Varanasi was founded around 1200 BC and claims to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. For most of the last three thousand years its citizens have been busy not improving the infrastructure, so getting back into the centre from Sarnath was as long-winded and tedious as getting out had been. In addition to bicycles, tuk-tuks and rickshaws there were now Saraswatis complicating the traffic flow. Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science, and as it was her festival groups of students were pushing, dragging or driving Saraswatis down to the Ganges on more or less elaborate carts. Every so often they would stop, regardless of the traffic, bang their drums, blow their whistles and chant. When moving, a sound system would belt out whatever that group fancied, anything from sacred music to hip hop.
|Ajay surveys the traffic jam, Varanasi|
Somewhere near what may have been the centre of the sprawling city we left the car and continued on foot. Darkness fell as, following Ajay, we fought our way towards the river. A premier league crowd could have been no bigger, though it would probably have been quieter.
|Following a Saraswati into the pedestrianised area|
We reached the river between the Arti ceremony platform and the cremation ghat. Part of the crowd jostled for position to watch the ceremony from the land, while boatman touted their services to those wishing to watch from the river. Ajay hired a boat, we bought offerings for Mother Ganga from a small girl, and then the three of us clambered aboard. As we pushed off the noise and glare were temporally swallowed up by the quiet darkness of the river.
|Our aged boatman and the cremation ghats, Varanasi|
|Art ceremony, Varanasi|
|Saraswati about to be unceremoniously dumped in the river|
|The arti ceremony comes to its close, Varanasi|
I do not know if there really is a god for them to communicate with, but as the music, incense and lights worked their magic, the temporary suspension of disbelief was simple.
|The other boats come ashore behind us, Varanasi|
Ajay arrived early next morning and at 6 o’clock we set out to retrace our steps back to the centre.
|Throught the quieter morning streets, Varanasi|
The chilly morning was quiet, almost peaceful, at least until we reached the ghats which were almost as busy as the night before.
|Lynne arrives at the river, Varanasi|
|The Manmandir Ghat, Varanasi|
Beyond the Arti platform people were bathing, some performing a swift ritual dunk, others swimming among the boats. We watched a late middle aged couple inching gingerly into the water, she gripping hard onto his arm for support, both physical and moral. Lynne shivered in sympathy, unimpressed by Ajay’s assertion that the water temperature was actually higher than the air temperature. He offered no comforting words on the cleanliness of the water. Above the bathers a black and white kingfisher hovered with its back arched and beak pointing downwards, then it spotted a fish and dived like an arrow.
|A naked man strides into the Ganges|
|...and pours the holy water of the Ganges over his head|
At one ghat we watched monkeys chasing round the palace roof. Then we passed the second, smaller cremation ghat, used for the funerals of non-Brahmins. Beside it were two naked sadhus smeared in ashes. They looked cold. The tall, thin one stood hunched with his palms turned outwards and the shorter one, his hair tied in a bun on the top of his head started running round in circles. Sometimes being a holy man is a form of community care.
|Bathing ghat, Varanasi|
In the midst of all that is sacred is a dhobi ghat, the dhobi wallahs standing calf deep in the water slapping clothes onto horizontal stone slabs propped up in makeshift fashion. The laundry was laid out to dry on the steps above.
|Dhobi ghat, Varanasi|
The boat turned and puttered into midstream and we made a semi-successful attempt to launch our offerings, though mine capsized as it touched the water.
|Private shrine, old town, Varanasi|
|Queue for puja, Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Varanasi|
It was breakfast time, but as the as the traffic was still light we decided to hop across town to the Bharat Mata Temple first. When a man has made his pile it is customary to build a temple to give thanks for his fortune. Two such men in the 1930s observed that Varanasi already had a superabundance of Vishnu Temples and, being nationalists, decided to build a temple to Bharat Mata (Mother India) who had emerged as a personification of India, if not quite a goddess, during the first stirrings of the independence movement in the late 19th century. Opened by Ghandi, the temple features a carved marble relief map of India. The map is precisely to scale – though using different vertical and horizontal scales – but, being pre-partition, includes Pakistan and Bangladesh as parts of India. For many the independence struggle was sacred as well as political, but it is difficult to maintain such fervour 65 years after that struggle ended and Bharat Mata feels more like a museum than a temple.
|Relief map of India, Bharat Mata Temple, Varanasi|
Back at our hotel a gentle vegetable curry with fried puris, lime pickle with some crunchy bites of something, followed by a cake soaked in syrup made a pleasing breakfast.
|Durga Kund Temple, Varanasi - from the outside|
Puja was being performed and a crowd was half queuing, half jostling to be the next to present their offering. Traditionally this involved sacrificing a chicken, but as this is no longer permitted they have to make do with a coconut. A priest sits behind a low wall and each devotee offers him a coconut cradled in a nest of flowers. Slipping the donation hiding among the flowers into a strongbox, the priest casually flings the petals onto a heap, smashes the coconut on a device like a boot scraper and hands the pieces back. The priest looked bored, his expression and body language suggesting he had nothing but contempt for the worshippers and their offerings. The people, though, brimmed with sincerity, many coming round the side later just to touch the pile of discarded flowers.
|Cycle-rickshaw-school bus, Varanasi|
I sent the picture to the transport manager at SGS (our former place of employment). As their new prep school is beginning to admit children of this age, I thought he might be grateful for the suggestion. He said he was satisfied with his fleet of minibuses. Stick-in-the-mud.
At home we like to nibble Bombay Mix. India offers many variations on this theme, though none (as far as I know) called Bombay Mix. We bought one variation at this stall. Why it is also advertising men’s underwear is a mystery.
|Buying 'Bombay Mix', Varanasi|
We found a vegetarian restaurant (there seemed no other sort) in the basement of a small hotel. It was dark and empty and we were just leaving thinking it was closed when an enthusiastic young man appeared waving a menu. We ordered a biryani, vegetable curry and a nan. The kitchen, behind a glass screen, had been empty, but immediately an old man appeared and started rolling out dough, and a younger man set about chopping vegetables. Our food may not have been very interesting, but it was fresh and cooked to order.
|A walk along the ghats, Varanasi|
|The smaller cremation ghat, Varanasi|
|Lynne on the Kedar Ghat|
|Sadhu encampment, Varanasi|