There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Varanasi: Part 4 of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh


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.

At one point we were stationary beside a 4x4 full of mourners heading for the cremation ghat. The deceased lay on the roof-rack wrapped in an orange cloth.

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.

We were now in a pedestrianised area, but the Saraswatis continued to drum and hip hop, motor scooters and tuk-tuks pushed past, some drivers repeatedly thumbing the horn, others just holding the button down. It is not always the largest vehicles that have the loudest horns. Cycle rickshaws slipped more quietly through the crowd. A bell rings and a front wheel appears at your elbow, then the handlebars. What follows is four times wider, so a wise walker shoves swiftly sideways into the crowd.
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.

The boatman was small, skinny and elderly and I felt guilty about letting him do the rowing. We slid almost silently across the water before turning to face the ghat where the funeral pyres burned, their orange flames lighting up the darkness.

Our aged boatman and the cremation ghats, Varanasi

We attempted to launch our gifts for Mother Ganga, palm leaf bowls holding a twist of saffron coloured flowers and a candle. We could see the twinkling lights of other people’s offerings floating downstream, but the boat was high sided and as we leaned over the candles tumbled off and were promptly extinguished.

The Arti ceremony was now in full swing, the ghat thronged with people. We were rowed across to join the flotilla of small boats bobbing just offshore. Seven young priests in loose shirts and baggy trousers lit their Arti lamps, cupped their hands over the flames and then raised them to their foreheads passing a blessing from the deity to the priest. Incense is burned, the smoke passing over the flames and enveloping the whole gathering in the divine form. The ceremony, performed every evening, is a piece of theatre as well as a religious act. 

Art ceremony, Varanasi
A boat filled with young men and with Saraswati standing upright in the stern bumped gently into the crowd. Tradition demands that the image is offered to the river, but I was surprised by the how casually she was shoved overboard.

Saraswati about to be unceremoniously dumped in the river
As the Arti came to its conclusion we returned to the shore and watch the final moments from the landward side.

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

We walked back to the car through quieter streets and drove to our hotel in relative tranquillity.

Our hotel was at the opposite end of the ghats where the steps take a right angle turn away from the river. Perched on top, between the Ganges View Hotel and the river is a restaurant, and that was where we went for dinner. Varanasi is a stop on what was once called the ‘hippie trail’, and we had seen a few ‘unusual’ westerners about town. This restaurant turned out to be where they gather. The food was cheap, vegetarian and wholesome enough but bland, not just by the standards of India, but by any standard.

As we retired to bed the last of the Saraswatis was making her way past, with agonising slowness and a regrettable taste in overloud music. Eventually the sound of rappers faded into the night and we slept.

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 boatmen were still busily looking for custom while fortune tellers’ stalls now filled the Arti platform.

Fortune teller on the Arti paltform

We bought more offerings for the river, in the hope of a more successful launch and joined four or five other passengers on a boat with an outboard.

We chugged past the ghats at a leisurely pace, each one with a set of steps leading up to a large, ornate building. Almost every ruler in northern India had at some time built himself a palace by the banks of the holy river. The Manmandir Ghat was built in 1770 by Magarajah Jai Singh II of Jaipur.

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 holding a brass bowl strode out into the water….
A naked man strides into the Ganges

….. he stooped to fill the bowl then poured the holy water over his head.

...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.

Lynne makes her offerring to the Holy Ganges

The south bank is a mud flat, bare except for a tent or two. A skiff pushed off and headed towards us, rendezvousing fifty metres from the southern shore. A couple transferred to it from our boat, a process fraught with difficulty for a large middle aged woman. After a minor drama they were transported off towards the mud flat. We returned along the waterfront....

The waterfront, Varanasi

.... to the main cremation ghat.

Ajay and the cremation ghat, Varanasi
We walked up through the narrow lanes past piles of logs. Wood is expensive, particularly the fragrant sandalwood, and 350Kg are needed to cremate a body. Bodies are sometimes cremated together to reduce the cost.

Into the lanes behind the cremation ghat, Varanasi
This is the oldest part of the city and every house in the maze of narrow lanes either has a shrine outside or a personal temple inside. In the midst of this ancient and exotic world, a metal door opened and a teenage boy dressed in a British-style school uniform - grey trousers, blue blazer, white shirt, striped tie - wheeled out his bike and set off for school.

Private shrine, old town, Varanasi

Since sectarian bombings in 2006 and 2010 the area round the Kashi Vishwanath Temple has been tightly controlled. For a small fee, we deposited our cameras and personal effects with a local shopkeeper, keeping only our passports. We passed through a metal detector at the entrance to an alley, were searched and had our passports examined. After that we thought we would enter the temple, but it is closed to non-Hindus. We were merely permitted to stand on a step and look at the top of the buildings over a high wall, an experience not worth the hassle.

Outside, the queues to do puja at the temple are controlled behind heavy wooden barriers. At peak times, Ajay said, devotees can queue for as much as six hours. The puja then takes six seconds.

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.

We barely had time for a shower (there had been no hot water earlier) before Ajay returned for the next instalment.

We drove round the campus of Benaras Hindu University. Founded in 1916 by Pandit Madan Malviya, who earned the title ‘India’s Biggest Beggar’ for his fundraising activities, it is one of India’s leading universities and has over 20,000 students. BHU was Ajay’s alma mater and he stressed that Hindus have always been admitted regardless of caste - although admission is by no means limited to Hindus.

Nearby is the Durga Kund Temple, and this time we were allowed in, though photographs were not permitted.  Durga is the many-armed warrior aspect of the Divine Mother. She habitually rides a lion and her temple is painted red as a symbol of creative energy - or blood depending on your preference.

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.

We returned to our hotel, said goodbye to Ajay and set out in search of lunch. There were, we found, few restaurants in our corner of town. The traffic was light, much of it schoolchildren going home for lunch and we particularly liked this cycle-rickshaw-bus.

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.

Cycle-rickshaw-bus, Varanasi

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.

We were not alone for long, being soon joined by a middle aged Indian couple and then a worried looking Japanese girl. In halting English she explained she had been to a hostel to visit a friend who, she discovered, was out, had gone for a walk, become lost and could no longer find the hostel. She did not know its name, but could describe it. The waiter and the other diners made suggestions in equally halting English. We speak fluent English but sadly had no suggestions to make. Half way through her lunch her friend phoned and all was well.

In the afternoon we walked along the ghats from out hotel.

A walk along the ghats, Varanasi

We paused by a pile of Saraswati skeletons fished from the river after the previous evening. Litter is the curse of India, but at least this lot had been collected up. Whether anyone was going to move them from here was another matter.

The tangled remains of the Saraswatis, Varanasi

At various places cattle had come down to drink or wallow. This one had delegated parasite control to the capable beak of a myna bird.

Myna bird pest control, Varanasi

A boy of ten or so approached, offering us postcards. He was full of smiles and charm, and haggled so artlessly that he managed to charge us twice the going rate for twice as many postcards as we wanted.

As we passed the smaller cremation ghat, the guardian grabbed us and led us to a view point. ‘No pictures,’ he said. ‘Respect the dead.’ He explained the process, adding that it was men’s torsos and women’s thighs that are hardest to burn. ‘Then,’ he said with a grin, ‘we rake everything left into the river and let the fish sort it out.’ He told us of the documentary film makers he had worked with, and how much they had paid him. When he was sure we had got the message he said, ‘All right, just one photo.’ We tipped him well, but declined his offer to take us to a silk weaving factory.

The smaller cremation ghat, Varanasi

Lynne had regularly used a picture of the Kedar Ghat when teaching Hinduism in school. Being photographed sitting in the middle of her teaching aid caused her a small frisson of excitement.

Lynne on the Kedar Ghat

It would not be India if there was not a game of cricket somewhere. At any one time it seems that half the teenage boys in India are involved in a game of ‘gully’ cricket. It keeps them out of mischief.

Gully cricket on the ghats, Varanasi
On our way back we passed through the sadhu encampment. There is one man who claims not to have sat down for several decades and spends his days leaning on a wooden trapeze at the mouth of his tent. In another tent were two sadhus, several young westerners of both sexes and a guitar. Whether their smoking material is legal in India I do not know. Perhaps some holy men are holier than others.

Sadhu encampment, Varanasi

Back at the ghat nearest our hotel we watched three men cleaning milk churns. Using soap and twigs for scouring they were washing the churns in the water of the Ganges. We made a mental note to avoid milk in future.

We dined at the hotel. They promised a vegetarian buffet cooked without onions or garlic and served in a community atmosphere. Eschewing onions and garlic as well as meat is a Brahmin diet (while strict Jains also abjure root vegetables). To make such a meal interesting requires a talented chef, but sadly the hotel chef was only competent and the dinner was distinctly ho-hum - and they failed with the promised community atmosphere, too. The highlight was a jaggery and cardamom laced rice pudding - so much for avoiding milk.

Later we took a stroll and found nothing happening on the ghats or in the surrounding streets. Perhaps I am a slave to my base appetites but, as meat and alcohol seemed unobtainable in Varanasi, we were happy to retreat to our room for a nightcap of Heathrow airport duty-free and a slice of salami (even if the salami was entirely imaginary).

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