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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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!


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…


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?


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


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


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.









Varanasi Epilogue


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


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.


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.


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. There was a lot that we had in common — boarding schools, yoga, Coltrane, photography, India and following a spiritual path.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


Meeting Santosh we walked downstream beyond the crowded ghats,


where life beats at a slower pace.


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


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


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.


Two Walks and A Boat Ride


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.


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.


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


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


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


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


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.


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



past the burning ghat,


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


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.


A Varanasi Wedding


Rajesh is our oldest friend in Varanasi; we met the first time we came nine years ago. Through the years, we’ve become more than just acquaintances. This year, when we stopped by his stall near the Golden Temple he said, “You must come to my sister in law’s wedding in just a few days.”

P1030641When we voiced concern about not having the appropriate attire, he said, “We don’t judge people by what they wear but what’s in their heart and you will be most welcome.” Moments later, Rajesh’s father in law appeared and after only a glance, handed us an invitation to the wedding. He also put to rest our concerns about dress. When Gerard asked him how he knew us, he said, “Our whole family knows you. Rajesh has mentioned you through the years and we’ve seen pictures of you on FB.” Rajesh added, “And we all read the blog!”

After I’d had time to consider what to wear I realized my case was too small to accommodate this festive occasion. A new outfit was required. By happenstance, over lunch at Shree Café, Uschi, another friend of ours who’s in the clothing industry here, recommended a ready made store where we should ask for Deepak. Deepak couldn’t have been more helpful, and after a relatively short time I’d made my purchase and it had been sent off for alterations.


Thinking we were arriving fashionably late, we were, in fact, one of the first to arrive at the wedding – one must always remember Indian time. Everybody was very welcoming and when Rajesh showed up he introduced us to all the different family members.


The groom finally arrived in usual fashion riding a white horse, led by a band and followed by frenetic young dancing guests. The groom was seated on the customary couch for photos while his bride was led to him under a canopy.


They’re obliged to sit for hours, posing for endless pictures. We took the opportunity to go up to the roof where plentiful snacks and main course meal were laid out. We had a chance to talk with Rajesh’s older brother’s wife, Megu, who’s from Japan. She met her husband 15 years ago in Varanasi and they now run a renowned Japanese restaurant here. She appreciated the fact we couldn’t talk to everyone and seemed happy to spend time with us. Eventually, we went back downstairs where the photo shoot was still in progress. We’ve both commented on how patient the couple have to be to pose for a myriad of pictures. Along with maybe half the 500 guests, we left before the actual ceremony – not apparently that unusual.


Shivrati and Dhrupad Mela in the City of Shiva

dsc_0704If Agonda no longer feels like home, Varanasi has yet to let us down. We always stay at Shiva Kashi, but the manager, Sanju, told us some time in advance that for the first week we’d have to find an alternative. Disappointed, we booked nearby, but without enthusiasm. Arriving in Varanasi, as we walked down the alley beside Shiva Kashi, Sanju appeared and greeted us. “Where are you going?” Saying the name of the hotel, he replied, “It’s no good. Come, let me see.” We followed him back to Shiva Kashi and he consulted his book and decided he could give us a room after all. When we said how pleased we were we could stay, we were not looking forward to going to another guesthouse, he replied “I never go out of Shiva Kashi during the day. God made me go out! It must have been his will.”



We’d arrived in Varanasi for the first night of the Dhrupad Mela. The night-long concert started out well but we were driven out by hordes of mosquitoes. We had forgotten to put on repellent. Better prepared the second night, but still, we only lasted till midnight; the wind blowing off the Ganges was too cold. The third night, being totally prepared, we settled in for whatever may come. Noticing on the program of 12 performers that Gudencha Brothers, one of our favorites, were performing but not apparently until around 3 am. Nevertheless, a wonderful santoor player with a very unique style entertained us until nearly midnight.


Gerard said, “We probably should go. I can’t make it until 3.” But I replied, “Just let’s wait and see who the next performer will be.” The name Gudencha rang out, but in what context? The announcements were all in Hindi. To our delight, those familiar faces of Gudencha Brothers appeared. After their rousing performance, it was 1.20 am and we fell out on to the empty streets to find a cycle rickshaw. What a wonderful night! Later that week we were told that the concert series, now its 43rd year, has been sponsored by one family, covering all costs making it free to the public. We were also told the performers are not paid but all their expenses covered, with 5 star accommodation. These annual concerts are so prestigious that many Indian musicians have gotten their break here.


The last day of the concerts was Shivratri, Lord Shiva’s birthday, enthusiastically celebrated in Varanasi, ‘City of Shiva’.


On the way to our concert, along the ghat, we saw many designs made up of tiny clay pots with lit oil and wick, devotees chanting around the myriad of lights. It all looked pretty ancient to us.


Although we’ve been coming to Varanasi for nine years now, walking alone along the ghat this morning I felt as if I woke up for the first time to how ancient this sacred city is. The throng of century old haveli and temples tumbling down almost into the Ganges. Sparkling blue in the sunshine; white birds flocking around the laden boats of pilgrims drifting downstream. We had just listened to a tape of the memorial service of our dear friend Bob, and I was reflecting on the thoughts expressed by those who loved and missed him; where better than in this city where life and death flow together.


Then just beyond the dhobi ghat, I found myself facing a group of animated young Indian boys blocking my path. As I came nearer, a dread-locked Sadhu, a white cloth wrapped around his bones, began dancing with exaggerated drama in front of me. Suddenly I saw it — a luminous green snake was slithering right across my path! Gerard remonstrates me for never looking down at where I’m walking, and wearing sunglasses there’s even less likelihood. The snake disappeared down the ghat and everyone continued on their way. It was too sudden for me to react – except to marvel at the beautiful colour of that slithering snake. Our three-week stay in Varanasi is off to a good start.