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India: Varanasi

The heart of Hindu India

sunny 49 °C
View John and Jackie Around the World on JohnandJac's travel map.

John:.....I don't know if it was cow, buffalo, dog, monkey, goat, mystic or standard issue human; it was hard to see in the early morning light but I suspect it was cow because my left foot felt blessed and I'm sure that I could see a slight glow coming from my Adidas shoe. Defecation is an issue here in Varanasi as it is elsewhere in India. Passing by a village on the train it is not unusual to see a line of (always) men squatting for their early morning poo on the rubbish tip. Varanasi is India, but India magnified, mystified and absolutely full on. It is to followers of the Hindu faith what Mecca is for Muslims. Situated on the River Ganges (or Ganga as she is known locally) Varanasi is the centre of Hinduism. The introduction to Varanasi in The Lonely Planet Guide to India is an indication of what to expect:

'Brace yourself. You're about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth.'

We arrived in Varanasi on the night train from New Delhi. We were woken early by a Libyan man on the top bunk with his cell phone set at maximum volume. His early morning conversation consisted of 10 'ellos' in a row before another word was used. We have noticed a similar trend amongst Indian fellow travellers. Conversations are conducted loudly and I suspect there is no direct Hindi translation for 'I say old chap could you keep it down a little' (also no Hindi translation, I suspect for 'I am in the middle of serving this gentleman, please wait in line', and 'no thankyou, I already have some postcards and your copy of the Karma Sutra does not interest me' and 'look, signal, maneuver').

The station, like every other Indian railway station at any time of the day or night, looked like something very, very bad had just happened. Many people laying on the platform as porters jumped on to the tracks with huge parcels, marked fragile, before tossing them carelessly on to the next platform. Footbridge ignored as people jumped down onto the tracks and climbed up the next platform towards the exit. Scaborous dogs scrounging what they could along the tracks, and the heat. At 09:30, 2 hours late arriving, the temperature was already in the low 40s. The signs 'please do not use the toilet whilst the train is at a station' had obviously been removed from every train. The seething mass of humanity had to exit the station through an impossibly small door and it became clear how easily 3 people had died at New Delhi station, only a couple of days before, because of a late platform change and the resulting stampede. Fortunately our driver, Anand, was on the platform waiting for us.

We fought our way out of the station to Anand's air conditioned Toyota van. The traffic in Varanasi was chaotic. Drivers would approach a congested roundabout and judge which way round would be quickest. Three wheeled tuk tuks jammed every inch of available space whilst pencil thin men peddled cyclo rickshaws as best they could. Through the narrow, streets of Varanasi, the crumbling dark store fronts and workshops illuminated by women wearing the brightest colours, we eventually reached our hotel The Ganges View. As the name suggests this hotel is on the city side bank of the Ganges, just by the Assi Ghat (bathing place). From our room we could see the river clearly. The hotel was excellent. Full of books, high quality art work, excellent food and no televisions. Marred only by frequent and unpredictable power cuts (out of their hands) the accommodation was excellent.

Our first evening was easy going. We strolled along the riverside walk way, past the bathing ghats taking in the fantastic, the mysterious, the colours and the smells. We met two young men, Praveen and Sunil of whom more later, and enjoyed their conversation and the gebnerosity with which they shared their knowledge of Hinduism, Varanasi, India and much more. After dinner we walked the few metres across the road leading to the River and stone baked our behinds on the flag stones that had been harbouring heat from the 47 degree daytime for just this purpose. We only intended to watch the sunset across the river....


...but ended up watching the evening Aarti ceremony, an offering of fire and smoke to the heavens at the end of each day. The sunset was spectacular and without doubt flattered the otherwise very grimey Ganga River. Our new friends joined us and many inquisitive local people came up to ask the standard first question: 'Where you from?". The answer was usually met with "aahh, Daniel Vettori, Scott Styris, Brendon etc etc." The ceremony carried on below us and the chanting, incense burning, orange robed celebrant and helpers banged gongs, rang bells and burned dry cow dung. Youngsters came up to us selling prayer candles to float down the Ganga River. We explained that as we were not Hindu our candles may not work so they solemly lit the candles for us, for a small fee, and our prayers for family and friends hopefully reached the right ears.

Our time in Varanasi was divided by the set tour arrangements that Ajiv helped us with and included going out on the Ganga River to watch the sunrise. This is an auspicious time for the faithful, local and pilgrims from far away, to bathe from the numerous ghats along the river. Here, for me is one of the many contradictions about India. This sacred river is used for bathing, taking away the burning remains of the recently deceased but also for raw sewage disposal. The men who sell milk clean their churns in the dreadful water. People wash their clothes, and selves including drinking the water for inner cleansing....


...we attended the preparations for the main Aarti ceremony in the centre of the city but it looked rather glitzy and we preferred our humble little out of tune version just along the river.

We visited temples by the handful, each more colourful and interesting than the last....Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and at each one attempts were made to uncover the mystery of each religion. We did our best but understand that the Hindu faith alone claims around 30 000 000 different Gods...we stayed attentive but probably forgot quite a lot of the detail.

A silk weaving workshop was interesting as were several fine galleries featuring Moghul paintings, regional wooden carvings, statues, fantastic looking Gods and Godesses, genuine new antiques and much more.

As interesting as the set piece visits were it was the unplanned things that may leave the longer lasting memories....eating masala dosa at the Madhur Milan Cafe, a guided tour through the winding streets of old Varanasi with Praveen and Sunil as guides, sitting on the floor in a Sitar makers workshop listening to him talk about the great sitar players of India.

The tour around the old city was particularly good. The streets too narrow for cars...too narrow for motorbikes too but they managed somehow held fabulous stories and pictures. Around a crumbling colourful corner was a temple, glossy bright with green, red, white, gold painted walls and roof and flags, red and yellow blowing in the river breeze. Workshops and tiny stores...a barber shop with a queue of men waiting patiently in the relative cool of the shade outside, chai wallahs, dhal sellers, tailors in the street with old manual Singer sewing machines, cafes, bookstores, and men with ancient typewriters typing up letters for people, all scrabbling for space. Around one corner a sacred tree, so wide now that it completely blocked the alleyway...a house would have to come down before the sacred tree was damaged. Stepping through dark alleyways, past the beggars, the street children, touts and hustlers the Ganga River revealed in its pre monsoon state, low and slow but disguised as silver in the mid day sun, the centre of Hindu India.

My guides, Sunnil and Praveen, were excellent. I had asked them if they would act as guide and interpreter on a tour of the tight little alleyways of the old city. Both self taught in English and, against all the odds, put themselves through school and college through this kind of activity, they were both devout Hindus and thoroughly modern young men. Inevitably streetwise, they knew the places to visit, the old warehouse where straw bodies of the elephant god Ganesh were being prepared for a forthcoming festival. Where the little sweet making shop was and the men making ghee and lassi. The guides worked out really well; no hustling, no scams but heaps of the kind of insights not contained in the Lonely Planet. I promised I would list their email address for anybody reading this blog who is planning to visit Varanasi:

Contact person Praveen Pathak: deviramvaranasi@yahoo.com

Cows are everywhere. If I was a buffalo (also many of them) I would be pretty fed up that, genetically so similar, our lives are so different. Cows are reveared, indulged, unharmed and milked occasionally to provide for religious ceremonies. Buffalo on the other hand pull ploughs, provide milk for everyday use and provide meat (but only after a hard life). Cows roam the streets of urban as well as rural India and in Varanasi's tiny, congested, smelly, colourful streets their presence is magnified. Cows seemingly have the right of way on roads and footpaths and appear from the strangest places. Jackie and I saw one coming out of the front door of a medical centre in Kajuraho this week.

Bizarre sights included a monkey on the second floor of a house, the windows of which were carefully barred against such intruders. The monkey put its arm in through the bars, extracted a golden colour sari a raced off across the rooftops waving it in triumph.

I had a maths lesson Varanasi style....stopping at a little storefront selling hardware I asked:

"How much is this chain please?"

"18 rupees"

"...and these nail clippers?"

"30 rupees"

I handed over a 50 rupee note only for the old chap to say

"no sir, 110 rupees"

I did the sum for him on an envelope 18 + 30 = 48

"no sir 110 rupees"

It was hot, I wanted the chain for the train journey that night and, as has often been the case I reminded myself that we were talking about a total of 4 dollars NZ. I handed over a 100 and a 20 rupee note.

"Sorry sir, no change" MMmm.

Four days in Varanasi was an education on many fronts and feeling rather like two people whose heads are full to bursting we set about preparing to leave. Our last evening showed how quickly peace turns to savage anger on the sub continent. We were watching the Aarti ceremony for the last time as a rapid movement of people to the water's edge caught our attention. Jackie saw a man being severely beaten and kicked by a mob of angry men. Soon the mob arrived, egging it all on while the service carried on a few yards away. After a few moments fights broke out in the 'congregation' with one of the men setting about another with a large stick...we exited smartly back to our hotel and heard later that the man who was beaten had been accused of theft....but they beat the wrong man. We don't know if he survived.

I should close this blog with a picture of a man who represents so many of the men we saw in Varanasi...devout holy men, mystics, misfits, disturbed, enlightened, shaggy....ageless and harmless. I would love to hear their stories.


We have seen and done so much since Varanasi...seen tigers at Bhandhavgar, visited temples at Khajuraho and Orccha and now preparing to go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. As always lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.

Posted by JohnandJac 05:27 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world

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