and why anyone anywhere defends and upholds the caste system. It is abhorrent, inhuman and disgusting, and Indians do not deserve to be a part of the civilized world until they stop practicing it. I don’t understand why they continue to, and why no leader has stepped up to fix the mess. (after Gandhi, who was mostly ignored in life and killed by a Hindu but now they love him because he’s the only hero they ever had in the last 100 years)

    I cannot understand the practice of killing female babies. Why bring a life into the world if there is a 50 50 chance you will kill it. There is something absurdly cruel and selfish about this. India doesn’t even have a one child policy! Following this, I can’t understand dowries. Or I don’t want to. Isn’t this obviously a culturally unstable practice favoring the family of the son? Why does it continue?

    I can’t understand widow self immolation.
    I can’t understand why the rich and middle class (AKA anyone not in abject poverty) in India are perfectly OK to live their lives so visibly on the backs of the poor.
    I can’t understand the way servants and the general work force are treated like cattle by their employers. Well usually cattle are treated better, it being India and all. Cows seem to have higher status than Dalits, isn’t that disgusting?

    Or maybe I can understand all this, and it is because India has a rotten inhuman culture. Any India apologists want to jump to the rescue? Where am I mistaken in my first hand impressions?

    • 56 You Know You Love It 27 July 2010 at 5:14 pm

      Hi David, I’m gonna try clear things up for you!

      A. I can’t understand why the average person in India, hell most people in India would want to disrespect their own country the way they do.

      – The thing is people in America, the UK etc all throw trash and garbage on the streets. The difference is that India lacks the waste disposal infrastructure. If you’ve been to places like Chandigarh or Bangalore (listed as the cleanest cities in India) you’d be amazed at how garbage free the streets are.

      B. I can’t understand the disregard for human life, in this passive “that’s just the way the world works” manner.

      I don’t think there is a greater disregard for human life than anywhere else in the world to be honest. Where Dalits are killed it is entirely in the rural areas and villages where there is no western influence. You have to appreciate that a vast proportion of Indians are living in the same conditions that there grandparents would have lived in pre independence and this mean that these old fashioned beliefs of respect etc are still held true for them.

      C. How many religions let you subjugate members of your own religion?

      The caste system is actually part of Indian culture not Hindu culture. It was practised by Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus all over India. The caste system most definately had a place in society up until a centruty or two ago. Basically when you were born your father etc would have a skill (sword smith, soldier etc) and so when you were born your father would pass these skills onto you. It worked well because obviously there were no such things as schools/universities until recently and you have to make a livelihood somehow and so this is how it was achieved. Discrimination on the basis of Caste is illegal (just like discrimination against homosexuals is forbidden across the Western world) but in both cases it still happens. The Caste system is now defunct but with an increase in education and wealth, people now use it as a form of discrimination. It’s like England in Victorian times where with more wealth in the country, Class was seen as a big thing.

      D. I cannot understand the practice of killing female babies.

      Indeed, this is a shameful thing. It comes down to the old fashioned idea of carrying on the family name etc. I don’t think it is anywhere near as big a problem as it used to be but those who live in the rural areas and practice old Indian customs still hold this belief.

      E. I can’t understand dowries. Or I don’t want to. Isn’t this obviously a culturally unstable practice favoring the family of the son? Why does it continue?

      Dowry is illegal under Indian Law. It happens under covers in poor rural areas. You have to realise that up until decades ago marriage was (and still is really) seen as giving away your daughter. The husband’s family look after her as their responsibility. You want her to have the best life so you try to pay your way into the best family. Again, it is defunct but happens mostly in the villages.

      F. I can’t understand widow self immolation.

      This is specific to the idea that either the wife loves her husband that much that she literally cannot live without him but it’s most likely that she is unlikely to ever get remarried. I believe this practice is now limited to a few cases a year mainly in Rajasthan.

      G. I can’t understand why the rich and middle class (AKA anyone not in abject poverty) in India are perfectly OK to live their lives so visibly on the backs of the poor.

      I believe this to be the biggest shame on India. I think it stems from the Indian mentality of greed, power and money. (Trust me i’ve seen this first hand from so many people!) Some Indians would kill their own parents for money! I’ve lost almost all faith in humanity but I know that there are those special few in India who are fighting for equality.

      H. I can’t understand the way servants and the general work force are treated like cattle by their employers. Cows seem to have higher status than Dalits, isn’t that disgusting?

      Again comes back to this ridiculous idea of power and wealth and how they can look down on people. Cows aren’t allowed to be killed but they definately don’t have a higher status than Dalits lol!

      I think to summarise, many of the issues in India are found in the poor rural areas where ‘modern/Western’ thinking hasn’t got a place in everyday life. Also, the income inequality and poverty is really a by-product of an increase in wealth and new found prosperity. Just think how pompous and eccentric Victorians and high class Americans were a century or so ago. It’s just India is not going through this. Hope this helps a little!

  53. 57 David 24 May 2010 at 3:25 pm

    Oh also I just want to say I really enjoyed reading the blog post and this thread. I wish I could write like some of you.

  54. 58 Yusuf Anshori 31 July 2010 at 7:24 pm

    nice post and execelent blog

  55. 59 god_of_wine 1 October 2010 at 5:27 am

    The shit you see IS why it is the holy city that it is….

    “In the story the young man was set to work in familiar surroundings, with the menial task of cleaning up a huge pile of filth (shit). Traditionally cleaning filth is said to symbolize the work of clearing away delusions. The significance of this is important. The pile is enormous. The second vow of the bodhisattva is “Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them.” Although the son worked faithfully and diligently, the sutra does not say he got to the end of the pile of filth. The work itself was “the way”. Zen practice does not have the objective of getting rid of the ego and it is the same with delusion. Many people take up zen or meditation imagining that by doing so they will henceforth experience peace, love and harmony. Actually what they encounter is that big pile of filth. All the greed, irritation, jealousy, hatred, feelings of inadequacy and so on that sought to avoid via zen or meditation. The student must learn that passions are passions to the extent they are indulged or repressed and bodhi to the extent they are accepted and allowed to pass through the mind unconditionally without judgment.

    • 60 mbjesq 4 October 2010 at 10:54 pm


      This is a fascinating explanation; but I wonder if your grubby metaphor for doing the hard work of mindfulness and inner cultivation holds theological water.

      You cite Buddhist memes and examples of certain Buddhist practice to support your close-reading of Varanasi. While the Buddhists hold Varanasi in high regard, it is not fundamentally a Buddhist city or a significant venue of Buddhist practice. it is, on the other hand, the holiest city in Hinduism. Whatever enthusiasm selected Buddhists may have for shit-cleaning, I think we’d be hard pressed to find the same willingness among non-Bhangi Hindus. The ubiquity of human excrement on the streets and ghats of Varanasi attests to this. The shit-cleaning metaphor seems inapt to explain an essentially Hindu venue.

      It also seems misapplied in another sense. Leaving aside whether Hinduism involves the sort of difficult ego-effacing practice you referenced with respect to Buddhism, it is quite clear that Varanasi is not the place that happens. If Varanasi stands for anything, it is the shortcut, the easy way out. Dying in Varanasi is the simple, one-step solution for escaping the cycle of rebirth which is the end-game of Hinduism. Varanasi is not about hard spiritual work; it is about spiritual opportunism.

      If there are elements of truth in what both of us have said, one thing is certain: Varanasi would smell much nicer if the Buddhists were running the joint.



      • 61 god_of_wine 7 October 2010 at 11:10 pm

        Your arguments are acceptable on the surfact but the whole essence of the spirituality which both Buddhism and Hinduism was getting at had more to do with embracing the spectrum of human experience and that means the shit…the ugly things…the shadow sides which you find so much aversion to. It is natural to feel aversion to these things but by not accepting them part of what is holy in the human experience then you are by the same token denying aspects of yourself. One man goes there and see’s a holy city and one see’s a shithole. The city is the same regardless. So some of us can explain why it is holy in the same way that you can explain why it is a shithole. It is both, one and the same and the perspecive you bring to it is what is revealed to you. There is nothing wrong with your opinion but you cannot deny the ability of others to see it differently. And that is what this is about…your opinion is just that…along with others who agree with you – which is the same for those of us who see it the others. This diversity itself is the totality…. accept your viewpoint but also accept that there are a way of looking at things that your consciousness does not allow you to perceive….the same way mine and others have difficulty understanding how you can not see the deeper aspects. The western culture – of which I am a part – is based on removing the undesirable aspects of existence away from our eyes. We are a cultural of denial and in so doing we deny aspects of ourselves and create huge shadows in our experience….but i think these points have been made. Sometimes a place can change us even if we don’t realize it until years later and perhaps this will be the case for you….. In the end it’s all good….to each his own. I am just always a bit shocked when they feel their own interpretation is the only one valid……hubris at its finest. Step down off your high horse and smell the shit… got your own…perhaps being faced with it in others is too much for you for some reason.

      • 62 mbjesq 7 October 2010 at 11:35 pm


        You forget who you are arguing with. Read my essay. I fully acknowledge that Varanasi is a holy city. I also see a shit-hole. Indeed, the point I make is that it wouldn’t matter so much that it was a shit-hole were it not also a holy city — and one of the most significant places in the history of human culture. My horse is not nearly so high as you make-it-out to be.

        I was quite taken by your close-reading of the hygiene of the city. Cleaning-out the shit is a brilliant metaphor. But it is a brilliant metaphor for the Buddhist practices you described; and I was not certain how apt it was in the Hindu context. Your newest metaphor is also very good: of a spirituality that embraces the breadth of the human experience — including the shit. Yet, I somehow doubt that the filth of Varanasi exists as a manifestation of this full-spectrum awareness.

        Your thoughtfulness makes me think that, perhaps, you might be the perfect person to answer some of the questions I raised in my reply to the comments of Up, below (7 October). You say, “Some of us can explain why Varanasi is holy.” That’s not a tough one; even a spiritually vacant dolt like me can do that. But maybe what you meant is that you can describe the nature of the spirituality than many insist permeates the place. If so, I’d be quite interested and grateful to see what you come up with.



  56. 63 Up 7 October 2010 at 11:55 am

    You are generally a negative person. This is the 1st lesson you should learn from Varanasi. Negativity can eat you alive slowly and slowly. It is much more beneficial to you, to be positive and find the GOOD in whatever you are looking at. If you find yourself looking at the negatives first. Change yourself now or it will be too late.

    The state of Varanasi is an illusion, your task it look past this illusion and embrace the spirituality that it offers.

  57. 64 mbjesq 7 October 2010 at 9:46 pm

    Aman (Up):

    Am I “generally a negative person”? This is curious observation. You are the only person who seems to see this in me. Even my own self-image is characterized by overwhelming optimism and delight with the world. Have we met? I didn’t think so.

    Even if I were to accept your diagnosis that my negativity is “eating me alive”, I’d have to excuse myself one last outburst before taking your cure. Your attitude toward positive thinking needs to be dismissed in the most negative terms possible. “Find[ing] the good in whatever you are looking at” is every bit as dumb-assed, irrationally biased, and stupid-making as a pervasive, sour negativity. Okay, on to the up-beat.

    You come close to offering interesting points about Varanasi; but each time you tease us with a suggestive line, you fail to explain yourself or persuasively argue your point. How does Varanasi teach one about ones’ general negativity (as opposed to conjuring up negative feelings about the place itself)? What about the condition of Varanasi is an illusion? And what lies behind that illusion? What “spirituality” does Varanasi offer? How does Varanasi offer it? And, whatever spirituality is on offer in Varanasi, why is it at all interesting beyond the parochial claims it has on Hindus and the central role it plays in the city’s undoubted historical significance? In other words (yours), how does one “embrace the spirituality on offer”?

    These last four question are particularly fascinating. On the one hand, Varanasi is so steeped in spiritual tradition that it seems boneheaded to even raise these questions. On the other hand, devotees of the place (like you) always struggle to answer them, which lends considerable credence to the skepticism implied in the questions. In the end, the explanations usually boil down to (a) well-worn, vacuous platitudes, (b) the tautological assertion that if people like me had any awareness, we would see it and wouldn’t need to have it defined for us, or (c) gibberish.

    Assuming that there is something about the “spirituality” of Varanasi that puts itself on offer, how exactly is this offering to be taken-up? I’m no student of religious experience, but I’m pretty sure that most of what I see happening in Varanasi is ritual practice developed over centuries to celebrate or manifest faith in specific belief systems which are not my own. Are you suggesting that religion is like venereal disease, where simply rubbing-up against someone else’s rituals is sufficient to infect you with whatever spirituality they bring to their practice?

    Notwithstanding my savaging of your Pollyannaism — an ugly job, but someone had to do it — I am seriously interested to see how you (or perhaps someone willing to take up your side) answers these questions.



  58. 65 god_of_wine 8 October 2010 at 6:22 am

    I don’t think you are a dolt. Somewhat shallow but not a dolt. May your journeys be fruitful ones my friend. It’s all WYSIWYG. You are too thick headed to argue with though. You have failed to really understand anything which more than myself has posted so why bother giving you more? You my friend, are exactly the sort of people who gives well meaning Westerners like myself a bad name. I hope you are British at least but I haven’t read enough to figure it out.

    I am done. Drink more wine and it will all be better.

    There is a jewish proverb that says something along the fact that god still peaks to us but we can no longer bend low enough to hear him speak. After all, to do that we would have to deal with all that shit you hate so much.

    Get your noise out of the air my friend.

    • 66 mbjesq 8 October 2010 at 10:50 am


      Yikes! I’ve given you a bad name! Despite your abundant well-meaningness and depth! I would be filled with remorse, if my shallowness would only permit it.


  59. 67 smita 9 October 2010 at 10:10 am


    You are likely the only human on the planet who would think to compare religion to a sexually transmitted disease, though I suppose in some cases it can seem to have a syphilis-like effect on the brain.


  60. 68 mbjesq 11 October 2010 at 1:27 am

    Excellent, Smita!

    I have a wonderful friend who is a cooties researcher at the Centers for Disease Control. Thinking of her makes me wonder if they need to start doing epidemiology on the spread of religion. I rather suspect that, while infection rates are high, it is not easily communicable. Research would probably show proselytizing religions that they are wasting their time in the 21st Century, when the sticks and carrots for religious conversion are not nearly as available as in bygone centuries. If so, maybe the Mormons, Muslims, Christians, and the like would give the rest of us a little peace and quiet. Just a thought.


  61. 69 smita 17 October 2010 at 10:16 am

    Not very likely, MBJ:

    I would put the communicability of religion at least as high as most STDs, though it sometimes skips a generation. If anything your immunity to religion and spirituality, given the company you keep, is practically a scientific wonder. (Probably a naturally occurring side effect of your otherwise mindedness.)

    But for all that one can find to criticize about religion, especially the “organized” type, imagine a world where people don’t have fear of god and devil to keep their behavior in check.

    This American Life did a piece on an Oklahoma pastor whose church drew 5,000 congregants each Sunday until he stopped believing in hell.

    Check it out. It’s mind boggling.


    • 70 god_o_wine 18 October 2010 at 7:07 am

      I don’t see how “religion” is the issue. The issue is more of a psychological one than religious. What I mean is that this aversion to aspects of the human condition expressed by much of the western world is in itself unhealthy in that it is denial of certain darker elements which exist. This is where the soul has been lost in our own culture. So yeah you can make things sparkly, clinical clean but when you do then you are dealing with something that is not alive. Life is messy. When you are uncomfortable seeing the hideous underbelly of capitalism then you are either plain ignorant or in denial about the results of our modern society. For every polished, pristine zion to exist there are about four impoverished, shitholes being created elsewhere in the world at the same time. ONE creates the other. They are merely two sides of the same coin. So get your head out of your ass when you think of this as a religious issue. It’s a societal one – one which is becoming more and more an issue and will continue to do so time passes.

      Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

  62. 71 smita 23 October 2010 at 10:33 am

    Dear Dionysus:

    As you’ve probably noticed, this particular rant of Mark’s has given rise to some of the oddest but most interesting tangential conversations on the blog. I would say the question of whether religion is spread by “cooties” is one of those, wouldn’t you?

    But to get back to the point you’ve been making – I think we would all agree that there is a yang for every yin and it’s true that in the West we have managed to an extraordinary degree to sanitize our lives and hide from sight the more unpleasant aspects.

    But there is a reason that shit and corpses smell bad to humans (but not to dogs and vultures). They’re bad for us. Mix feces with drinking water and you get cholera, hepatitis, and more.

    Moreover, Mark has a very valid point: Hindus pride themselves on their cleanliness. When Europeans still thought bathing was bad for health and dumped their chamber pots out the window onto the street, Hindus pioneered the concept of cleanliness=godliness and insisted you bathe before going anywhere near a temple.

    I have relatives who won’t touch a morsel of food till they’ve bathed in the morning. My cousin married into a Brahmin family where if you needed to take a crap in the middle of the day, you had to take off every stitch of clothing, do your business, then bathe before you came out. In many parts of India, women are considered “unclean” while menstruating and are not even allowed to set foot in the kitchen or the room where the family temple/altar is located. This same logic has been used for centuries by the “upper” castes to keep people from “lower” castes out of temples, away from the village well, and even from walking close enough to cast a shadow on someone.

    So, while it’s true that we can’t deny the stinky side of life, Hindus have the least excuse of all the people on this planet for allowing their holy places to fester and rot in this way.

    Actually, it would do India a great deal of good if more Hindus took the point in your first comment to heart and set about cleaning up the country (and their delusions) – instead they choose to hide behind illusions of holiness.

    Maybe someday….


  63. 72 Hochimin 30 October 2010 at 10:10 pm

    Why Varanasi has been a shithole of the gods has to do a lot with Hindu Dogmatism coupled with Illiteracy of the masses . The Caste system in India has been used as Strategy for 5000 plus years by the upper caste Brahmins to keep a foothold on the lower caste people by keeping the poor illiterate. Indian temples have become money making machines …Honestly a priest will give u blessings depending on the amount of money u shower on him ..Shocking .. Varansi is the most toxic , disgusting places on earth … Its not Spiritualism .. Its Ignorance and stupidity at its very best ..
    Indians are the most racist and arrogant in the world .. they kill Muslims in Gujrat , kill sikhs in delhi , burn churches in Orissa , Burn their daughters for dowry and sati , tats all u can expect from HIndu spiritualism ….Holy Ganga .. the dirtiest river in the world ..And how stupid are Hindu indians drinking some toxic waste to purify their sins .. And these Indians will never learn cos they are arrogant and they deserve to make varanasi a piece of Shit in The name of the Hindu gods . What a shame ??

  64. 73 patt 11 April 2011 at 6:28 am

    Varanasi is still the holy place for the Hindus. And for an Indian Hindu to term it as shit hole indicates depravity of religious belief.I have never visited Varanasi though I have been only Allahabad, yet I understand that there is deep attachment of Hindus to the river Ganges and those dead bodies floating around and fakir eating rooting and burning human flesh are intentionally meant to shock people of other religious belief so that either you believe that this is way to spiritual enlightening or to recoil in horror. And even if India progress so much and become an economic power house, yet Varanasi corpses floating in the river Ganges will be there for a long time in the future.For those of us Indians who are not Hindus, visiting Varanasi should be out of question because there is no spiritual commitments.Maybe only out of curiosity.

  65. 74 The greeks don't want no freaks 26 August 2011 at 9:36 am

    Their role throughout history is to communicate the god’s wisdom so the entire family can progress when reincarnated. Effectively acomplishing this task may buy them a quality opportunity to ascend in their next life.

    Your job as a future mother is to learn the god’s ways and to help your child understand despite the negative reinforcement and conditioning of today’s society. Without consciousous parents the child will have no hope, and may even exaserbate their disfavor by becoming corrupted in today’s environment.
    Your ultimate goal is to fix your relationship wiith the gods and move on. You don’t want to be comfortable here, and the changes in Western society in the last 100 years has achieved just that.
    1000 years with Jesus is the consolation prize. Don’t be deceived into thinking that is the goal.

    Much like the other prophets Mohhamed (polygamy/superiority over women/misogyny) and Jesus (forgiveness/savior), the gods use me for temptation as well. In today’s modern society they feel people are most weak for popular culture/sensationalism, and the clues date back to WorldWarII and Unit731:TSUSHOGO, the Chinese Holocaust. They used this Situation to bury Japanese atrocities.
    It has been discussed that, similar to the Matrix concept, the gods will offer a REAL “Second Coming of Christ”, while the “fake” Second Coming will come at the end and follow New Testiment scripture and their xtian positioning. I may be that real Second Coming.
    What I teach is the god’s true way. It is what is expected of people, and only those who follow this truth will be eligible to ascend into heaven as children in a future life. They offered this event because the masses have just enough time to work on and fix their relationship with the gods and ascend, to move and grow past Planet Earth, before the obligatory xtian “consolation prize” of “1000 years with Jesus on Earth” begins.

    The Prince of Darkness, battling the gods over the souls of the Damned.
    It is the gods who have created this environment and led people into Damnation with temptation. The god’s positioning proves they work to prevent people’s understanding.
    How often is xtian dogma wrong? Expect it is about the Lucifer issue as well.
    The fallen god, fighting for justice for the disfavored, banished to Earth as the fallen angel?
    I believe much as the Noah’s Flood event, the end of the world will be initiated by revelry among the people. It will be positioned to be sanctioned by the gods and led for “1000 years with Jesus on Earth”.
    In light of modern developments this can entail many pleasures:::Medicine “cures” aging, the “manufacture” of incredible beauty via cloning as sex slaves, free (synthetic) cocaine, etc.
    Somewhere during the 1000 years the party will start to “die off”, literally. Only those who maintain chaste, pure lifestyles, resisting these temptations, will survive the 1000 years. Condemned to experience another epoch of planet’s history for their ignorant pursuit of xtianity, they will be the candidates used to (re)colonize (the next) Planet Earth, condemned to relive the misery experienced by the peasantry during history due to their failure to ascend into heaven before the Apocalypse.
    Never forget:::It is not a house of Jesus.
    If this concept of Lucifer is true another role of this individual may be to initiate disfavor and temptation among this new poulation, the proverbial “apple” of this Garden of Eden. A crucial figure in the history of any planet, he begins the process of deterioration and decay that leads civilizations to where Planet Earth remains today.
    Which one is it?:
    One transitions into the other, allowing the gods to wash their hands of obligation to their Chosen One. My personal “consolation prize”.
    And since the gods never committed despite tens of billions in mass media, product development and natural disasters/tragedy they will employ the freedom they positioned into the Situation and CHEAT me out of everything.
    Unfortunate for me, the gods can claim they never intended this, despite being control freaks who guide everything specifically and have the power to force it with AI, and now they are free to fuck my brains out, just as they did throughout my childhood.
    The gods were pimping me when I was a 3 year-old boy, only to exploit me and cash in decades later.
    Pre-pubescent prostitution is rampant in black communities. Now we see where it comes from.

    Consistant with “reverse positioning” understand the REAL Second Coming would equate with The Matrix’s Anti-Christ, the fake battle of good and evil which will come at the end.
    Understanding how they use the political encviornment to redefine people’s value system, realize anyone who speaks of the old world and its ways will envoke hatred. So when/if the Anti-Christ comes along speaking of reverting back to what liberalism would consider regressive and unfair, it may be the only hope to salvage the god’s favor and keep moving forward rather than begin the 1000 year clock. The fake Second Coming will feed into this political enviornment.
    Also consistant with “reverse positioning” recognize the gods will offer a REAL Anti-Christ, also known as The Beast. I have addressed these issues in years past::::
    The gods will offer clues throughout every dynaic of life. Geographical features onthe world map is yet another.
    The Beast is not a person, as the xtian Bible would suggest. It is a place:::The San Francisco Bay Area. And it refers to the socio-political poison the region exuded in the latter 20th century which promoted indecent behavior among the people whose favor was rapidly deteriorating. This decay spread to other states and countries, fulfilling the region’s role as The Beast of the Apocalypse.
    Another feature which the Gods offer as a clue is very foreboading. Mt. Zion is a mountain to the north of the eye of The Beast Diablo and one which has a working quarry at its base. Consistant with the decay we experience in society, Mt. Zion is being eaten away, slowly stripped of its resources, until one day paradise will be gone forever.

  66. 75 Dippy 22 November 2011 at 4:58 pm

    This man is frustrated actually…

  67. 76 choconutmeg 2 April 2012 at 6:46 pm

    I came across this post (and your blog) entirely by chance. I grew up in India, and perhaps because of that I had the sort of reaction Jenn talked a bit about, a sort of irrational, defensive, emotional response. The reaction however, was to the title. Once I read your post, it entirely dissipated. I think you make a valid point, and you make it well. You do not, as you yourself concede, pull any punches, and I think that’s just your style. I don’t agree with everything you’ve said, but that isn’t the point; I’d be hard pressed to find someone in this world who would agree with anything I write that’s more than a paragraph long. I think you write well and clearly and your observations are thoughtful and this makes your post worth reading, in my opinion. I wanted to emphasize what I liked about your post because some of the comments above (I admit I didn’t have the time to read them all) seemed to miss the point, they reacted with strong emotional responses rather than engaging you in a discussion.

    Now I assume you’re going to write regardless of what people say, and my telling you what I think isn’t going to make much of a difference. But as a blogger, I like comments and feedback and I like commenting on other people’s posts; I think commenting on blogs is part of the dialogic process that is blogging.

    Lastly, I have two substantive comments about your post. I agree that Varanasi is dirty; this compromises its beauty in my eyes. There’s just no point in disputing that, and I share your frustration in this regard. However, it did occur to me that perhaps people’s ideas of what is clean and what is dirty are subjective, that is, they are defined by what is normal to a person or people. Wanting a place cleaned up so it’ll look better or smell better may be, in a sense, a form of imposing one’s own conceptions of esthetics and priorities on others. Again, wanting the place cleaned up so that’s its historical or cultural significance can be preserved or respected, is also a subjective concern. To tens of thousands of people who go to Varanasi on a pilgrimage, or live there, the argument that the city’s culture and history should be preserved as an artifact in a museum, or an historically important site, may seem odd, alienating and even annoying. To them, the city’s cultural significance is present in a dynamic, very alive and personally meaningful way, and this importance may not be, oddly enough to you and me, undermined by the rampant presence of faeces. One does not often speak of preserving the living, only the dead.

    What I am trying to say is that for thousands of people who live or visit the place, there may be nothing out of the ordinary about the way things are, so who are we, you or I, to say what it ought to be like? We’re simply offering one perspective as mere commentators. At best, our perspective is only as valid as their view that nothing is the matter with the situation; arguably, our perspective is less significant precisely because we are not ‘citizens’ of Varanasi, as it were.

    On the other hand wanting a place cleaned up because it’s current state is unhealthy and causing illness and disease is an objective, and therefore more defensible line of argument. I am no expert in public health, but it seems fairly reasonable a claim to me, to say that faeces and decaying garbage spread disease, so Varanasi ought to be cleaned up, plain and simple.

    Then again, everything I have said may be coloured by the bias I have inherited or acquired through life. That is always a caveat to everything I say :) I am not trying to glorify or romanticize poverty and squalor as a legitimate cultural preference, all I am saying is that I am not entirely convinced that a city ought to be cleaned up so it can look pretty (to you or me) or it’s culture can be ‘preserved’. I am convinced however, that it should be cleaned up so its inhabitants and visitors can lead healthy lives.

    • 77 mbjesq 4 April 2012 at 1:54 am

      Ms. Nutmeg:

      Thanks for the analysis.

      I agree: there’s clean and then there’s clean. The point is not to create an artificial aesthetic for the place; it is to make the place hygienically habitable for the gazillions of people who live there, die there, and pass through there. Put another way: notwithstanding the spiritual objectives of many oldsters buying one-way tickets to Varanasi, it is reasonable the place be clean enough that mortality (or morbidity, for that matter) should not be unduly increased simply by being there.

      I appreciate your careful reading and your kind words.



  68. 78 cfyork 2 April 2012 at 7:46 pm

    It’s funny….. last time i replied to this I thought you were a complete ass. I didn’t read anything but your post on Varanasi and for whatever reason it compelled me to comment. Not that I’ve been there. Just think shitholes need to be defended too! And I like to play devil’s advocate, which helps.

    Anyway, I decided to check out your other posts this time and I must compliment you. I really enjoyed reading them and I think you are a really talented writer.

    A year has passed. I am not in the mood to argue about the shit-hole-ness of Varanasi. I will just agree with you.


  69. 79 mbjesq 4 April 2012 at 2:22 am


    I probably was a complete ass when last you commented. (When was that?)

    I wish I was more badass than bad ass; but alas, I’m realistic. Similarly, that I am basically nice probably only makes me a nice ass, rather than gives me a nice ass. Ah, to be a badass with a nice ass! Perhaps if the rebirth-thing turns out to be right (admitted longshot), I might have a chance — but for the being-an-ass thing, which (as the theory goes) would seem to hurt my odds.

    Anyway, I’m glad that reading further into the crap I spew (to extend the ass metaphor rather unfortunately) gave you some pleasure and semi-redeemed my reputation. I may have a shot at a cute butt in the next life after all!



  70. 80 mj 17 September 2012 at 5:24 am

    who give a shit about the godles fucking hindo let them daie in thier shit river lol :)

  71. 82 vishakh 27 November 2014 at 11:29 am

    Varanasi holds the largest human gathering on earth….Such is the aura and spirit of the place ……something ignorant and arrogant people like you can never understand

    It’s a boon to be born in India and experience this way of life. I pity you and your narrow minded thoughts
    You can never understand the intensity and the raw emotions of the place neither can you come out of the nutshell you are hiding in and accept the harsh reality of life.

    • 83 mbjesq 28 November 2014 at 11:50 pm


      There are only two coherent thoughts in your comment, so I’ll address those. The first is that I am ignorant and narrow-minded; and the second is that you pity this. Thank you for your compassion.

      Since we are feeling sorry for each other, please allow me to express my sympathy that you are unable to read critically or write lucidly.

      It seems we could have a much more interesting discussion if I wasn’t so ignorant (about what, exactly, you don’t explain intelligibly — but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt) and you had any sort of clue whatsoever. We must be a couple of dumbasses. The difference between us, of course, is that my ideas are explicitly and coherently set-out so that people can decide the extent to which they are foolish, while your ideas (if you have actually hatched any) remain a lathered-up mystery and are therefore presumptively foolish-in-the-extreme.


  72. 84 Chris 9 April 2016 at 8:04 am

    Gandhi said that “Cleanliness is the way to Holiness”
    So using his point of view, (as everyone knows) it’s the dirtiest city in India. How therefore, can it be deemed Holy?
    I think it could reasonably be therefore argued, that it’s the oppersite to Holy.
    (Ps I’ve spent around 8 years in total in India. And visited Varanasi on at least 7 occasions. I’ve lost count)

  73. 85 Chris 9 April 2016 at 8:27 am

    Of course one also has to define Spirituality and Holiness. But if such things do not invoke hard work and self sacrifice. I find it hard for it to have any credibility. Sadly in many cases it seems relegated to only rituals and sensual gratification.
    In my experience of being in India. A common cultural theme seems to run right through the Indian mind set. That being the avoidance of personal responsibility. You will see time after time where it is passed on to someone else. If you compare this with the Chinese for example. “I will do” Mentality. I would argue It gives some explanation, why many parts of India remain in chaos and a complete mess. Varanasi being one of them.

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Blasts from the Past

... because the idiocy of manliness is an evergreen topic.


... because Canada and the US will celebrate their Thanksgiving holidays and, regrettably and preventably, not 1-cook-in-10 will serve a decent turkey.


... because everyday is Mother's Day.


... because the American Dream seems but a distant memory, given the country's dominant ethos of small-mindedness.


... to remind us that not every mix of Tibetans and Western spiritual seekers has to be nauseating.


... to celebrate the new edition of Infinite Vision published in India.


... reprised because military strategy seems more cruel and less effective than ever -- and certainly there is a better way.


... because cars are ruining Pondicherry, where I live. How badly are they fucking up your Indian town?


... reprinted because more-and-more people seem want to understand the gift economy. (Yeah!)

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