Nothing stays the same – even in Ancient Varanasi

Over our eleven years visiting Varanasi we’ve talked about change…slow, subtle changes in the ancient city and its people. Changes also that may be merely our own shifting perception. But this year, change is tangible and undeniable. At first impression the lanes and ghats were less crowded and cleaner. Tourism is down. Hotel managers and restaurant owners tell us business has declined by as much as 60%.

In addition to people, there’s far less cows and stray dogs in the lanes, meaning they’re cleaner. When we asked friends, they told us the animals were rounded up last fall and hauled out of the city. It’s part of Prime Minister Modi’s ‘clean up Varanasi’ campaign. Maybe the next initiative will include eliminating the speeding motorcycles with their ear-piercing horns, in the narrow lanes? The disappearance of the water buffalo on the ghat is also obvious. We’re told that most of them were owned by the Moslems.

There have been repairs made on the ghat, the first time in our memory. But most unsettling is the destruction around the Golden Temple; 340 buildings have already been torn down. Modi wants to clear space around the temple and make a corridor leading to the Burning Ghat. From our perspective the scheme is flawed from the start. Why take the oldest living city in the world and tear it apart? The lanes are now blocked from one end of the old city to the river by the bulldozing.

With Narenda Modi’s re-election as Prime Minister, he appears in his actions to be emboldened and particularly toward minorities. Gerard has asked numerous people for their opinion of not only the destruction around the Golden Temple, but Modi’s policies in general. The vast majority support the Prime Minister, and think it’s time to take a hard line on the troublemakers, namely, the Moslems. We have no idea if this is the national sentiment, but it appears to be here in Varanasi, Modi’s adopted city. Some of Central Government’s tactics in this, the largest democracy in the world, we find disturbing.

The day we arrived, we went over to visit our friend Santosh, who runs a restaurant and met up with our long time French friends there. I was just in time to accompany Santosh and family on a customary afternoon walk. Along the ghat there were frequent stops for chai, pizza and other treats, even though the food in his restaurant is the best in town! A few days later, we took an early morning walk up the ghat and back through the old city – or what’s left of it. Santosh treated us to a traditional winter drink – bright yellow and fragrant, the sweetened milk is whipped into a frothy concoction and served in clay pots

Our time here coincided with Shivratri (Shiva’s birthday) and Dhrupad Mela, a classical Indian music festival which goes into the early morning hours. Gerard attended all three nights but didn’t make it beyond midnight. I joined him twice and even though I couldn’t hear all the music, enjoyed the ambience.

On the last night, rain was forecast. Sure enough, the music had hardly begun when a sudden downpour caused everyone to move toward the stage and into the center away from the leaking edges of the tent. The sound system and lights sputtered but the musicians continued playing without interruption. Fortunately the tent held up better than a few years earlier, when a similar downpour drove away all but the most dedicated in the audience.

Again, we’ve met up with old friends and made a few new ones. Peter who we first met in HP visited with his partner Veronique for a few days. Tired of traveling, Peter has now settled in Auroville.

A surprise meeting was with Darcy, introduced to us by mutual friends from back home. Darcy came to Varanasi to practice yoga with a group. She lives just outside Boston and we enjoyed making the new connection.

Darcy finding us at Dhrupad Mela

Gerard enjoys sitting in the foyer of our hotel to chat with Sanjiv, a friend since he first became hotel manager nine years ago (we’ve been coming here longer). While there, he invariably meets other guests including an interesting young woman from Serbia coming here alone to practice her photography. Tomorrow, our friends Sandhya and Premgit, from the edge of Dartmoor, are arriving.

Caves — but not as many as we thought

Our carefree month at the beach ended with a momentary downturn: the night before we left Gokarna Gerard came down with what must have been food poisoning. Alone, I said goodbye to our friends at breakfast the next morning and we set off for the short train ride to Madgaon. Gerard slept the remainder of the day away while I found a pure veg restaurant with remarkably good masala chai. We’d decided to fly to make the long trip to Aurangabad less arduous. However, this is India. The trains rarely run on schedule; why would we think domestic flights would be any different? Two short flights on twin engine props, but a long tedious day of delayed connecting flights and more time sitting in airports than on planes.

Aurangabad was named after the infamous Mogul Emperor, Aurangzeb, one of whose cruelest act was to imprison his father, Shah Jahan, in full sight of the Taj Mahal he (Jahan) had built in honor of his wife. In captivity, Jahan was forced daily to look out on his creation. Another busy Indian city, the only reason for coming here was because of its proximity to the caves of Ellora and Ajanta. Nine years ago, we were so impressed, we decided to make another visit this year.

Our first day, Gerard had recuperated enough to visit nearby Ellora. We shared a taxi with a jovial Frenchman, our age, who spoke virtually no English. The taxi dropped us at the caves early in the morning and waited until the evening to bring us back. Once again, we were awestruck at the long line of caves carved into the cliff.

Over 600 years, between the 5th and 11th Cs AD, both Hindus and Buddhists carved a total of 34 caves out of the rock face. Sitting close to one another, they illustrate the religious harmony that existed in ancient India. One wishes that was still true today.

Most impressive is a massive complex: Kailasha is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. It’s said to have taken ten generations to complete and includes a large pillared hall, antechambers, and gigantic sculptures of Hindu deities. Wall panels depict Hindu mythologies: in particular, the two major epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Though the stone sculptures and decorations have worn away over the centuries, they are still impressive.

Most of the Buddhist caves are multi-story monasteries with massive carved Buddhas. The largest is the three-story ‘Vishvakarma or ‘Carpenter’s Cave’ so-called because the rock has been given a finish that looks like wooden beams.

You enter a facade decorated with meditating monks, then up a flight of steps to a cathedral-like prayer hall. Its vaulted roof is carved with wooden like ribs. At the far end, a colossal fifteen-foot Buddha sitting in preaching pose took my breath away. The Buddha’s presence was tangible.

Either side are Bodhisattvas and Buddhist goddesses seated on lotus thrones. Seeing all this antiquity in its original location can’t compare to visiting a museum assembled with similar artifacts. Here, you are immersed in what was a great period in history. As we looked at these ancient works of art, the term ‘carved in stone’ came to mind, but even stone is subject to decay.

The following day, we were looking forward to returning to Ajanta where the design and decoration of the Buddhist caves are even more amazing than that of Ellora. Normally, a three-hour bus ride away from the city, we were warned that the road is torn up under reconstruction and the ride could be now close to five hours. Gerard, still not fully recovered, the thought of the bumpy ride on a crowded local bus would be too much. So reluctantly, we canceled our plans, reassuring ourselves that, God willing, we can return next year to visit Ajanta. when the new road should be completed.

What to do instead? Aurangabad offers little of historic interest, except a mini Taj Mahal built in 1660.

Commissioned by Aurangzeb in memory of his own wife, the Bibi Ka Maqbara, is smaller and much less imposing than the Taj Mahal, but still bears some resemblance with its once formal gardens and waterways. No surprise, the same architect was commissioned to design both.

Our next stop had less impact except for its surroundings. The Soneri Mahal sits on the outskirts of the city. The ‘palace’ was decorated in gold giving its present name; Soneri meaning cloth of gold. Today, it is a cream-painted nondescript looking building with a mediocre museum of pottery, sculptures and kitchen utensils. But sitting in open countryside, against a backdrop of hills it was a pleasant place for a short visit. Away from the hubbub, we immediately felt refreshed by the tranquility.

The following day, we took our last domestic flight to Varanasi on time and with no problem. From now on, we’re back to traveling via trains and buses.

Lots of Friends and Longer walks

Our friend Odella, arrived four days ago, fresh from NYC. She didn’t take long to adjust. Tall and poised, she towers over the short South Indians. Finding her own way around and uninhibited in asking people what they were eating, where she could find a good cup of coffee, is there a good yoga class etc. she quickly showed her independence. She’s been to India a couple of times before but not traveled extensively. Our connection with her is through Lewis, her husband and old friend ours. A jazz musician and professor at Rutgers University, we only see them when Lewis gets a music gig in Boston.

Our German friends, Marion and Jorgen, love to walk and persuaded us to visit the neighboring beach, Kudle. A pleasant walk through the jungle. The beach is picturesque and reminded Gerard of Greece in the late ’60s.

A few days later, we were enticed to take a more adventurous hike to Half Moon Beach and beyond. It was more strenuous but a beautiful walk through the jungle. Half Moon Beach is only accessible by foot, keeping it an unspoiled and secluded cove. Hot and sweaty we dove immediately in the water, followed by chai at a single chai shop.

Moving on to the second destination, Paradise Beach, was nothing short of treacherous. Climbing over the jagged rocks along the water’s edge made Gerard nervous. I focused on where I placed each foot, I made it without incident. Good for the attention! Paradise Beach did not live up to its name – a scruffy beach with coarse sand, a hangout of modern-day, young hippies. Exhausted from our rock climbing we collapsed on the sand and were soon joined by stray dogs.

The long walk was not finished; we still had to get to the neighboring town through more jungle and rice paddies to catch the next bus to Gorkana. On the ride back, Marion asked, if we had known what the route had in store, would we have agreed to come. Gerard admitted he wouldn’t have minded missing the climb over the rocks to Paradise Beach, but loved Half Moon Beach.

After such a long and treacherous hike we should have known better, but we agreed to hike with them again, down to the end of the beach and take a bus back.

For the first time since we arrived in Gokarna, the sun was hidden behind clouds. The few beach huts and restaurants dwindled until all we could see at the edge of the beach was palm trees and tropical undergrowth. Passing fishermen preparing their boats, we suddenly came across a beautiful young Indian bride being photographed. No sign of the groom!

The beach was a good 6 km long and then we had to weave our way through lanes and beside fields to the bus stop – another couple of km.

A week ago, our Swiss friend, ‘six meter ‘ Peter and his Polish wife, arrived from Goa to visit us for three days. Peter is a professional violinist and has spent the winters in a rented house in Agonda for many years, practicing most of the day and performing at night gigs up and down the coast of Goa. He decided not to bring his violin to Gokarna but is clearly lost without it. At breakfast, his restless fingers repetitively drum the table. We’ll see him again in August when he attends a summer course at Berkeley.

A couple from Australia that we met in Darjeeling seven years ago are back in India, traveling for a year. Last night, they caught up with us here in Gokarna before we move on. We hope to see them again in the mountains.

One of the many things we find attractive about Gokarna is, there’s a significant older population here. Generally, they are people who’ve been traveling for decades, so we have a lot in common. We can spend too much time reminiscing what the world was like back in the ’60s, but it’s still more interesting than talking about Trump and Modi. The oldest we’ve met is an 86 year old woman from Scotland who is staying on the ground floor of our guesthouse. She’s beautiful and walks to the beach each day with a stick. Young and old, there’s always interesting people to meet: a young Frenchman using only analog camera equipment; a young girl who illustrates her own postcards and on hearing that I was from Totnes in Devon, leapt up and hugged me (her family live there); and Bernard from Geneva who likes Miles Davis!

As mentioned before, Gokarna is a temple town. This weekend is one of many Hindu festivals. Which one? Who could keep track? The town is swarming with men wearing white cotton lungis and carrying offerings to the temple. One night leading up to the festival there was chanting, first by women, then by men, all night long. The din vibrates in my head. making hearing even harder. But if it wasn’t for the temples, the town would be overrun by beachgoers.