Orchha Times Five

After Varanasi, Orchha was an oasis of calm. The historic town has barely changed since we first visited in 2010, and the surrounding almost idyllic countryside remains undeveloped. Sitting on the banks of river Betwa, Orchha was once the capital of the Bundela Rajput kingdom, one of the largest and most powerful in Central India.

Founded in the 16th century, in its heyday its splendor rivaled any other fortified palace in India. Outside the main complex, the landscape is scattered with crumbling remains of residences, gardens, and chhatris (elaborate tombs for the dynasty). Many are in amazingly good condition, in part because Orchha seldom witnessed ferocious battles. The town reached its peak in the early 1880s and then fell into decline after Indian independence when it lost its city-state status.

The main temple in the middle of town was a beehive of activity, the lane between the temple and the walled market filled with vendors selling flowers and coconuts as temple offerings.

It took little imagination to visualize the very same activity going on hundreds of years ago. This is what has inspired us to return for a fifth time. There’s other lanes and courtyards here that have suffered little change in the last two hundred years. Gerard commented that originally he thought all of India would look like this town, scattered with ruins from the days of grandeur. Definitely not the case! Walking through the temple complex at lunchtime, we watched a couple feeding the poor with food, they’d obviously prepared at home.

It’s hard to believe Orchha has still not been discovered and exploited as a tourist destination. Tour groups arrive here not even for the day and are hustled through the main palace, shunted back on the bus, gone before the dust settles. There are a couple of upscale hotels in town, and a few more in the process of being built on the outskirts, but they don’t seem to attract a lot of business.

Returning for the third time to our guesthouse, Monarch Rama Palace, which sits on a quiet street, the garden planted three years ago with roses and shrubs is now coming into its own. The owner uses the illustrious title of ‘Dr.’ and although not seeming old enough, Ashish really is a doctor who practices in a local hospital. He has a no nonsense attitude that I like in doctors and on learning about my hearing, simply responded in his commanding tone, “Read lips!” Wish that it were so simple! While quieter here than Varanasi, it was still hard for me to hear due to constant ceiling fans and the inevitable street traffic in the background. It’s now clear I have to learn to read lips which so far I’ve found virtually impossible. If others can do it, surely I can. I fear the the older you are the harder it is.

We’ve befriended several vendors each from quite different backgrounds and with their own interesting views. There’s the young Kashmiri selling jewelry (some he designs) and shawls. Unfortunately, selling is a euphemism. He makes very little, if any, sales even though he comes for the season every year. He is well-educated, refined and articulate, speaking perfect English. This year, his new wife accompanied him and brought delicious Kashmiri tea to the shop. She had huge almond shaped eyes that she ringed with heavy kohl, making them even larger. At first she spoke very little but by the time our stay in Orchha drew to a close, she was warming to us. As is still typical in Kashmir, the marriage was arranged by their parents, they met only briefly before the engagement/marriage and I was impressed at her apparent devotion to him. He had a sad story about life in Kashmir today. Since we visited the beautiful country, twelve years ago, the conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir has continued to disrupt life. With a large number of highly educated people (our friend has a Masters in Mathematics, his wife, in Education), unemployment is at an astonishing 60%.

Our other acquaintance is a Hindu from Gujarat. He also sells jewelry and souvenirs and complained of a steep decline in sales. Both vendors speculated that the internet has something to do with it. But how can people buy without seeing and touching the real thing? Drinking chai in his shop (again his wife brought it to him twice a day), he expounded on his admiration for Modi and how he supported RSS, the militant Hindu organization that foresees an India free of all Moslems and Christians. He didn’t say so, but he would probably like Trump.

Our third ‘friend’ is an American woman in her early 70s who like Gerard left a small town in NH in the 60s and now divides her time between India and Spain. When we first met her, three years ago, she was taking a break from teaching in Mumbai and sitting in a gift shop surrounded by piles of books. I immediately started a conversation of authors and titles we liked. Patricia’s now retired and spends more time in Orchha, informally and somewhat haphazardly teaching young local children English. We asked her, “What happened to all those books?”
“They’re in storage until I can figure out what to do with them.”
“What are you reading now?””
“I’m mostly reading online.”
She gave me the link to the Gutenberg Free Press, a site where you can freely download books that are out of copyright, including the old classics and I’m enjoying rereading Jane Eyre!

The temperature kept rising, hovering close to 100F the day before we left. Fortunately, a dry heat. We had to get up early and make our forays into the countryside early in the morning. Oddly, the open meadows, dotted here and there with trees, reminded me of Devon. It is of course not as lush and green, but thanks to the Betwa River also not as dry and dusty as most of central India.

My favorite spot was beside a brook just outside of town. Sitting on a rock, next to the brook, we noticed a Sadhu getting ready for the day.


After a week in Orchha, we reluctantly left for Delhi on the early morning train, not relishing the same intense heat that would greet us in the city.

Varanasi: Back in my Good Graces

After saying there was less socialization this year, our last few days in Varanasi were anything but.

One evening, Karel and Krystyna invited us to visit them at the Krishnamurti Study Center, where they were staying. Described as a place for self exploration and learning, it’s situated beside the Ganges downstream from Varanasi. Compared with the busy ghats further upstream the Center is an oasis of calm. Cottages sit among a garden, overlooking the “quietly flowing” river.

Krishnamurti would stay here when he visited Varanasi. Born in South India, Krishnamurti was adopted as a boy and groomed by Annie Besant, to become head of the Theosophical Society, founded by Madame Blavatsky back in 1875 in New York. But he renounced Theosophy and belonging to no religious organization spoke personally about spirituality and the problems of living in the modern world advising, ‘we tread lightly on the earth without destroying ourselves or the environment.’ I was attracted to him back in the ’70s.

After sitting through an hour long video of a talk on the power of the mind, we were invited to dinner at the house of Suresh, one of the Indian staff, along with Karel and Kryztyna. An Irishman around our age we met a year ago also joined us for dinner. For the last 20 years, he’s spent a month each year at the Center.With a strong Irish brogue and humor, he loves to tell stories. Informed of my hearing problem, he interrupted with, “Well, dear, that’s no loss.You’re not missing anything!” In the family’s tiny dining room, we were served one course after another.We only saw Suresh’s wife after everybody had been well fed and she stopped cooking. Only downside of the evening was the long rickshaw ride there and back amidst the congestion and pollution of Varanasi streets. Staying on the ghats, we manage to avoid this for most of the time.

On Helene and Remy’s last day in Varanasi, we arrived at Shree Cafe for lunch, and were ushered upstairs where Santosh and family live and there’s a few guestrooms. We were included in the farewell lunch his wife Seema was preparing for Helene and Remy who’ve been staying here for many years and became part of the household. Restaurant meals have little comparison to home cooking. You’re served dishes you never find on a menu. The food is fresh and well-cooked at Shree (Because Santosh is a Brahmin he’s compelled to give the daily leftovers to the cows. Not the practice in most restaurants). But the meal Seema prepared still surpassed anything we’d eaten downstairs.

And this wasn’t the end of the good eating. As chance would have it, on our way to visit Rajesh at his bangle shop in the bazaar, Gerard stopped at a clothing store looking for a shirt. It was a shop that catered to Indians, not the tourist trade. The portly middle aged owner greeted us warmly and served tea. He didn’t have the pure cotton shirt Gerard wanted but assured us he could get the material, dye it to the desired color and have his factory make it. Indian salespeople will promise anything but we thought we’d give it a go. Then he invited us for dinner. Two days later, we arrived back at his shop, expecting to pick up the shirts as promised and go to his home to eat. The shirts weren’t ready and he wasn’t there…. we waited. After a phone call, the shop assistant said, “Follow me.” There’s no way of knowing how these encounters will turn out but we had a good feeling. Off we went in a rickshaw through the busy streets. Fifteen minutes later, getting down in a residential area, our host was waiting at his house, a large multi-story building. He showed us his workshop on the ground floor, hotel rooms above (but with no guests). “Next time, you must stay here!” Then he pulled out a harmonium and began playing for us. Time’s going by, I’m hungry. Where’s the dinner?

Just when I was wondering–he stopped playing, led us up to the third floor, and ushered us into his home. Wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen, we sat down and the food came out, one delicious dish after another. Again, his wife, Lakshmi, served us until we’d had our fill–and more. Finally, she joined us, as jolly as her husband. His 85 year old mother hobbled out on a walker giving us a big toothless smile. Soon it was as if we were old friends. Photographs, gifts, promises to return next year, and we were in a rickshaw on the way back to our hotel. It was one of those chance meetings that turn into something special.

We first met Uschi six or seven years ago in Shree Cafe, but had not connected for several years.She is often away from Varanasi hosting westerners on sightseeing tours or yoga retreats. But this year, she returned home before we left and invited us to visit her and Varun, her five year old son, at Assi Ghat. After so long we needed to reconnect–and we did, despite the street noise coming in through the open window.

Her colorful apartment was filled with toys, musical instruments, books and the obvious love she had for Varun. It was the kind of home I’d have liked growing up! Over chai, we filled each other in with what was going on. By the time we left, I felt like she was a sister.

Just before we moved on to Orcha there was one more surprise. On our last night, coming back through the lane, we caught sight of Martyn and his family sitting in the chai shop. We first met them in Darjeeling six years ago.

There they were again, Martyn, Lilach and two boys, Noam and Ohad; their familiar smiles, the children grown. They’re staying in India for a year, home schooling the kids all the way. We had the time the following morning to have breakfast together and listen to each other’s travel plans.

Noam and Ohad were extremely engaging and charming for being so young; and obviously feel secure, tripping around the world.

Our stay in Varanasi this year did not begin well for me but I”m glad to say it ended on a different note. I was losing rupees, failing to count my change, stumbling on the ghat, missing out on the music and the socializing. I’d had enough of naked sadhus, ringing of bells, and beggars. All a reflection of my state of mind, no doubt. It was simple…I had to drop the negative ways and pay more attention.

This became my focus…just dealing with what was in front of me. And things began to shift. Instead of seeing the ghat as an obstacle course, I was touched by the peace and beauty of the river.

I felt the genuine warmth of the sadhus waving and and beckoning me to join them…and I’m grateful to have friends in Varanasi.

In all its intensity, I realized I love this amazing city. In a moment, the stench of sewage can change to the sweet fragrance of incense, barking dogs turn into mosque calls, and the rising sun transform Varanasi to gold. It is a city of extremes and constant change.

The Face of Varanasi Undergoing Change

Early one morning, we met Santosh, his sister Rani and our French friends, Helene and Remy, all with our cameras.

We followed Santosh along the ghats and back through the winding lanes of the city, stopping for chai along the way.

It was a beautiful morning, still cool and fresh. This year, the air in Varanasi has been unusually clear, the polluted Ganges deceptively blue. Santosh has an excellent eye and even after living here his whole life, he still finds what is unique in Varanasi. He’s quite aggressive giving Gerard the courage to go closer.

Finally a real sadhu.

This year, the big surprise was seeing firsthand the demolition starting around the Golden Temple, making its way to the Burning Ghat. It looked like a war zone. Gerard asked a man standing beside him with an expression of horror on his face, “How are they going to remove all the rubble?” He replied, “Ask Modi. Modi, Modi everybody says. But to me he’s foolish Modi.” The ironic plan is to give a clear line of sight from the ghat to the Golden Temple. But the Temple sits too low to be seen from the ghat! Dissenters of the project say either the Ganges has to be lifted, or the temple has to be lifted. Right now the line of sight is to a large mosque! Like in most countries, the public are like sheep, they just follow and never ask questions.

Gerard has asked several locals what they think of the “beautification program” as Modi calls it, and only one spoke favorably. He echoed Modi’s line that the little temples currently hidden way inside houses will all become visible. At the other extreme, a shopkeeper says it’s the beginning of the end of Varanasi. From being such a historic city, it will become yet another concrete and steel modern monstrosity. A particularly depressing opinion. Everyone in between say it’s a huge waste of the money that could have been used in so many other constructive ways…cleaning the river, putting in a sewage treatment plan, repairing the ghat…and so on.

There’s been less socializing this year in part due to my hearing loss and in part because Gerard caught the heavy cold that is circulating and which spread to his chest precipitating a hacking cough. We visited one of our friendly pharmacists who listened to Gerard’s chest and at our request gave him some heavy duty codeine cough mixture, supposedly now only available with prescription. Twenty four hours later, he was feeling much better.

We missed an evening boat ride with Santosh and family. A new addition to the family is a large but gentle and quiet German Shepherd. Having a pet dog is becoming a trend among the middle class, but it seems strange to us. Keeping a dog housebound, only walking him twice a day, fighting off the stray dogs. What a contrast, these house pets are to the roaming street dogs, living on whatever they can find.

The family set out before sunset and watched the Arti ceremony from the water along with hundred of other little boats. The Arti performed nightly on the ghat is a major event for pilgrims, and also visiting tourists.

Now in our last week here, as fascinating as the city still is, I find it difficult. Just this morning, we met an interesting couple from Canada; I really wanted to talk with her but because of the background noise it was impossible. I have the same problem in Boston but it just seems all the more pronounced here. In our room at the guesthouse, it’s easier.

I make the effort to go out at sunrise because the city is at its calmest. Cool and mystical in the early morning light it’s perhaps the best time to be on the ghat. Locals and pilgrims bathing, sweepers already cleaning away the previous days refuse.

Same Same but this Time Different

The reason why Varanasi is so crowded soon became apparent. Kumbh Mela, the major Hindu annual festival where pilgrims and Sadhus gather to bathe in a holy river, had just wound up in nearby Allahabad. It takes place in Allahabad once every six years and many of the sadhus traditionally come over to Varanasi afterwards. We were here the last time, but this year the number of sadhus camping out on the ghats has swelled.

I have never seen so many squeezed together; it’s a virtual tent city, each with its eternal fire. At least half of them are naked Nagar sadhus, supposedly besmeared with the ash from burned corpses. Without being cynical I think a large percentage of them are enjoying the opportunity to hang out.

They smoke chillums, message on their cell phones and wave as I pass.

Most of them stay to celebrate Holi, the festival of color, in two weeks.

Gerard’s enjoying the four-night Dhrupad Mela concert. It’s a particularly old style of classical singing which was developed in the Mogul court centuries ago.

I’m taking a pass this year because of the hearing loss. Feeling strange to be alone at night, I sit on a ghat near our guesthouse, watching people passing. Naked sadhus, street dogs, children playing. A few boats still gliding by silently in the dark.

I’m often asked, why don’t you wear a hearing aid. In the same way, our kind hotel manager says, go to the concert and just sit nearer the stage where the sound will be louder. But that’s not helpful for me. It’s not just an issue of volume but clarity. Voices, music etc are distorted and the more the amplification the greater the distortion. My unique hearing loss has resulted in low word recognition, which is why hearing aids were not helpful.

Varanasi is demanding. Navigating the crowded lanes, keeping my balance on the uneven ghats takes a huge amount of attention. There is so much to distract in Varanasi. It’s never been my forte to stay focused but now the consequences of losing focus can have repercussions. At the beach, the roar of the ocean waves made it hard to hear human voices; in Varanasi, a continual high level of background noise eliminates all hope of conversation, on the street or in restaurants that are open to the street.

But the friends we return to each year in Varanasi greet me warmly: Remy and Helene from France, the group of music lovers who come every year for Druphad Mela, Santosh and his family at Shree Cafe, the smiling curd seller who sits in a perfect full lotus, the owners of the many little pharmacies, who act as doctors and have treated us for a variety of ailments over the years…and so on. All are familiar, and make returning to Varanasi feel connected in my hearing impaired state.

So many things never change…..but we are shocked at some significant changes, supposedly in the name of progress. First, at night, the ancient buildings on the ghats are now lit up – not a bad thing but they keepp changing color. The visiting ‘sadhus’ like flashing colored lights as well, giving the interior of their tent the atmosphere of a disco. Suddenly rather than peaceful, the ghats have become a techno carnival at night.

The other more disturbing change is the demolition of over 300 houses in the oldest part of the city. Prime Minister Modi and the financial machine behind the Golden Temple came up with this hair brained idea of an open space from the Temple to the burning Ghat. Varanasi being one of the oldest living cities in the world,we find it extremely disturbing to see such destruction under the guise of modernity. Difference of opinion fall along generation lines: anybody under 35 thinks it’s a good idea, while the rest see it as politics and money once again winning the day. We’re further horrified to hear that this is only Phase One of three possible phases of destruction of the old city. The best hope for preventing this is that Modi and his government will not be reelected in the upcoming election.

Footnote from Shiroda: The snakes on the beach reportedly come from the fishermen. The snakes get caught in their nets far out at sea. when the fishermen empty their nets they throw the snakes on to the beach. Some manage to get back into the water, others suffocate. Although this explanation seems simplistic, usually we saw the snakes near the fishing boats giving this theory credibility. Gerard is not fully convinced.

Last days in Shiroda

Our last few days at the beach were marred for Gerard by the appearance of not one, but a total of six snakes near the edge of the water, either dead or just hanging on to life. To top it all, a particularly large black one, managed to slither back into the water very much alive. Despite his horror of snakes, Gerard was big enough to still come swimming with me but he wasn’t too relaxed about it. I knew he would have preferred to back in our room writing.

Our friends from Prague almost didn’t come because Kryztina has an even bigger fear of snakes than Gerard. She’d seen the picture of a snake lying on the sand in our last blog entry and said, “That’s it! We’ll see them in Varanasi.”

But Karel managed to persuade her and they made the four-hour journey from Agonda to visit us for a day and a half. Karel loved Shiroda but for Kryztina it was a little too quiet and primitive. She still enjoys the social activity of Agonda.

On Sunday, we had our last swim. An unusually large crowd of young men were clowning in the water, played cricket on the sand. A group insisted on taking pictures with us and for a laugh persuaded Gerard to put on a pair of outsize blue sunglasses. Not Gerard’s style! In a society where men and woman grow up largely apart, even after marriage, they appear to prefer their own sex for company. Of course, this is a huge generalization.

Early on Monday morning, our three weeks were up and it was time to make the long trek to the airport with car and driver to fly to Varanasi. While we were eating breakfast on the porch, Martin’s wife and daughter, Pearl, arrived from Mumbai. They’d come on the overnight bus for the weekend and seemed amazingly fresh. After hearing Martin talk about his family, it was good to put a face to their names. It was hard parting from Martin. Sad to be leaving, and already missing his fine cooking, I mentioned that we needed him to come with us and continue making our meals.. Martin laughed and said his wife had already made the same comment!

After a long day of dealing with airports (we flew to Delhi, then connected a couple of hours later for a second flight), we arrived in Varanasi. It was like flying into Delhi on our first visit to India 40 years ago. Arriving after dark we disembarked on the tarmac and walked several hundred yards to the terminal. The smell of India hit us…smoky, earthy, tinged with incense. Uniquely India. With some hassle, we found a taxi and bargained the driver down to a reasonable price but not fully confident that he knew where he was going. Then driving deeper into the heart of Varanasi, we hit the traffic – a huge crush of large cars, rickshaws, motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians, not to mention the odd cow. At times, hemmed in by vehicles we were unable to move at all. As we got nearer the Ghats, the main road was completely shut off for vehicles and we had to weave through narrow back streets, the driver continually stopping and ask directions. Finally, almost two hours later, we reached our destination, walking through the door to see our friendly guesthouse manager, Sanjeev, and his perpetual smile. Gerard said, “We are never coming in from the airport again.”