Heat and Dust in Orchha


Orchha, in Madhya Pradesh, is a good place to relax after spending more than three weeks in the city. This is our third visit here and we still find the small town with its country walks refreshing.


The surrounding area is littered with the vestiges of a Rajput kingdom that began in the 16th C, reaching its peak in the mid-1800s.


The last Maharaja died in 1930, after which the kingdom went into decline.


What is most attractive to us is not only the palace/fort in remarkably good condition or the two temples in town but also the crumbling remains scattered around the countryside of a once thriving kingdom.


On this visit, we arrived late in the season, very few tourists and hot during the day — reaching 110F (43C) in the heat of the day. Consequently our strolls out into the country are done early.


One morning we visited a meadow that we spent a lot of time in a few years ago. Even though the brook had diminished to a trickle, it was still a bucolic spot with goats and cattle wandering peacefully and dogs playing in and out of the stream.


Another morning, when we mentioned to the guesthouse manager that we were going to walk up to see the huge baobab tree next to Laxmi Temple, he asked if we’d seen the other, one km away. A second one?? He said, “Come, I’ll take you on my motorbike.” And this one was even bigger. Pictures fail to convey their enormity.


There is only a handful of these trees in India, supposedly brought from Africa beginning as far back as 5,000 years ago. They can live as long as 1,500 to 2,000 years. The ones we saw, there’s no way of knowing how old they are, but they are ancient.

Our last morning here we walk out early around the back of the palace and down to the Betwa River. A stray dog attaches himself to us as our guide. Beside a small plot of wheat already half cut into golden sheaves, sits a simple hut, old cooking pots on the threshold, a satellite dish atop a broken monument, the ultimate in recycling.


Aimlessly wandering into a gift shop we got into conversation with a father and son, transplants from Delhi. Like on many other occasions, we were cautiously quizzed on our feelings for Donald Trump. A lot of Indians are better informed about American politics than vice versa. Of course changes in the immigration policy is pertinent to them. And for us, it’s hard to know what to say other than we’re not looking forward to returning to the U.S. and facing the reality.


We retreat back to the relative coolness of our room and listen to some cool Miles Davis from the 50s. Gerard is reading his autobiography, which he picked up at the used book stall in Mumbai. He hesitated all of this time because of the continuous swearing. Come to find out, he says, it’s the best thing yet he’s read about Miles.

Varanasi Epilogue


Toward the end of our stay, Gerard asked three locals that we knew quite well a question. All three were born and raised in Varanasi, more or less the same age, mid-40s, and more or less the same status.

“In your opinion what is the biggest change in Varanasi since you were a child?”

Without hesitation, all three gave virtually the same answer.

“There is a great change in the mentality.”

“In what way?”

“Most people are only interested in making money these days. And many don’t care how they do it. Sense of morality has eroded. People used to be more caring and not just for their own family. And there was more interest in our culture.”

“How do you mean?”

“As a child, we had classical Indian music concerts all the time, and people came to Varanasi to learn that music. Now it barely survives.”

“But the Dhrupad Mela was very popular?”

“Yes, but these festivals only happen twice a year.”

All three of them had expressed the same opinion in a slightly different way. When Gerard raised the question of pollution —

“Pollution is pollution and it’s coming from everywhere, not just Varanasi. It’s the mind of the people who have changed.”

It certainly was not the answer we expected — pollution, corruption, overcrowding, broken infrastructure etc. –not what we heard. Of course, we only have a nine-year perspective on change in Varanasi. But our experience with the people here would not elicit such a response. Even the merchants have greeted us with warmth and friendliness. You could think that it’s just based on making another sale but then why would they invite us to their family wedding, anniversary, and Holi party — have lunch with us, give us lunch and endless clay cups of chai. After thinking about what we heard, our reaction was: we like the city now, but it really must have been wonderful 25/30 years ago.

Holi in Varanasi


The build-up toward Holi begins several days before, with bowls of bright colored powder, laced with silver, alongside plastic pistols, appearing for sale in the lanes. When mixed with water, the powder becomes indelible. Plastic bags are filled to make bombs, pistols used to spray the toxic solution, and in a ‘ceremonial ecstasy of colors’ Holi is celebrated with enthusiasm.


This year, the holiday coincided with the five-year local elections in this state, Uttar Pradesh. Voter turnout was high with huge support for PM Modi’s BJP party, especially among the young and poor. With the announcement two days before Holi, of BJP’s victory in UP for the first time in 17 years, Varanasi erupted in loud celebration – men donned orange paper Nehru hats with the letters BJP and accompanied with drums, processed through the streets.


On the morning of Holi, we hid out in our guesthouse. We’ve witnessed several Holi’s and have no desire to be sprayed with color that ruins our clothes, stains our skin and stings eyes. It afforded us the opportunity to spend the morning getting to know a British couple staying in our guesthouse. They’re close to our age and have traveled extensively in India since the ‘90s. Living an unconventional lifestyle, outside the UK for twelve years, they’ve resettled in Devon, on the edge of Dartmoor, close to where I grew up. Other than just loving India, Premgit comes to photograph. He still uses film, dark room and has built up a following for his black and white pictures. http://www.premgit.co.uk/ There was a lot that we had in common — boarding schools, yoga, Coltrane, photography, India and following a spiritual path.


Together we watched the antics on the surrounding roofs from the safety of their balcony. Starting early in the morning, neighbor attacking neighbor, bombing unsuspecting passersby on the street below. The willing participants are mostly but not exclusively young people.


The fun continues all morning until around 1 pm, when it begins to subside. Declaring a truce until next year, residents wash down their roofs, scrub their bodies and change into clean clothes and relative calm is restored.

Our neighborhood is an exception. Here, at Chausatti Ghat, the symbolic depiction of feminine power within Hindu mythology is still present. Directly across the street from our hotel is a little temple that is said to have the power of no less than 16 yoginis.


While the celebration is fading out in the rest of the city it intensifies here. The street becomes clogged with worshipers wanting to make offerings of flowers at the temple. Temple bells ring without break. Well into the night the street remains choked. Getting back to our guesthouse was not for anyone suffering from claustrophobia.


Even though Shree Café was closed for the holiday, Santosh had invited us to visit in the evening and join the family for thandai, a celebratory sweet, spicy milk drink, to mark the end of Holi. We had not anticipated the crowds we’d have to fight our way through to get there, but it was worth it. P1030866

Family and friends had gathered, all dressed in new clothes, the men in white kurtas, having washed off the color from playing Holi. The children danced without inhibition. It was our good fortune to finish celebrating this holiday with our Varanasi family.


It’s not easy to get up and on to the ghat before 6 am, but whenever we manage it we’re so glad.


Meeting Santosh we walked downstream beyond the crowded ghats,


where life beats at a slower pace.


And then turned into the lanes (gulies). Without Santosh we would have got hopelessly lost.


He led us through sleepy gullies, with men gathered at chai stalls still discussing the election.


Eastern Sounds

In the early morning, long before dawn, the melancholy song from a man and his harmonium floats over the rooftops. He laments the passing souls who came here to shed their last tear of earthly existence and cast off their broken bodies to the funeral pyre. But, he sings; why should we mourn?  For they’re set free in the light, while we worldly ones struggle to find our way.

Around 4 am energetic chanting and bell ringing echo from the Chausatti temple.  Shortly after, a cacophony of mosque calls summon the faithful to prayer across the large Muslim section. The haunting sound as one imam leaves off and another begins, dragging the reluctant out of the oblivion of sleep toward the first prayer of a new day. Get up and shake off your drowsiness. Fritter away your time no longer. Pray to God now while there is still breath in your body. We can hear no political jihad, Al Qaeda or ISIS in his voice.

As we get ready for breakfast, the schoolmaster leads his students in call and response, his call eagerly returned by the joyous out of tune voices of his young pupils. Listening to all these sounds drifting through the early morning air, we are reminded that while so much has changed, yet so much remains the same in Varanasi.


Two Walks and A Boat Ride


We were having lunch with Helene and Remy in Shree Café. Long time visitors to Varanasi, we’ve become more friendly with them in recent years. Santosh invited us all to take a walk with the family on the ghat.


Helene and Remy stay in the guesthouse above the restaurant and have become very close to the family, but we only get to socialize with them on these Sunday afternoon walks.


Highlights of this afternoon were delicious apple pie and classical Indian dance at Assi Ghat.


A few days later, Gerard and I rose early, when the air was still cool and fresh, to watch the sun rise.


Dawn is one of the more popular times to take a boat ride and watch the golden sunlight shine on the sacred city.


There’s plenty of people about but the atmosphere is more contemplative. A wonderful time to take an uninterrupted walk.


We mentioned meeting up with Krystyna and her companion Karel when we were in Goa. Karel had never been to Varanasi so we arranged to meet while we were here. Gerard and Karel immediately connected.

We were both excited to have the opportunity to spend more time with them. They only stayed a few days but we spent a lot of time together. Karel had done a Krishnamurti translation in Czech some years ago and wanted to visit the Krishnamurti Center just down the Ganga from Varanasi.


We visited it briefly a few years ago but wanted to see it again with them. So we rented a boat and paddled our way downstream



past the burning ghat,


to the beautiful serene compound sitting high on the bank of the river. Karel and Krystyna planned to spend three or more days there.


We joined them for lunch and saw their cottage – simple but beautiful. There were several people from all over staying there, but the conversation was minimal. We found the atmosphere very attractive and may stay there another year ourselves. Karel and Krystyna bid us farewell until our paths cross again….which might well be in Prague. We have an open invitation.


A Varanasi Wedding


Rajesh is our oldest friend in Varanasi; we met the first time we came nine years ago. Through the years, we’ve become more than just acquaintances. This year, when we stopped by his stall near the Golden Temple he said, “You must come to my sister in law’s wedding in just a few days.”

P1030641When we voiced concern about not having the appropriate attire, he said, “We don’t judge people by what they wear but what’s in their heart and you will be most welcome.” Moments later, Rajesh’s father in law appeared and after only a glance, handed us an invitation to the wedding. He also put to rest our concerns about dress. When Gerard asked him how he knew us, he said, “Our whole family knows you. Rajesh has mentioned you through the years and we’ve seen pictures of you on FB.” Rajesh added, “And we all read the blog!”

After I’d had time to consider what to wear I realized my case was too small to accommodate this festive occasion. A new outfit was required. By happenstance, over lunch at Shree Café, Uschi, another friend of ours who’s in the clothing industry here, recommended a ready made store where we should ask for Deepak. Deepak couldn’t have been more helpful, and after a relatively short time I’d made my purchase and it had been sent off for alterations.


Thinking we were arriving fashionably late, we were, in fact, one of the first to arrive at the wedding – one must always remember Indian time. Everybody was very welcoming and when Rajesh showed up he introduced us to all the different family members.


The groom finally arrived in usual fashion riding a white horse, led by a band and followed by frenetic young dancing guests. The groom was seated on the customary couch for photos while his bride was led to him under a canopy.


They’re obliged to sit for hours, posing for endless pictures. We took the opportunity to go up to the roof where plentiful snacks and main course meal were laid out. We had a chance to talk with Rajesh’s older brother’s wife, Megu, who’s from Japan. She met her husband 15 years ago in Varanasi and they now run a renowned Japanese restaurant here. She appreciated the fact we couldn’t talk to everyone and seemed happy to spend time with us. Eventually, we went back downstairs where the photo shoot was still in progress. We’ve both commented on how patient the couple have to be to pose for a myriad of pictures. Along with maybe half the 500 guests, we left before the actual ceremony – not apparently that unusual.


Shivrati and Dhrupad Mela in the City of Shiva

dsc_0704If Agonda no longer feels like home, Varanasi has yet to let us down. We always stay at Shiva Kashi, but the manager, Sanju, told us some time in advance that for the first week we’d have to find an alternative. Disappointed, we booked nearby, but without enthusiasm. Arriving in Varanasi, as we walked down the alley beside Shiva Kashi, Sanju appeared and greeted us. “Where are you going?” Saying the name of the hotel, he replied, “It’s no good. Come, let me see.” We followed him back to Shiva Kashi and he consulted his book and decided he could give us a room after all. When we said how pleased we were we could stay, we were not looking forward to going to another guesthouse, he replied “I never go out of Shiva Kashi during the day. God made me go out! It must have been his will.”



We’d arrived in Varanasi for the first night of the Dhrupad Mela. The night-long concert started out well but we were driven out by hordes of mosquitoes. We had forgotten to put on repellent. Better prepared the second night, but still, we only lasted till midnight; the wind blowing off the Ganges was too cold. The third night, being totally prepared, we settled in for whatever may come. Noticing on the program of 12 performers that Gudencha Brothers, one of our favorites, were performing but not apparently until around 3 am. Nevertheless, a wonderful santoor player with a very unique style entertained us until nearly midnight.


Gerard said, “We probably should go. I can’t make it until 3.” But I replied, “Just let’s wait and see who the next performer will be.” The name Gudencha rang out, but in what context? The announcements were all in Hindi. To our delight, those familiar faces of Gudencha Brothers appeared. After their rousing performance, it was 1.20 am and we fell out on to the empty streets to find a cycle rickshaw. What a wonderful night! Later that week we were told that the concert series, now its 43rd year, has been sponsored by one family, covering all costs making it free to the public. We were also told the performers are not paid but all their expenses covered, with 5 star accommodation. These annual concerts are so prestigious that many Indian musicians have gotten their break here.


The last day of the concerts was Shivratri, Lord Shiva’s birthday, enthusiastically celebrated in Varanasi, ‘City of Shiva’.


On the way to our concert, along the ghat, we saw many designs made up of tiny clay pots with lit oil and wick, devotees chanting around the myriad of lights. It all looked pretty ancient to us.


Although we’ve been coming to Varanasi for nine years now, walking alone along the ghat this morning I felt as if I woke up for the first time to how ancient this sacred city is. The throng of century old haveli and temples tumbling down almost into the Ganges. Sparkling blue in the sunshine; white birds flocking around the laden boats of pilgrims drifting downstream. We had just listened to a tape of the memorial service of our dear friend Bob, and I was reflecting on the thoughts expressed by those who loved and missed him; where better than in this city where life and death flow together.


Then just beyond the dhobi ghat, I found myself facing a group of animated young Indian boys blocking my path. As I came nearer, a dread-locked Sadhu, a white cloth wrapped around his bones, began dancing with exaggerated drama in front of me. Suddenly I saw it — a luminous green snake was slithering right across my path! Gerard remonstrates me for never looking down at where I’m walking, and wearing sunglasses there’s even less likelihood. The snake disappeared down the ghat and everyone continued on their way. It was too sudden for me to react – except to marvel at the beautiful colour of that slithering snake. Our three-week stay in Varanasi is off to a good start.