More music and the back lanes


The musical bonanza continued. Gerard went to three more concerts. One was a sitar player we knew called Shujaat Khan; it was the first time he’d seen him live. His playing was impeccable and his voice hauntingly beautiful. I was unable to go because of the usual intestinal malaise of Varanasi. Few who stay for any length of time avoid it.


An Indian couple from Atlanta, Georgia sitting in the local teashop ask why we choose to come to Varanasi every year. Their comment about the city is the peaceful coexistence between Moslems and Hindus, not always the case in many parts of India. I’ve always found the presence of Moslems surprising because Varanasi is the most sacred Hindu city in the country, the birthplace of Shiva. But perhaps they’re right – there are at least five Mosques within sight of our hotel on the edge of the Moslem quarter and we’ve never witnessed a hint of a communal clash here. Sanjiv, our hotel manager, says although there is very little cross marriage, the communities depend upon each other for business.


Our friend Katinka arrives at breakfast today saying she needs a new hotel because her bed has collapsed. This prompts the elderly French lady, to tell the story of when she stayed at the same hotel in the early 80s, the room boasted an impressive four poster bed although she had to make minor repairs each year. Then one year, when she came the bed was gone. What happened to the four poster? The landlord told the bizarre story of two Americans stashing money in the hollow of the bed, Little did they know, the bed also had termites. When they returned a month later to retrieve their money, it was half eaten by the ants. Enraged they smashed the bed.


Once again, Gerard had the chance to walk the back lanes with two other photographers. They happened across a wedding in full throttle.  


Later, stopping for the never-ending cup of chai


with Santosh and Remy.


Varanasi is a magnet for photographers and we’ve met our share on this visit. Frederic who is focused on photographing dance; our English friend Premgit has been photographing tribal devotion for many years, an Australian Kirran has spent the last couple of weeks photographing the dobi washermen on the Ganges. And yesterday we met an American living in Thailand, who focuses on youth and street photography. Both of us vacillate about being inspired and discouraged by these professional photographers.




We hope this isn’t indicative of the state of spiritual endeavor in Varanasi!


Old Friends and Dhrupad Mela


For nearly ten years, we’ve spent most of the winter in India. It has become a home away from home. And a prominent room within that home is Varanasi. Through the years we’ve done our best to convey what this place means to us in pictures and writing. And of course, those efforts fall short. To put it simply, we now feel very comfortable here. The area around the guesthouse is a neighbourhood we feel part of. Even though most of our acquaintances up and down the lane are merchants, Gerard and I are warmly and sincerely welcomed.


Varanasi draws a specific type of tourist, ones that are not easily put off by cow flaps and dog turds in the lane. It seems that we respond more to something that’s harder to put your finger on that’s found in abundance here. So often we spend our meals talking with another traveler and trying to gain their insight on Varanasi, on India, their home country and perhaps the world. Just this morning, we shared breakfast with a young woman from St Petersburg (Russia not Florida) who certainly did not tow the party line. Even though there are people growing concerned about Putin and his power, the question is why weren’t they concerned 17 years ago? He’s been around that long. She called him a thug. Another interesting conversation is with a young woman from Shanghai over our masala chai at the Boatman’s tea shop. Again she is far from typical; 31 and not married, and at this point has no intention of getting married. When Gerard asked what does the society think of unmarried women, she said, it’s completely unacceptable. And what do your parents think of you travelling alone in India? I told them I was in Asia! But what if they want to see a picture of where you are? I pretend that I didn’t hear them! Most upwardly mobile Chinese think India is one of the worst places to go, too dirty and dangerous. They would rather go to Europe or US. Gerard laughed, quoting statistics about gun ownership and violence in the US.


Our guesthouse is near a few small music schools where European students return every year to continue their learning of various practices of Indian classical music. Many of them coincide their visit with the Dhrupad Mela – as we do. Dhrupad is an ancient style of singing that needs to be studied for decades before it can be performed. Its progression is also very slow therefore many Indians and Westerners alike are not attracted to the style. But those who are drawn are very passionate about the music. For me, listening to Dhrupad is a bit like listening to Cecil Taylor, an extreme avant-garde jazz pianist. When I’m there I’m totally involved; if I’m listening to a record it’s harder to get into it.


This Mela is the only Dhrupad festival in India and has been sponsored by a very wealthy Varanasi family for the last 44 years who are dedicated to keeping this music alive. In a small restaurant around the corner from us, a few students, mostly about our age, gather for dinner and speculate on who will be performing that night. By the way, with no advance program, the music goes from 7 pm to 7 am each night, free admission. In the morning, the same group is sitting around discussing who they heard, and how late they managed to stay. We never made it much past midnight. But at the end of the four days, Gerard said that he was nearly saturated. But he’ll still be ready for the upcoming two-day festival!


We’re very happy to be able to meet up with our old friend, Frederic in Varanasi. We met in Himachal Pradesh six or seven years ago and have stayed in contact ever since. He’s a semi-professional photographer and has been documenting dancers at a Kathak school. He manages to find time to have a meal or two with us so we can catch up.

Gerard had the idea that this was going to be a quiet visit with plenty of time for writing. But how could that happen in this place where there’s so many interesting people to talk to! One evening, on our way down to Assi Ghat, and constantly being delayed by Gerard talking to people, Frederic said to me, “Does he also talk to trees?” Please, Frederic, don’t even suggest that! Coincidentally, when we first met Frederic, it was Gerard’s persistence that finally broke through his reserve. Well, maybe at our next destination we’ll get back to the writing.


Pilgrims and Buddhist Caves in Nashik

fullsizeoutput_2d3Several people we’d met during our travels had suggested we stop in Nashik on our way to Varanasi.  A welcome break to our 32-hour train journey.  Nashik has a bathing ghat where the Kumbh Mela is held every twelve years and in addition, Buddhist caves dating back from 1st century BC.


On the river Godavari, Nashik is one of the four locations of the Khumbh Mela – a Hindu gathering of holy men that occurs every three years. (ie.e. every 12 years in Nashik).  It’s attended by literally millions who come to bathe in the holy waters.



For the most part, Nashik is the usual noisy, polluted, concrete Indian city, but Premgit and Sandhya recommended a guest house near to the ghat that was much less hectic. I don’t think we would have found it on our own. The hotel was adequate and the staff couldn’t have been more helpful. In fact, we found everybody helpful from the rickshaw driver to the passerby.


The hotel even produced a map of the city with the major sites listed in English, although the town doesn’t see many Western tourists. We didn’t see a single one during our brief stay; Indian pilgrims aplenty.



The following morning we set off to see the caves in Pandoleni, 18 km out of town. The hotel manager recommended we take the bus which, along with other city buses, stopped at a traffic circle just outside the hotel every 15 minutes. Sounded simple and a lot cheaper than an auto rickshaw. But the bus signs were all in Marathi (the language of Maharashtra). A young man also waiting for a bus offered to help. There were plenty of buses, but almost an hour went by with no bus for Pandoleni. I was doubting the poor man’s ability to read buses even in his own language when finally one drew up. By this time others knew what we wanted and there was an outcry of “Pandoleni!” There was a stampede. We managed to push our way on, and stood for most of the 30-minute journey, squeezed in beside schoolgirls. After asking us all kinds of questions, they let us know where to get off.


It was hot by the time we arrived and our energy was lagging. Looking up the side of a steep hill, we saw the caves. Somehow I’d imagined we’d just get off the bus and walk straight into them. No such luck. Fortified by a cup of chai from a stall at the base, we started off. Thoughts of the Jain temple in Gujarat with its 3,500 steps loomed. On the way, we had our picture taken with the very friendly and enthusiastic people of Nashik, visiting the caves for the day.


We were relieved it didn’t take as long as we’d expected.  There were to 23 caves along a ridge, many with simple interiors for the monks, a stone bench for sleeping, nothing else. fullsizeoutput_2f5

Other caves had elaborate entrances with intricately carved Buddhas, still in astonishingly good condition considering they were over 2,000 years old. Unlike other monuments, the statues had not been defaced by the Moguls.



These caves weren’t as grand or extensive as the more famous caves of Ellora and Ajunta, but they were well worth the effort. And the lack of tourist commercialism and throng of visitors was refreshing, as was the air. All in all, it was a pleasant trip into the countryside, and we decided to fork out the rupees for a rickshaw for a more convenient ride back into town. Over a thali at a restaurant close to the hotel, Gerard edited his pictures.


Agonda Epilogue

Agonda may have changed but there are still interesting people to while away the time with. The elderly Indian couple staying at our guesthouse turned out to be not from Chandigarh but from Srinagar in Kashmir! Gerard chatted with the good-natured man and one morning he invited us to drink Kashmiri tea with him and his wife in the guesthouse loggia. With fond memories of the fragrant drink made with saffron and a special type of tea leaf we first drank in Kashmir, we readily agreed. We’re always happy when the Kashmiri merchants we meet in Goa and other tourist locations, invite us to have tea. But this tea surpassed any we’d drank before. His wife had brought the ingredients with her from Kashmir and brewed the tea in their room.


While we drank, he told us they’d come to Agonda for his health. Recently partially paralyzed by a couple of strokes, his doctor advised him to escape the brutal Kashmir winter. He told us stories of traveling quite extensively in India in his youth: once riding a pushbike from Srinagar to Leh and down to Chandigarh. Another time, he’d driven a car from the southernmost tip of India to Leh, taking three and a half months. His gracious Moslem wife appeared somber until her face broke into a radiant smile as we chatted. She understood more English than she spoke. Unlike her husband this was the first time she’d left Srinagar; she was accompanying him to prepare his doctor-prescribed meals. Every day, the pressure cooker hissed at lunchtime.

We’ve known beautiful Geeta, a shopkeeper, since our first visit to Agonda.  In 2013, we wrote the story of Geeta’s hard life in the blog entry,  While still young, she’d already had two husbands; the first left her after she gave birth to a girl, the second was murdered. Since then she’s married a boy from Manali in Himachal Pradesh who came to Goa as a waiter. They have a mischievous three-year-old boy, Nitu. Manu is a good father to both Nitu, and Laxmi, Geeta’s daughter. Many years ago, Geeta was befriended by an English woman. A generation older, Christina had brought up three girls alone and empathized with Geeta. Coming every year, she loves to spoil Nitu and Laxmi.


I found them all on the beach on Sunday afternoon, the children body surfing with the boards Christina had bought them. It was the first time I’d ever seen Geeta on the beach.

We first met Michael at our guesthouse two years ago and became friends, enjoying his sense of humor and sharp wit. A writer of poetry, he reads our blog quite critically, offering advice in particular to increase the humor. He returned again this year and for a few days, we overlapped.


We ate our last dinner together watching the sunset over the water, entertained by his own travel stories. As we said goodbye to Agonda and Michael, he said confidently, “You’ll be back…”

The last mention should be given to Janice from Canada who has been a diligent reader of the blog since we met three years in Agonda. After only one meeting, we’ve continued to stay in contact via the blog and FB.

fullsizeoutput_2b1After reading our last entry, she commented that she was back in Agonda and it would be nice to meet again. Recognizing our friends, Premgit and Sandhya, from their picture in the blog, she’d approached them in a restaurant saying, “I know you!” A day later, I found Janice in the same restaurant. We hugged, remarking how well we knew each other after just one other physical meeting several years ago! The power of social networking at its best.