City of Djinns


On the way back to Delhi we made an overnight stop in Gwalior to view the 18C hill Fort. Surrounded by sandstone walls, it encloses three temples and six palaces. One day seemed long enough and we planned to continue to Delhi early the next morning; but we had not taken into account the vagaries of train travel. Expecting to arrive in Gwalior at dawn, it was already midday when we finally got down, giving us only a few hours before the Fort closed. The hotel we had booked turned out to be unacceptable and our rickshaw rider had to take us to several alternatives before we decided an over priced but suitable one. After a quick lunch, we again set off in 95F heat to tour the Fort.


Equally interesting were Jain temples with statues dedicated to the Tirthankaras, teachers of the Jain dharma, carved out of the cliff below the Fort. Just enough time to see everything before night descended.


Back in Delhi, our usual hosts, Kamal and Bhushan were visiting their daughter, Shruti, in Bangalore, so we stayed with her aunt and uncle who live one street over in Gurgaon.

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Swarn loves to cook and we were the benefactors. A well-appreciated break from restaurant meals. Gerard and Ravi talked a lot about painting; he’s semi retired and is taking up the brush. He’s a great enthusiast of ghazelles, poetry from the Mogul period, and Quawwali, which is the poems set to music. He’s particularly fond of Rahet Ali Khan, who first recorded when he was ten years old. I found it mesmerizing. If you’re interested here’s the link. Fast forward the first few mintues.  Ustad Rahet Ali Khan

After reading William Dalrymple’s book on his love of Delhi, City of Djinns, both of us had renewed interest in exploring the Mogul city of Old Delhi and signed up for a three-hour walking tour. With only three of us, it was semi private and our young guide was well-informed and gave us tidbits of information that you wouldn’t normally come by: i.e. women wearing red and white bangles to indicate the first year of their marriage; ‘ear cleaners’ are identified by their red scull caps with a Q tip behind their ear. When Gerard comments at the tangled mass of electrical wires over our head, the guide commented that 80% of the connections were illegal. It’s got to the point that the electrical company cannot determine which connection is legal or not.


The section of Old Delhi nearest the Red Fort once was famous for its elaborate haveli’s, occupied by families connected to the Court. Now only 500 remain, and out of that, only 17 are still ancestral homes. The rest are in very sad shape, used as warehouses on the ground floor, with cheap rooms for rent above.


As our guide led us through the maze of back streets, Gerard felt confident that he could navigate on his own. But as soon as the guide left us, he was hopelessly lost. Even his compass failed in Old Delhi. My personal guide had let me down.


Because of the Holi festival there was some delay in getting overnight bus tickets, ‘semi sleeper’ (this term is accurate because you really can’t sleep) to Himachal Pradesh, but it gave us time to spend with Swarn and Ravi and for Gerard to get over his lingering cough.

A new glimpse of Varanasi


On arriving in Varanasi we reconnected with our French friends, Helene and Remy, from Benaulim. They stay above Shree Café whose owner, Santosh, is an accomplished photographer. We arranged to meet on the Ghat early the next morning to take pictures. As the sun rises over the river, pilgrims do their puja and ritual bath. With so much activity no one notices that we’re taking pictures. Being accompanied by a local helps us to see the theater of ritualistic Varanasi, the most holy city of India, through his eyes. Santosh and Remy are both such good photographers, I feel intimidated. I can either get so immersed in what’s going on, I forget to take the picture or, preoccupied with taking the picture, I miss the rest of the scene. But the city is a photographer’s paradise and being in the company of more skilled shooters helps me to think more about what it is I want to portray through the lens. It’s also inspiring for Gerard to be with other enthusiasts; it broadens his view of both what to capture and how to do that. We both know that, like most other practices, the more you do it the better you get at it.


Santosh and his family have now become friends after many years of a casual acquaintance, which began around Indian classical music and Santosh recommending the names of local musicians we hadn’t heard of. It’s through photography that we’ve gotten to know him better.  Whenever we need advice he’s always available, with his soft spoken manner.

Meeting people isn’t hard in Varanasi but being connected to an Indian family opens a door not always available to tourists. Gerard and I were happy when, for the second year, Santosh and Seema asked us to join them and their three children for their marriage anniversary. If you own an excellent ‘pure veg’ Indian restaurant where do you go for a treat? We piled into cycle rickshaws and headed to a fancy Chinese restaurant. After chile paneer and sezhuwan noodles, everyone went next door for gelato.

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On the weekend, we again joined the family for an afternoon walk. They arrived with their son, Gulu, brandishing a cricket bat. Other small boys converge and within minutes, a game begins along a narrow platform on the ghat. His mother, Seema, takes charge as an enthusiastic umpire. The game proceeds slowly, with frequent interruptions to search for the ball — on the riverbank, inside a docked boat, or among the ruins behind the steps.



Varanasi has a strong appeal for a certain type of traveler, but one that defies definition. One night our guesthouse rings with Chinese chatter, a few days later there’s a group of 22 Chileans. What is it we all find so attractive? The city is dirty, the lanes congested with oversized cows, stray dogs and noisy motor scooters; the Ganges is polluted (although thousands bathe in it daily without apparently getting sick). In spite of all this, many like us return year after year.


Gerard and I have asked each other what it is that brings us back here.  and, each time we try to narrow it down to this thing or that; but it just doesn’t capture how we feel. Overall Indian cities don’t attract either one of us. But Varanasi, the oldest living city in the world, one could say is a ‘living monument.’ It may not be the prettiest of ancient cities, but at least it hasn’t been torn down and replaced with concrete. The stone pavers in the alleys are worn smooth, wooden doors have hundreds of years of patina, and as we’ve mentioned before, for us, it’s lanes are so reminiscent of the medinas in Morocco that we fell in love with some forty years ago. It is the river, it is the narrow lanes, the ghats, the public cremation, the underlying spiritual quest by so many…and the people. Not only concerned with extracting money from tourists, they have time to smile and talk, making Varanasi feel more like a large village, not a city.

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In the chai shop we frequent every morning, Gerard said, “I know that man.” And before he had a chance to say to me who he was, Martyn looked over and smiled, “I know you.” Gerard said, “And where’s the rest of your family?” Three years before, Martyn, his wife and two young children were traveling for a year when our paths first crossed in Varanasi. A few weeks later we saw them again in Darjeeling and this time we became more acquainted. All of us continued on to Sikim where we went our separate ways. Martyn is one of those jolly souls who seem to see the positive in everything, making it easy to connect with him. He explained that this year he had come by himself for only three weeks, primarily to have dental work done in Delhi. He had time and briefly thought of going to Goa, but quickly decided on returning yet again to Varanasi. He’s been coming here since 2000. We asked him what it was that kept pulling him back here, and he replied, “I can’t put my finger on it.” But he did say on his first visit he’d planned to stay three or four days and ended up staying a month. He just couldn’t leave, and still hasn’t had enough.



On our last morning, Santosh, Gerard and I went out early again to take pictures. Santosh thought it would be more interesting to go downstream, past the burning ghat, to an area we’d never seen before. The tourists and pilgrims quickly faded; no more “boat ma’am?” no girls selling faded postcards, even the chai wallahs disappeared. Far less congested, you get the sense that this part of the city hasn’t changed in decades, possibly in a century.


Finally we turned away from the river and into the lanes. Winding our way back, through vegetable and fruit markets, cow pens, doors left open for passesby to see in: it’s another Varanasi.


Without Santosh we would never have been able to negotiate the winding, twisting lanes. A great opportunity to be led through this maze and take photographs with a local. He has less reserve to point the lens at an interesting face, which in turn gave both of us more confidence to do the same. It was a great ending to our stay in this city that continues to call us back.


In previous posts we’ve tried to capture what attracts us so much to Varanasi. Eastern Sounds, Varanasi: the Lotus on the Ganges












Dhrupad Mela and Shiverati



Our arrival in Varanasi this year was deliberately timed with a four-day Druphad Mela (festival). Druphad is an ancient form of Indian classical music developed in the Mogul court more than five hundred years ago. It is one of Gerard’s favorite music forms. Even though I’d heard it being played a lot in the house, I’d never paid a whole lot of attention not finding the singing compelling. But as I’ve experienced in the past, with certain jazz players like pianist Cecil Taylor, seeing it is a whole different thing from just hearing a recording. As the festival progressed I slowly began to appreciate what I was hearing. By the last night, I was sharing in the anticipation for the Gundecha Brothers, one of the more famous dhrupad singers in India today. The depth of this art form was beginning to reveal itself to me.

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The evening began with a young Japanese woman singing dhrupad in a very correct but cautious manner. (Many south Asians are attracted to Varanasi, whether it’s because of the music or the spirituality or both. They come and stay for many months studying music, dance and yoga.) As she finished playing, thunder began to rumble and lightening flashed. Within minutes the skies opened and the rain came down in torrents. The back part of the tent sagged as the water quickly began pouring through. We were all asked to move in front of the stage, where an outer roof protected the tent. Abandoning the seated area, we all crowded forward, jostling to make room for each other. Even if I’d wanted to leave, how could I? No rickshaws and too far to walk back to the guesthouse.


The curtains of the tent flapped like broken sails in the wind and water sprayed everywhere. A young European man sat on the stage anxiously clutching his subahar (an instrument similar to the sitar but with a wonderful deep sound). He was finally asked to play. The music from this instrument was so beautiful. And again even though Gerard has played loads of it I’d never taken the time to listen to its unique sound.


By the time the Gundencha Brothers appeared the rain had stopped, two thirds of the tent, with our shoes, was a swamp, and the crowd had greatly thinned. But after the first number, I turned around and again the tent was packed with an enthusiastic audience – a 50/50 mix of westerners and Indians.


The alap, the first movement of the raga began softly and then gradually built, exploring all of the variations within the raga. The interplay between the two voices was instinctive, one left off as the other picked up. After the alap, two pakhwaj drummers joined in. One a Japanese guest, who might have felt out of his depth on the stage, nevertheless he held his own. As the music built with the percussionists, I forgot being tired, wet and uncomfortable. It seemed everyone in the soggy tent was swept up in the excitement.

They played for almost two hours, finishing with “Shiva Shiva”, an incantation to the God Shiva.  What a perfect choice for Shiverati (the birthday) in the City of Shiva! Most of the crowd was familiar with the song and the atmosphere more akin to that of a popular music concert than a classical one. The audience wouldn’t let the Gundecha Brothers leave and they played an encore raga.  There were other acts to follow, but who could play after this? It was almost midnight, and we were both totally saturated by the music…not to mention the rain. We put on our water-logged shoes and trudged out to the main road to find a cycle rickshaw. We hadn’t been back in the guesthouse for long when there was another cloudburst.

Stopover in Bombay


Our long weekend in Mumbai was more than a convenient break in a long (42 hr.) train ride from Goa to Varanasi. It was a wonderful chance to reconnect with the Shinkar family. They immediately make us feel at home in their apartment, an oasis of cool comfort, in central Mumbai. Thirteen floors up, it looks out on a sea of new high-rise building construction. It’s our third visit and in a relatively short period of time we’ve become part of the family. This has also been our experience with other families in India.

We first stayed with the Shinkars when we attended a meditation program of about 2,000 people in Mumbai three years ago, organized and managed by our host, Subodh. He’s a successful businessman in a high-pressure world of finance but is always ready and willing to do whatever he can to be helpful. And picking us up at 11.30 pm on Friday night exemplifies this. We particularly like to hear his stories of going to the ashram in Rajasthan and the Indian perspective.

After almost two months of eating in restaurants, any home cooked food would have been a refreshing change. But that would hardly describe what was in store for us. At each meal we were treated to dishes we’d never tasted before. Subodh’s wife, Sunita, is an excellent cook who explained how she learned regional cooking, Gujarati, Maharati, Punjabi etc. from different members of the extended family. Each time we sat down at the table she surprised us with a variety of dishes that we’d never seen or heard of before. (And who said vegetarian food was boring?)

We have a special fondness for Subodh’s parents who also live in the apartment. Damu met Gerard’s brother at a retreat in the late 80s and we first connected with Damu about 10 years ago. His wife, Kudum, speaks very little English but has a laugh so infectious that we laugh along with her, often having no idea what the joke is. We all get up in the morning to meditate and she’s sitting at the dining room table drinking chai already finding humor in something, spreading the joy.

Subodh’s sons, Nirmal, in seventh grade and Sunil in second year college, were both about to enter the exam period and studying hard, but they graciously gave up their room to us without showing any sign of being inconvenienced. Sunil had adopted an optimum study schedule, staying at the library all night, and sleeping during the day, amidst a household of noisy activity. This meant we hardly saw him at all. With 1.3 billion, these kids are under huge pressure to excel. Nirmal perseveres with his studies during the day, breaking the tedium by singing, usually a popular western song, much to the amusement of the rest of the family. He’s a natural entertainer, and it could be in his future.


Once again, Subodh and Sunita took us out on Saturday evening and drove around some of the older parts of the city: Colaba, home for generations to rich Farsees, Church Gate beside the Raj built train station and Marine Drive where families promenaded beside the ocean in the evening light. Driving around the confusing and crowded streets, Gerard asks Subodh if all the traffic stresses him out. He says, “No, I’m used to it. I grew up here.”

Our last night, Subodh and his parents took us to an upscale, family style, veg restaurant. On the way, Subodh and his mother sang bhajans. Again we were introduced to a variety of local dishes Subodh wanted us to try.

Our train tickets for Varanasi were “Reservation against Cancellation” which meant we weren’t notified until the night before if we actually had confirmed seats or not. This caused a certain amount of anguish…and relief when we finally got the computer confirmation and carriage and seat numbers. With trains of 22(?) carriages, you need to know your own carriage to be able to find it on the platform.

Our train left very early Monday morning. We insisted on taking a cab; everyone had a busy day coming up. But they wouldn’t hear of it. And like family, Subodh and Sunita, gave us a heartfelt send off from the platform. The weekend had been too short.