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.

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