Pilgrims have long sought in India’s holiest city an antidote to the modern West, but Varanasi is more dream than reality

On a sweltering summer’s day five years ago, as I returned to my rented home in the holy city of Varanasi in India, I was greeted by an astonishing sight: a blue-eyed white man, dressed only in a thin orange cloth knotted around his waist – the garb of a baba or holy man. Matted dreadlocks snaked down his back and his chest was covered with a white beard rusty with the juice of the betel leaf. Exuding the smell of tobacco and sweat, he was trying to unlock my door. To my protests he responded that Sabine, a Swiss missionary from whom I was subletting the apartment, allowed him to bathe there; but on no account was I to tell Sabine’s Indian landlord, who disliked Shyam Baba – my new roomie’s name, as I later found out – intensely. I allowed him to bathe that day, softening when he revealed that he too was from Toronto. He had no connections in Canada now, though; nothing to draw his eyes to those distant shores.

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Asia India Varanasi