Another Festival in Vashisht

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Last year, we asked for an electric fire in the guest house. Now, we’re peeling off layers, wishing we hadn’t left our summer clothes in Delhi. The temperatures are unusually warm and the snow is rapidly melting, but still spectacularly beautiful here. Apple trees in bloom, wisteria, irises popping up everywhere. Kullu Valley is now much narrower than in Naggar, and the mountains higher. The craggy peaks seem to be within one’s reach.

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Compared with Naggar, Vashisht is a hustle and bustle of activity. Our timing was perfect to catch the religious festival again this year.  It was in full swing. Each village has its own god or goddess loosely translated into patron saint, but not really. During this festival, a few of the neighboring villages brought their deity to Vashisht to celebrate…we’re not sure what.

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Off and on, for the three days, one of the goddesses would be taken out and paraded through Vashisht, accompanied by horns and drums. In the evening there was line dancing (reminding us of the Berber dancing in the Atlas Mountains) and games including musical chairs and blind man’s bluff. (Did the British bring these games, or did they pick them up from here?) The last evening, the musicians played without a break for hours. I don’t know if the dancers were in a trance, but I think the musicians were.

The day after the festival the town returned its sleepy weekday routine. On the weekend, the Indian tourists will arrive in increasingly large numbers, now the temperatures are soaring well over 100F in Delhi.

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Our first walk out of town to a huge waterfall, we bumped into two women we kept running into in Naggar. They live in Vrindavan, where Krishna is said to have spent his childhood years. One is from the US, the other Leeds, England, and they’ve been in India for the past 17 years. It wasn’t immediately obvious, but when directly questioned, they’re Hari Krishna’s. We all thought it was a happy coincidence to meet each other again and they invited us to come to Vrindavan – one destination Gerard’s been contemplating for some time but for one reason or another, maybe because of the lack of accommodation, we haven’t included in our itinerary yet. They assured us of lodging and would be more than happy to show us all of the hidden temples that Vrindavan is known for. The two women had an aura of joy and contentment that was very obvious and we thoroughly enjoyed hearing their stories.

We also ran into for the second time an American our age, who has lived outside of the US for over 20 years. He’s also followed a spiritual path for more than 40 years and we found we have a lot in common. Peter now spends the winter in Auroville (the natural farming community associated with Sri Aurobindo) outside Pondicherry and comes to Vashisht for the summer.  Gerard was impressed that he’s able to live reasonably well in India on his social security check!

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One early morning, Peter led us on a new walk over to a neighboring village on the other side of the Beas river.

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Every twist and turn walking down the path, there’s a new vista. These mountains seem to be in constant flux without ever losing their presence. As Paul Brunton says in A Hermit in the Himalayas, “The fascination of finding nature in her wildest and grandest form never ceases. As an ancient Sanskrit poet says, ‘In a hundred ages of gods I cannot tell you of all the glories of the Himalayas.’ Whatever one says about it, will never be an exaggeration.”

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Crossing the Beas on a rickety footbridge, we reached the old wooden houses, with decoratively painted doors.

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Down the river valley, through apple orchards, we came to Old Manali, which we had considered as an alternative to Vashisht. But after seeing the chillum smoking, chilled out crowd and all of the cheap knick-knack shops, Vashisht seems the best alternative.

Like our previous two destinations in Himachal Pradesh, this year has been a repeat of the last. It’s often said that you can never return, and with that in mind both of us had some reservation. But fortunately, in this case, we could return. Each stay was a continuation and expansion of the year before. Not to mention meeting up with old acquaintances, each village had more to reveal to us. This past month in HP has been a highlight of our four months in India and even though we’ve missed early spring in Boston, springtime in the Himalayas is also a beautiful season. Tomorrow, we will have to reluctantly pack our bags and return to Delhi with a final farewell to our family there.

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Folklore and Kath-Kuni in Naggar

Moving on to Naggar could have involved three buses and all that entails, but we opted for the luxury of a car and driver. Sapana from the restaurant decided to accompany us; she had never been to Nagar before. Following the Beas river through the Kullu Valley is never boring, and we made a quick stop to walk across an old suspension bridge to a village on the other side of the river.

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When we arrived in Naggar, the father and two-daughter team at Sharma Dhaba warmly greeted us. Like Sapana they serve up delicious but simple food, made to order.

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Since it’s early days for the tourist season, we had no trouble booking the same room we had a year ago with its view of the mountains. We woke the following morning, with the rising sun shining on the snow-capped peaks. Our memory and photographs can’t do it justice.

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Our first day, we walked through the apple orchards to the Krishna temple, high on the hillside.

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In fact, any walk here involves climbing — the town itself is perched high above the valley. There’s more than one temple buried in the forest, some associated with sadhus with mystical powers. Himachal Pradesh and Kullu Valley, in particular, is steeped in folklore. Our landlord, Sumit, says that there was a sadhu who lived where one of these temples is now located.

DSC_1230When questioned by visitors how he kept so clean, no available water in this location, he replied that he went to Manikaran every morning to bathe in the hot springs. This village is in the Parvati Valley, maybe 50 miles away as the bird flies. The sadhu’s visitor said, “How is this possible? The reply was, “Very simple, I just wish it.” Sumit continued, “Naggar supposedly has three or four “portals” to a different dimension. The sadhu was accessing one of these portals.” Sumit, in his early 30s, comes from an educated, well-off local family. Not someone who you would initially expect to be telling such stories, making it all the more interesting.

Nicolai Roerich, the Russian seeker, explorer, philosopher and painter made his home here for many years at the beginning of the 20th C. His pictures reflect the magic that can be found in these mountains. His home is now a small museum with a collection of his paintings that we visit whenever we’re here. Some say he settled in Naggar after hearing such tales of the sadhus.

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On another occasion, talking to Sumit about the different types of trees in the forest, Gerard asked him about a peculiar looking evergreen. First off it’s enormous, but most importantly it flattens out like an umbrella at the top. Sumit said. “It’s just another devdar (tree of the gods), but as you know that one is on the temple grounds where our local goddess resides. The legend is that she receives her energy directly from the heavens that, pouring down from above, flattens out the top of the tree.

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At night, full moon shining on the snow-capped mountains. Silence – no barking dog, no mosque call, no car horn, not even a distant train whistle. A stillness that we have not found anywhere else we’ve traveled in India. Before dawn, the birds begin to sing softly, then swelling into full chorus. The moon sinks behind the mountains. I think I understand why both Hindu sadhus and Buddhist monks are so attracted to the mountains to do their practices.

It was recommended that we should visit a neighboring village, Ramsu, just up the road. Since the road runs along the edge of another valley, Gerard had in mind that it would be an easy hike. We were told where to turn off the road, to a footpath. Trouble is the footpath went up at a 30-degree angle and Gerard noticed houses on the top of a small mountain. This can’t possibly be where we’re going!

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After nearly two hours plodding up, we finally staggered into the village that was mostly comprised of the old “Kath Kuni” style buildings i.e. combination of wooden beams and stones; livestock underneath, people next floor up. Once there, it was well worth the hike, providing Gerard didn’t spend much time thinking about the walk down…

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Another village, recommend to visit was Jana, only 13 km away and reachable by one bus, leaving early morning and returning mid-afternoon. Jana’s primary attraction is two waterfalls pouring out of the top of the mountain. The bus ride, winding up the mountainside was not only spectacular but also a little hair raising. When I looked out the window, there was nothing in sight except a sheer drop. Exactly where is the road beneath this bus?

Reaching the bus stand, which was only a collection of shacks and unfinished rooms for rent, the waterfalls were still another two km up the road…and there we’d find food. Breakfast was chapati, rice pudding, and very sweet chai, right next to a waterfall. What more could you ask for?

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By midday we were back in the village, which sat below the bus stand, marveling again at the old architecture.

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No one seemed to mind us wandering through the lanes and soon we were invited into one of these beautiful houses for chai.

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Afterward, the man guided us through the village to a spring. He spoke no English so we probably missed the specific significance of this spring. In the back of our mind, we were expecting baksheesh to pass hands, but it never happened.

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On the way back to Naggar, Gerard saw the most incredible sight and we asked to get off the bus. No doubt commonplace for the locals but this large terraced field with old style farmhouses scattered, looked to us like something from centuries past. Another spot untouched by modernity. They’re getting harder to find but they do still exist.

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Another Room with a View

After a few days rest with our Delhi family (following our hectic rest in Orchha) we set off for the mountains. With no other choice than semi-sleeper overnight bus, we had to get to the other side of Delhi. We knew the metro would be crowded at 5.30 pm but we had not fully grasped the situation. With suitcase and backpack we forced our way on to the metro that we thought was already at capacity. At every stop, more and more people pushed their way into the carriage. It was reminiscent of riding the commuter rail in Mumbai. But what was more unexpected was how jolly the people right next to us were as they engaged us in conversation. The hour-long journey passed quickly and before we knew it we were getting off, with just about everybody else, at Kashmiri Gate. One of our metro companions led us through the throng to the appropriate gate leading to the bus station.

Last year, we made the same journey and had to find our bus in an open space of probably one hundred buses parked with no signage. It was bedlam. This year, we found ourselves in a brand new bus station with digital signs and a helpful information booth. What a difference a year makes! The semi sleeper was quite new, functioning seats and a friendly ticket collector who promised to wake us at Mandi. (last year we almost slept through our stop).

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After managing a couple of hours sleep, we got down at Mandi just before daybreak. Fortunately, the local bus was just leaving. During the hour’s ride, climbing up the mountainside, we watched the sunrise over the snow-capped peaks. The town was still asleep. The little restaurant where we had eaten breakfast on our previous visits was just opening up.

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Sapna greets us, “Come. Sit. Take chai.” Sliding into our familiar bench across the entryway from where she is cooking parathas, we try to converse. Why didn’t I work harder at my Hindi? But she’s speaking more English this year. “Yes,” she agrees, “I learn it from my daughter.”

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Priya is wearing a new dress to celebrate the first day of Navrati (Hindi New Year) and poses for us. The puffy pastel-colored fantasy of net reminds me of party dresses when I was her age. Sapna feeds us gobi paratha… then refuses payment. “First time, no pay.”

I was disappointed that the spacious room above the Buddhist monastery we rented last year was not available. Remembering the gangs of barking dogs by night and attacking monkeys by day, Gerard was confident we could do better. Last year, Vijay at the other restaurant we frequent, had mentioned he would be offering rooms for rent. He’s just finished the six-room building high up the hill at the other end of town. A steep climb — the narrow pathway and steps (52 Gerard counts) wind around the dwellings below. The rooms are small, but have large picture windows looking out over the town and valley below.

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On our second day, we walked out through the terraced fields. Everything seemed so lush. Other than Goa, everywhere we visit in India is dry and dusty; but not here.

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As we approached the little hamlet, we wondered if anybody would remember us from last year. Urmila greeted us with a huge smile. I don’t think too many white people get out here. Last year we had the advantage of a young Punjabi in tow who provided the translation. This year it’s back to one or two words and sign language, but I don’t think it mattered.

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Everybody was happy to see each other. Of course, tea was served, and shortly after we went around to visit another family we had met previously. Mira recognized us but was supervising work on her house so it was a brief visit. We promised to come back in a few days.

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Gerard had last year’s pictures on a hard drive and selecting a few, brought them to a studio to print. With photos and biscuits in hand we hiked back out to the village. Stopping at Mira’s house first, her sister and children were visiting.

 

The eldest daughter spoke enough English. The biscuits were a definite success; the pictures were a mixed bag. For whatever reason, it was never clear to us, everyone was in their Sunday finest…gold bangles, black kajal-outlined eyes, braided hair and all.

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There was lots of picture taking; they were as enthusiastic as us in capturing the moment. And there was entertainment – the young girls dancing, with a combination of both classical Indian postures and Bollywood moves, to the latest popular tunes on their mobile.

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Eventually, we bid our farewell and promised to bring back more prints. Mira’s husband is nowhere in sight; working in Saudi Arabia for the second year straight, she says.

After breakfast we walk around a small lake, sacred to the Hindus and Buddhists alike, stopping at a chai shop on the way. An elderly man with cheekbones jutting out from his angular face serves the best chai in town, delicately cardamom flavored.

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Like a juggler, he pours milk and water from a height into the saucepan and then the finished tea into a brass pot, and finally our drinking glasses. His rotund wife fries pakora to accompany the tea, while his brother, equally angular in features, picks up and washes the dirty glasses.

After having a conversation with a 78-year-old doctor, who refuses to fully retire because he feels he’ll lose his identity, it sparked a conversation between us whether our identity changes when we travel. Traveling in India for four months, we’re neither part of the community or country we’re visiting nor are we part of our homeland by virtue of not being there. This doesn’t bother us, in fact it’s one of the many reasons we like traveling. There’s a freedom in not belonging. Of course, it’s not as though we’re without identity (being from the west, white and everything the Indians perceive that to mean)– but it’s all pretty superficial. Staying in a foreign culture for any length of time helps to remind us that we’re all members of the human race – living in one great mansion, each with their own room but still part of the One.

After a continuous spell of sunny days and warm temperatures, our last two days were rainy and cool. But the upside was the thunderstorms that would roll down the Kullu Valley. Being from the lowlands, we loved to hear the thunder echo across the valley below. At night it was nature’s light show. We spent the days skipping between showers from restaurant to café to guesthouse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heat and Dust in Orchha

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Orchha, in Madhya Pradesh, is a good place to relax after spending more than three weeks in the city. This is our third visit here and we still find the small town with its country walks refreshing.

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The surrounding area is littered with the vestiges of a Rajput kingdom that began in the 16th C, reaching its peak in the mid-1800s.

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The last Maharaja died in 1930, after which the kingdom went into decline.

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What is most attractive to us is not only the palace/fort in remarkably good condition or the two temples in town but also the crumbling remains scattered around the countryside of a once thriving kingdom.

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On this visit, we arrived late in the season, very few tourists and hot during the day — reaching 110F (43C) in the heat of the day. Consequently our strolls out into the country are done early.

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One morning we visited a meadow that we spent a lot of time in a few years ago. Even though the brook had diminished to a trickle, it was still a bucolic spot with goats and cattle wandering peacefully and dogs playing in and out of the stream.

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Another morning, when we mentioned to the guesthouse manager that we were going to walk up to see the huge baobab tree next to Laxmi Temple, he asked if we’d seen the other, one km away. A second one?? He said, “Come, I’ll take you on my motorbike.” And this one was even bigger. Pictures fail to convey their enormity.

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There is only a handful of these trees in India, supposedly brought from Africa beginning as far back as 5,000 years ago. They can live as long as 1,500 to 2,000 years. The ones we saw, there’s no way of knowing how old they are, but they are ancient.

Our last morning here we walk out early around the back of the palace and down to the Betwa River. A stray dog attaches himself to us as our guide. Beside a small plot of wheat already half cut into golden sheaves, sits a simple hut, old cooking pots on the threshold, a satellite dish atop a broken monument, the ultimate in recycling.

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Aimlessly wandering into a gift shop we got into conversation with a father and son, transplants from Delhi. Like on many other occasions, we were cautiously quizzed on our feelings for Donald Trump. A lot of Indians are better informed about American politics than vice versa. Of course changes in the immigration policy is pertinent to them. And for us, it’s hard to know what to say other than we’re not looking forward to returning to the U.S. and facing the reality.

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We retreat back to the relative coolness of our room and listen to some cool Miles Davis from the 50s. Gerard is reading his autobiography, which he picked up at the used book stall in Mumbai. He hesitated all of this time because of the continuous swearing. Come to find out, he says, it’s the best thing yet he’s read about Miles.

Varanasi Epilogue

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Toward the end of our stay, Gerard asked three locals that we knew quite well a question. All three were born and raised in Varanasi, more or less the same age, mid-40s, and more or less the same status.

“In your opinion what is the biggest change in Varanasi since you were a child?”

Without hesitation, all three gave virtually the same answer.

“There is a great change in the mentality.”

“In what way?”

“Most people are only interested in making money these days. And many don’t care how they do it. Sense of morality has eroded. People used to be more caring and not just for their own family. And there was more interest in our culture.”

“How do you mean?”

“As a child, we had classical Indian music concerts all the time, and people came to Varanasi to learn that music. Now it barely survives.”

“But the Dhrupad Mela was very popular?”

“Yes, but these festivals only happen twice a year.”

All three of them had expressed the same opinion in a slightly different way. When Gerard raised the question of pollution —

“Pollution is pollution and it’s coming from everywhere, not just Varanasi. It’s the mind of the people who have changed.”

It certainly was not the answer we expected — pollution, corruption, overcrowding, broken infrastructure etc. –not what we heard. Of course, we only have a nine-year perspective on change in Varanasi. But our experience with the people here would not elicit such a response. Even the merchants have greeted us with warmth and friendliness. You could think that it’s just based on making another sale but then why would they invite us to their family wedding, anniversary, and Holi party — have lunch with us, give us lunch and endless clay cups of chai. After thinking about what we heard, our reaction was: we like the city now, but it really must have been wonderful 25/30 years ago.

Holi in Varanasi

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The build-up toward Holi begins several days before, with bowls of bright colored powder, laced with silver, alongside plastic pistols, appearing for sale in the lanes. When mixed with water, the powder becomes indelible. Plastic bags are filled to make bombs, pistols used to spray the toxic solution, and in a ‘ceremonial ecstasy of colors’ Holi is celebrated with enthusiasm.

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This year, the holiday coincided with the five-year local elections in this state, Uttar Pradesh. Voter turnout was high with huge support for PM Modi’s BJP party, especially among the young and poor. With the announcement two days before Holi, of BJP’s victory in UP for the first time in 17 years, Varanasi erupted in loud celebration – men donned orange paper Nehru hats with the letters BJP and accompanied with drums, processed through the streets.

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On the morning of Holi, we hid out in our guesthouse. We’ve witnessed several Holi’s and have no desire to be sprayed with color that ruins our clothes, stains our skin and stings eyes. It afforded us the opportunity to spend the morning getting to know a British couple staying in our guesthouse. They’re close to our age and have traveled extensively in India since the ‘90s. Living an unconventional lifestyle, outside the UK for twelve years, they’ve resettled in Devon, on the edge of Dartmoor, close to where I grew up. Other than just loving India, Premgit comes to photograph. He still uses film, dark room and has built up a following for his black and white pictures. http://www.premgit.co.uk/ There was a lot that we had in common — boarding schools, yoga, Coltrane, photography, India and following a spiritual path.

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Together we watched the antics on the surrounding roofs from the safety of their balcony. Starting early in the morning, neighbor attacking neighbor, bombing unsuspecting passersby on the street below. The willing participants are mostly but not exclusively young people.

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The fun continues all morning until around 1 pm, when it begins to subside. Declaring a truce until next year, residents wash down their roofs, scrub their bodies and change into clean clothes and relative calm is restored.

Our neighborhood is an exception. Here, at Chausatti Ghat, the symbolic depiction of feminine power within Hindu mythology is still present. Directly across the street from our hotel is a little temple that is said to have the power of no less than 16 yoginis.

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While the celebration is fading out in the rest of the city it intensifies here. The street becomes clogged with worshipers wanting to make offerings of flowers at the temple. Temple bells ring without break. Well into the night the street remains choked. Getting back to our guesthouse was not for anyone suffering from claustrophobia.

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Even though Shree Café was closed for the holiday, Santosh had invited us to visit in the evening and join the family for thandai, a celebratory sweet, spicy milk drink, to mark the end of Holi. We had not anticipated the crowds we’d have to fight our way through to get there, but it was worth it. P1030866

Family and friends had gathered, all dressed in new clothes, the men in white kurtas, having washed off the color from playing Holi. The children danced without inhibition. It was our good fortune to finish celebrating this holiday with our Varanasi family.

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It’s not easy to get up and on to the ghat before 6 am, but whenever we manage it we’re so glad.

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Meeting Santosh we walked downstream beyond the crowded ghats,

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where life beats at a slower pace.

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And then turned into the lanes (gulies). Without Santosh we would have got hopelessly lost.

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He led us through sleepy gullies, with men gathered at chai stalls still discussing the election.

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Eastern Sounds

In the early morning, long before dawn, the melancholy song from a man and his harmonium floats over the rooftops. He laments the passing souls who came here to shed their last tear of earthly existence and cast off their broken bodies to the funeral pyre. But, he sings; why should we mourn?  For they’re set free in the light, while we worldly ones struggle to find our way.

Around 4 am energetic chanting and bell ringing echo from the Chausatti temple.  Shortly after, a cacophony of mosque calls summon the faithful to prayer across the large Muslim section. The haunting sound as one imam leaves off and another begins, dragging the reluctant out of the oblivion of sleep toward the first prayer of a new day. Get up and shake off your drowsiness. Fritter away your time no longer. Pray to God now while there is still breath in your body. We can hear no political jihad, Al Qaeda or ISIS in his voice.

As we get ready for breakfast, the schoolmaster leads his students in call and response, his call eagerly returned by the joyous out of tune voices of his young pupils. Listening to all these sounds drifting through the early morning air, we are reminded that while so much has changed, yet so much remains the same in Varanasi.

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Two Walks and A Boat Ride

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We were having lunch with Helene and Remy in Shree Café. Long time visitors to Varanasi, we’ve become more friendly with them in recent years. Santosh invited us all to take a walk with the family on the ghat.

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Helene and Remy stay in the guesthouse above the restaurant and have become very close to the family, but we only get to socialize with them on these Sunday afternoon walks.

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Highlights of this afternoon were delicious apple pie and classical Indian dance at Assi Ghat.

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A few days later, Gerard and I rose early, when the air was still cool and fresh, to watch the sun rise.

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Dawn is one of the more popular times to take a boat ride and watch the golden sunlight shine on the sacred city.

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There’s plenty of people about but the atmosphere is more contemplative. A wonderful time to take an uninterrupted walk.

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We mentioned meeting up with Krystyna and her companion Karel when we were in Goa. Karel had never been to Varanasi so we arranged to meet while we were here. Gerard and Karel immediately connected.

We were both excited to have the opportunity to spend more time with them. They only stayed a few days but we spent a lot of time together. Karel had done a Krishnamurti translation in Czech some years ago and wanted to visit the Krishnamurti Center just down the Ganga from Varanasi.

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We visited it briefly a few years ago but wanted to see it again with them. So we rented a boat and paddled our way downstream

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past the burning ghat,

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to the beautiful serene compound sitting high on the bank of the river. Karel and Krystyna planned to spend three or more days there.

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We joined them for lunch and saw their cottage – simple but beautiful. There were several people from all over staying there, but the conversation was minimal. We found the atmosphere very attractive and may stay there another year ourselves. Karel and Krystyna bid us farewell until our paths cross again….which might well be in Prague. We have an open invitation.

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