That Time We Almost Got Stabbed in Varanasi

So this photo almost got us stabbed:

Varanasi Ghats

The offending photo. So not worth the trouble.

That photo?

Yes. That photo.

A photo that I probably would have deleted from my camera immediately were it not for what happened next.

Jared and I were walking along the ghats of Varanasi after sunset. We had come down to see the ‘ceremony,’ though we weren’t exactly sure what this ‘ceremony’ was.

I assumed it had something to do with burning dead bodies and putting floating lights in the Ganges, but I wasn’t sure.

When we showed up, there were lots of tourists milling about and looking as confused as we were.

We saw this:

Ghat ceremony

The ceremony. I don't know what is happening here.

But that was about it. So we decided to walk a little further along to see if anything was happening.

We reached a dark, deserted platform under an overhanging walkway and decided that was a good place to stop and take some pictures.

Hello? Intuition, where were you?

I took a photo, which turned out blurry. So I took another one.

That’s when a man stepped out of the shadows.

He stood in front of us, trapping us between his scary self and the railing.

I couldn’t understand what he said to Jared, but I heard ‘photo.’

My mind was racing. Everything about the scenario felt wrong, and I was certain we were about to get stabbed.

My imagination was very specific about this – stabbed.

I figured he’d stab Jared first, probably in the stomach. What would I do? Scream? Run? I’d have to go get help, which I couldn’t do if he stabbed me, too. But I could hardly leave Jared there, bleeding.

We didn’t have any money on us, either, and I really didn’t want to give him my camera. What would he do with the camera, anyway? It’s only a little Canon PowerShot, not a big DSLR.

“Let’s get out of here,” Jared said. “I think that guy wanted us to give him money. Apparently we aren’t allowed to take picures.”

The man was still blocking our path, so in order to get around him we had to go towards the scene I’d just been photographing.

That was when the second man emerged.

Flanked on both sides by these men, one pot-bellied and one scrawny, my stabbing concerns were re-ignited.

“Don’t run,” Scrawny said. “That only makes it worse.”

Oh.

God.

We were definitely not going to make it out of this unstabbed.

“Do you see that sign?” he said, pointing at a faded square painted on the shadowy wall.

No photos, it said.

“Oh,” I said, clutching my camera. He was not getting my new 8-GB memory card. Not the one with the pictures from the Taj Mahal.

“Now, we can call the police. They will make you pay, maybe $300 dollars,” he said quietly. “Or you give me the money and I give it to the people.”

He gestured at the ghat I’d been taking terrible pictures of. Like hell he’d give the money to anyone over there.

“You give me 3,000 rupees,” he said. (About sixty dollars – roughly a full day’s budget for the two of us.)

“3,000 rupees?” Jared said. “Are you serio- No. We’re not giving you any money.”

What the hell, Jared?

He obviously wanted to get stabbed. I had visions of our slashed bodies, floating belly-up in the river.

“Let’s go,” he said, guiding me around the men and towards freedom. I went with it. After all, I hadn’t seen a knife anywhere.

“Okay, 1,000 rupees,” the man called at our retreating backs.

“Is he trying to bargain with us?” Jared said in disgust. “Walk fast, but don’t run.”

“I know, I know,” I said. “‘Running makes it worse’.”

The men didn’t follow us and we made it back to the tourist throng stab-free.

After discussing what had happened, we came to a few conclusions:

1) What the HECK were we doing in a dark, abandoned area, anyway? Looking for a stabbing, that’s what.

2) Jared doesn’t negotiate with thugs.

3) The whole thing was a tourist scam, and we considered ourselves lucky to have gotten away with nothing more than shaken nerves.

I think the moral of the story is clear:

If you’re going to take photos of Varanasi in the dark, bring your intuition with you.

And tucking a weapon into your purse won’t hurt, either.

6 Responses to “That Time We Almost Got Stabbed in Varanasi”

  1. i knew it was a tourist scam but i got hopelessly scared anyway. stabbing was definitely on my head as well. varanasi can get to people like that, i think. the good part is, we all got out of there unstabbed. :)

    • I just had another friend tell me that the same thing happened to her in Varanasi! That’s right, we’re all lucky to be free of stab wounds :) So many people said, “You have to go to Varanasi” and I wasn’t sure why…honestly, I’m still not. I guess the attempted scam didn’t help.

  2. Wow, paranoid tourists anyone? The night you almost got stabbed? wouldn’t there need to be a knife somewhere before you go posting almost got stabbed? And what tourist scam? Did someone ask you for your credit card number? I think your cowardice put you in trouble in the Ghat, but what makes you post a paranoid message like that, this I can’t understand but I hope it serves to at least keep people like you out of the way for real treavelers who know exactly why they HAVE to go to Varanasi and would never be caught in a ridiculous situation like that. People are not armed in the ghats looking for stupid tourists to stab, nor did they rob you and obviously you left it clear that it wouldn’t be a hard task. Bring your intuition? no bring your brains, actually, just stay in the hotel, they probably have a good restaurant, a TV and you can take plenty of pictures from the balcony. All on a 3.000 rupie budget!

    • Hi & thanks for your comment. You’re right, I was never in real danger of being stabbed, and it wasn’t my intention to make people think that I was. I doubt they were armed, but they were trying to extort money out of us. It’s a common tourist scam in Varanasai – men were trying to intimidate us into paying them for photos we had already taken. After many years of travel, I know better than to get myself into these situations. Unfortunately I dropped the ball and we were caught off guard. The real message is to stay on your toes and be aware of your surroundings, even when you’re exhausted and recovering from food poisoning. It was certainly tempting to hole up in the guesthouse, but that’s not why anyone comes to India.

  3. Diffidently a scam–they probably even put up the sign themselves. There are a few places in Indian where taking pictures is actually forbidden by law, but no one who has a legitimate right to tell you to stop photographing will demand money. And they will definitely not bargain. I think you guys handled the situation well.

    One thing I’ve found that almost always works with Indians is swearing. They have an ingrained aversion to it and can’t handle when you calmly (staying calm is the key) abuse them verbally with a stream of cuss words. I used that technique at least ten times while in India to get out of situation where they demanded money for whatever reason and it worked every single time.

    • Despite that experience, I don’t think of India as an unsafe country, though you do need to be switched on at all times. I never would have thought of swearing as a line of defense! I’ll keep it in mind if I ever return.

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