Even though we were here just a year ago, it is hard for me to describe Varanasi in words, and yet there is so much to write about. It is so exotic – everything as a child you might have imagined an Indian city to be – brightly colorful, pulsing with activity and excitement,with ornate buildings majestically rising up from the river’s edge. I am reminded of other vibrant cities we love – New York, Marrakech and Fez. The labyrinthine alleys of the old town especially reminiscent of the medinas in Morocco.
The old city is built on the riverbanks of the Ganges. Three hundred year old pavilions and palaces are lined by stone steps, the Ghats, which stretch along the water’s edge. Some buildings are crumbling, some are now hotels like ours, and others are private homes. Two “”Burning Ghats” are devoted to cremations where the ashes merge into the river.
The city is revered by pilgrims who come from all over India to pay homage to the many shrines and bathe in Mother Ganges; the old and infirm to die. It baffles me that people who know full well how polluted the river is, can still submerge themselves in it. Some time ago I asked one of our young Indian friends in Boston about it. He said, “I wouldn’t do it, but ….if you truly believed your sins would be absolved wouldn’t you do it?”
Arriving in Varanasi is not easy. The touts are eagerly waiting to take you to your hotel, which turns out to be “their” hotel where they get commission. “Oh, sorry madam! Your hotel burned down last night, this is much better hotel..” But having been here once before, we can avoid that pitfall. The taxis and rickshaws can only go through the busy streets to the edge of the old town and then you must proceed on foot because the lanes are too narrow for anything bigger than a motorbike – or a cow (which are often times much bigger than a motorbike). A young tout attaches himself to us insisting he knows a better hotel. Gerard says he’s welcome to accompany us but we are going to our hotel first. Meanwhile I’m getting impatient. There are too many obstacles to negotiate and, trailing behind Gerard, I’m beginning to trip over the man. But my attitude changes when he insists on taking my case and carrying it on his head. The lanes are remarkably clean considering the cows that inhabit them, but trying to wheel a case is still too hazardous.
Our hotel is on one of the main ghats but in a different section from where we stayed last year. As usual I need a period of adjustment to a new environment –during which time I have been known to pick on the guide….Hotels are not the strong point of Varanasi, and this one is no exception. But it’s tolerable. Its redeeming factor is a barred window (to keep out the monkeys) overlooking a temple with clanging bells and chanting at odd hours day and night. In the early morning we have a bird’s eye view of activities in the temple courtyard and the young monkeys playing right outside the window. They jump from roof to roof and leap into the tree covered with yellow flowers that they then maliciously pluck and eat.
Beyond the temple we can see the river and the ghats stretching upstream. The sun rising over the river creates an unusual soft light through the mist. I go out early to watch the early morning bathers, washermen stretching wet saris out on the stones, boats full of pilgrims drifting downstream. Holy men elaborately dressed in orange and gold can be hard to differentiate from the charlatans who want their photographs taken for a price. Others, wearing only rags, their faces streaked with ash (from cremated bodies), are better identified as more authentic.
In the evening, as the sun goes down, the temple monks perform puja – a ceremony of homage to Mother Ganges. Standing on platforms, they wave incense burners creating clouds of smoke, then perform a solemn dance with candelabras and bells, accompanied by singer, harmonium and tabla player. Throngs of people come to watch both on the steps and in little wooden boats surrounding the ghat. The ceremony is more for the pilgrims than the tourists. The whole scene seems as old as the city itself.
Having a good sense of direction is needed for traveling in the third world. And in negotiating the maze of lanes in Varanasi it’s imperative, and without my guide, I would get hopelessly lost. They say, “If you get lost, just head to the river”. But where is the river? Coming back quite late one night from a concert we see two Asian girls crying with relief as an Indian boy leads them back to their hotel. Stumbling along in the dark, I exclaim that our hotel has locked us out…. Gerard points out, “It’s a neighboring shrine that is locked, not our guest house!”
The lanes are welcomingly cool and shady during the heat of the day; the sounds hushed. We must weave our way around gigantic cows and bulls who believe they own the lanes, and increasingly now also motorcyclists – who wish they did. Gerard shops for music, I look for clothes. Creatures of habit, we return to the stalls we visited last year. “Yes, I remember you,” the owners proclaim. But how can they? Thousands of tourists must come by their store each year. The boy at the music store insists, “Yes, of course I remember you! How many other tourists have your knowledge of classical Indian music?” Good point! Gerard is armed with his list of musicians – the titles he has, and the titles he wants…
Shopping is pleasurable. The shopkeepers are patient and know better than to put on too much pressure. Quite different from our experience of the aggressive Moroccan approach. Tea drinking is likely to accompany the process. Chai wallhas come by the stalls intermittently through the day and serve the best chai in tiny disposable clay cups – a green alternative to the ever mounting piles of plastic.
Unlike most Indian cities there’s a healthy tradition of classical music in Varanasi. Most of the CD stores are playing classical instead of Bollywood movie music. Gerard questions the young proprietors who say, even if they don’t like classical music they must be knowledgeable about it. There are music schools everywhere and concerts at night several times a week. We attend a couple and I am happily surprised at how much more I enjoy the music here in its true environment – even though the young performers do not have the skill of the Masters that we hear in Boston.. Perhaps it’s also because I am more receptive – my mind less cluttered and free from its usual stresses.
I love Varanasi, but to appreciate its uniqueness and beauty I need to pull my attention above the trash and manure. The city is like the lotus; from the muck and mire grows the most beautiful flower.