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.

10 thoughts on “Nothing stays the same – even in Ancient Varanasi

  1. Hi Roberta, Can I get your recommendation on your favorite hotels in Varanasi? I’ve stayed at two different places and both weren’t too great!

    Carry on, have fun, Cindy

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  2. Dear Gerard and Bobby, Thanks so much for your latest installment of “a small case across India.” It’s good to see you back in Varanasi again. I do have to share with you that I happened to be watching P.B.S. (channel 2) in Boston about ten days ago, and there was a documentary on India which was presented by a British woman named Perkins (presumably no relationship to Russell Perkins and family). In any event, Ms. Perkins was in Varanasi, and her perspective was drastically different from yours. She happened to be there at the time of a Kumba Mehla (a large Hindu religious celebration – and I know that Master Kirpal Singh once attended this event at the request of his Hindu disciples), and her presentation of the pageantry was very engaging. Nonetheless her tolerance for the conditions in India was definitely less than yours. She kept exclaiming that, despite the beauty of the spiritual/religious celebration, “This place STINKS! LITERALLY!” She presented an Indian scientist who did an analysis of the holy river Ganges which determined that it is quite the equivalent of an open sewer – and yet hundreds and hundreds of spiritual pilgrims were seen bathing in the water. Ms. Perkins rhetorically asked, “How can they do this?” She further exclaimed, “This place is going to make me ill!” Let me add that her pictures were not as beautiful as yours. P.B.S. would have done much better to have the two of you do a documentary on Varanasi, although I suspect you have little or no interest in doing such a thing. You are missing the warmest winter in the Boston area that I can recall. It is going to be a very early spring. There is virtually no snow on the ground at all right now. I look forward to seeing both of you upon your return. Enjoy your remaining time in India, and I will look forward to the next installment of a small case across India. With all love and best wishes, – Richard N. Shulik

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  3. Oh vey!!!

    James and I were talking about going to Varanasi in the near future, but, alas, it seems we are too late! I can philosophize about Maya, etc. but still it is hugely disappointing.

    When I read your blogs it is evident how important meeting and friending with kindred spirits is for both of you and how much it flavors your life. In this way, I think India is much more enlivening for you than here in the USofA, at least so it sometimes seems to me.

    I noticed the surviving Gundecha brother in your photos. Strange, how they rose so immensely in my pantheon. I hope the concerts were inspiring.

    We are now on the road trip home, presently in Savannah. Maybe I will send some pix.

    So so sad the direction of much of the world these days. Ah, lessons!

    Blessings,

    Michael

    Sent from my iPad

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  4. P.S. Muriel says that she thinks your communications with these friends continue extensively even when you are not in India.

    Sent from my iPad

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  5. I’m amazed by how many beautiful people and places are home for you both. You’re my version of Indiana Jones adventurous jivas!
    Wonderful 🙏🥰😘💫✌🏽💕🌟🌟
    I’m going to pay more attention to the progress being made as India’s leader transforms Varasi,and other old cities of this region. 😘😘

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  6. I just love reading your posts and delighting in the descriptions and Gerard’s photos. Just beautiful. Miss you both. Janet arrives Wednesday night for a week…can’t wait!!
    😍😍

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  7. how wonderful to see so many friends in your travels. Sorry to see the destruction of so many old structures cannot imagine how devastating that is. Looks like rubble from a war zone. But the music festival sounds wonderful. I took Leigh to the airport this evening, so he is with family for the next 3+ weeks. It will be very good for him I think.

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