VARANASI, India -- On my first visit to India's ancient holy city of Varanasi, I passed a shocked British backpacker who was fixated by the sight of a human skull lying on the pavement.
Goats, dogs and cows -- the latter sacred to Hindus -- roamed its streets, and excrement was piled high in the narrow lanes of the labyrinthine old town that flanks the river Ganges, also regarded as sacred. It seemed to confirm foreigners' worries about the dark side of a city revered by Hindus as an auspicious site for cremation and disposal of the dead.
Six years later, Varanasi's reputation is starting to change as the city implements a 2014 promise by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to transform it over five years into a "smart city" modeled on the pristine Japanese city of Kyoto. Varanasi has also been earmarked as a prime beneficiary of a separate $3 billion government program to clean up the Ganges by 2020. So far, the river overhaul plan has largely failed -- the United Nations in December 2018 urged a fresh start, claiming the river remained "woefully polluted," with sewage still being dumped into the waters, despite court rulings banning the practice.
But Varanasi's old town and its 88 ghats -- flights of steps that allow access to the riverside for prayer, recreation or cremation -- are in better shape than for many years. This is largely thanks to the efforts of Sakaar, a nongovernmental organization co-founded by Temsutula Imsong, a native of Nagaland in northeastern India, who was so appalled by the condition of the ghats in 2013 that she started to clean them with the help of local volunteers.
The cleanup is now is in the hands of Varanasi's municipal corporation, but Imsong's efforts have been highly praised by Modi. Even the free-roaming cows may soon be banned from the old town, and there has also been a clampdown on touts preying on gullible first-time visitors, who sometimes end up paying hugely inflated prices for transport and hotels.
The improvements are welcomed by locals and foreign visitors alike. "We are thankful that the ghats are cleaner these days," said Pallab, a tour guide who works with hotels shuttling guests up and down the river on his small boat. "It's a blessing that brings more tourist in." Mario Cicotto, an Italian first-time visitor to the city, was relieved. "It's still an attack on the senses, but a much less daunting experience than what I was told," said Cicotto.
More than 330,000 foreigners and almost 6 million domestic travelers visited the city in 2017, according to the tourism department of the state of Uttar Pradesh, which includes Varanasi. That is a significant increase compared with the 285,000 foreigners and slightly fewer than 5 million local tourists who visited in 2013.
Tourist accommodation has improved too. A number of stylish boutique hotels and "flashpacker" (affluent backpacker) hostels have opened recently, offering fresh options for visitors to a city where hygienic basic accommodation was formerly hard to find, especially for those traveling on a budget and seeking to stay near the Ganges.
"There is almost more accommodation than demand in Varanasi [now]," said Kundun, manager of the Lotus Paying guesthouse, sited in a back alley a few minutes' walk from Godaulia, the main access road to the old town. "To remain in business these days, it's important to understand and stay on top of travelers' needs," he said. "What they want most is a clean bed in a clean room."
The battered buildings and havelis (traditional town houses or mansions) overlooking the ghats in the most atmospheric part of the city used to hide poorly maintained guesthouses and hotels where bedbugs and bad service were the norm. But many of those properties, especially those dotting the small lanes beyond the Manikarnika cremation ghat, are now being bulldozed to create a 15-meter-wide corridor that will connect the ghats directly to the Shri Kashi Vishvanath, (Varanasi's Golden Temple), an important shrine to the Hindu god Shiva.
To complete the project, the state government has purchased about 300 old houses, which will be demolished to make room for the 3,000 Hindu pilgrims who flock to the site daily. Some of Varanasi's longest-running budget hotels, including the Puja and Yogi Lodge guesthouses, are in the affected area and have gone out of business.
Newer, tourist-oriented accommodation has sprouted away from the golden temple in a maze of lanes extending to the south of the popular Dashaswamedh Ghat, where domestic and foreign tourists congregate daily at 6.45 p.m. to witness the Ganga Aarti, a Hindu ceremony of devotion to the river. These new hotels are housed in the old buildings, but their interiors have been refurbished to cater to the growing number of international flashpackers seeking to experience Varanasi without too much discomfort.
Wander Station Varanasi, off the Pandey Ghat, is a cross between a boutique inn, an upmarket hostel and a coworking space. Guests must leave their shoes at the door, and everything -- from the Wi-Fi equipped common room to the dormitories, double rooms, bathrooms and a charming rooftop -- is immaculate and squeaky clean. "It's important to give guests a clean and safe space to return to and rest after a visit to the busy streets of the old town," said one of the hotel's staff members. "We want our guests to feel as much as home as possible."
Not far away is Bunkedup Hostel, another recent addition to Varanasi's upmarket budget options. Housed inside a turret-like multistory building, Bunkedup sports a minimalist black design that blends well with the rooms' furnishings -- privacy curtains, individual reading lights, safety lockers and a well-decorated rooftop terrace with a bar and glorious views over the Ganges. Dormitory beds here start at 500 rupees ($7.23) a night, which is more than double the price of a room for two in Varanasi's older budget hostels.
This new wave of comfort and higher prices is not just targeting the budget segment of Varanasi's accommodation market: the Palace on Steps, set above a stone staircase rising above the quiet Rana Ghat, has been acquired by India's Dwivedi Hotels group and refurbished into an atmospheric boutique hotel. Room 205 is housed within the building's original turret, facing the ghats and the Ganges, and is priced at 10,000 rupees a night.
Not far away on the Shivala Ghat is the Suryauday Haveli, a former residence of the royal family of Nepal that is now a boutique resort managed by Amritara Hotels & Resorts, part of C&C Alpha Group of the U.K. The building's original rooms have been turned into suites, maintaining the original fittings, and overlook an inner courtyard where local musicians perform for guests every night. Rooms cost 15,500 rupees a night.
"We can organize tours of the old city and boat rides on the Ganges to make sure that our clients experience top-notch service even outside of the hotel's premises," said Pankaj Mahajan, Suryauday Haveli's general manager.
Over time, Varanasi's touristic reupholstering will probably transform visitors' impressions of the city, but its essence may remain. "Change is natural," said Govindh, an orange-swathed holy man with long unkempt hair and a beard, who was observing the city's visitors from a corner of Dashaswamedh Ghat.
Behind him, three goats started a playful fight, which quickly turned into a clash of skulls and horns. "This city and Mother Ganges are so sacred and ancient they just transcend the workings of men," said Govindh.