The Varanasi Runner

What is Varanasi? The last tourist trap at the end of the universe? The remains of civilization along a liquid artery of death?

Story and Photos by Icarus Blake -

Photo ©Icarus Blake

“I know you like to run,

Run astray. But dancing’s just as fun

If you’d stay. By the time you’re numb,

Stunned and shamed.

Settle down and find

Someone to train

But we’re all insane.

(Pick me out, kill me now)”

Fog + Strobe – BLEK.

Not easy running in Varanasi. The stone steps. The cow shit. The early morning fog and the icy breeze. The beggars and the gods. The orange man made up with the dust of the dead. Small bells sing from his head scarf. Children hitting stones with sticks, letting them fly randomly at lazy vultures resting on the edges of Lord Shiva’s temple.

Photo ©Icarus Blake

“When will I be happy, living in the hollow place near the celestial

river Ganga, with folded hands over my head, with my bad thinking washed

away, and uttering the mantra of Lord Shiva…”

Shiv Tandac Stotra by Vivek Rajagopalan

It’s wash and pray time. Wake up. Speed up. Step up. The man sleeps on stone and could be dead. The other man swims the pearly water of the Ganga. He scrubs his belly with laundry soap while laughing loudly. Ripples gently tip the floating candles. My shoes are gray with ash.

Photo ©Icarus Blake

“When the bomb drops

you’re looking like a toad

at the start

of revolution you’re a bore

watching paint dry

all over the wall

getting sick, sick

every other day

no skill, no kill

no skill no kill

you’re on a hilltop.”

Hilltop – Sky Rabbit

The astrologer said I will end with the world, with the spirits I breathe in mouthfuls of smoke. They run through me with a whispering chill. What bomb? I will run along the Ganga forever. I will end nothing. Nike, the goddess, is in my shoes. Ganesh smiles from the wall. The dead child is tied up to a stone and thrown in the river. No burning for purity. No time for prosperity. From dust to water. From water to gods. From gods to vacuum. It’s all very sharp and the color of hearts. Mosquitoes zip by, fighting the wind.

Photo ©Icarus Blake

It was yesterday’s night. With the boatman into the end of light. The children’s kites battling in the indigo sky. The last bodies to ashes on the broken pyres. The woman waiting to die in the dark hospice. Too poor to buy wood. It was a liquid run on dark waters. While a perfect cycle of life, death and tourists ran its course along the river banks.

Photo ©Icarus Blake

The chants began in the night. The gods sat listening with the tourists. The men in purple had smoke in their hands. A skinny dog was fighting a goat. A child is selling golden bells. Injected scents of burnt bodies, incense, and spicy foods, set fire in my veins. What is Varanasi? The last tourist trap at the end of the universe? The remains of civilization along a liquid artery of death? The obsessive loop of the mantra of eternity? My feet are bleeding. I have to stop my run. The Ganga keeps flowing, carrying the burnt remains of useless bodies whose souls have come back in new ones. Where is my hotel, with my overpriced cold water shower?

Listen to the  entire Varanasi Runner playlist below.

CBK would like to extend a special thanks to Aditya Kundalkar for sharing his invaluable local Mumbai music connections (And for introducing us to the Southern style Indian filter coffee).

Photo ©Icarus Blake

Photo ©Icarus Blake

Photo ©Icarus Blake


Photo ©Icarus Blake

Photo ©Icarus Blake

Photo ©Icarus Blake

Photo ©Icarus Blake

4 Responses to “The Varanasi Runner”

  1. Wendy Kaplan says:

    These pictures capture the essence of Varanasi, as do the writings, a place so extreme its like going down a rabbit hole in some kind of ancient wonderland. I hope you got to meet the bull that comes everyday around three o’clock to a dress store in the shopping area to worship at their shrine of Shiva. The store is where a temple used to stand, but the shrine was all that was left and the store was built there. No one told the bull his spot had been renovated. I thought the story couldn’t be true so every day I was there I waited for him to come. And he did. And one day he came over to me. I was told I could touch him since he had chosen me. We spent some time together and then he walked up the five steps to the store and lay down inside in front of Shiva. He never looked back. And I was never the same….

  2. Icarus Blake says:

    Thank you Wendy ! This is a great story. We are going to re-publish it in our WENOW section shortly.

  3. J powers says:

    Moving! Photos words stories music all jive for an enjoyable arm chair travel this fine Sunday morning.

    • Icarus Blake says:

      Hey J, thank you for the comment. We love doing the ‘music runners’ and we think they can get better. It’s a good combo, you’re right. We are now preparing one on a section of Brooklyn with a strong African American influence. Stay tuned and let us know how we can make them better. Thanks Again. Icarus