Bansuri and Ayurveda

One night, we attended a very special event, a private ‘bansuri’ (bamboo flute) recital. Even though they were students, the intimate atmosphere made up for any possible lack of technique. For a minute, we thought we thought we’d entered Satyajit Ray’s film about musicians (the Bengali film producer from the ’50s). The music was not amplified, making it possible to hear the nuances of the tabla normally missed. But in my case, any hopes of being able to hear a flute were dashed because the bansuri played in the lower register.

Unable to participate in many conversations that Gerard has can leave me feeling on the periphery. Only if I’m in a quiet environment and speaking to a woman can I fully participate. When the frustration mounts, I’ve found the forty minute walk up the river to Assi Ghat is a tonic.

After so many years of walking the ghat, I still marvel at what a unique place Varanasi is. Growing up in Totnes on the River Dart, walking along the Charles River and many others, I feel my whole life I’ve been refreshed by rivers, but none that compare to the Ganges.

Last week, Sandhya and Premgit, an English couple we met four years ago here. He’s a photographer working with only black and white film and focusing on religious rituals in India. His wife, Sandhya, has a chronic respiratory condition and finds help here from an ayurvedic doctor. She persuaded me to join her. The doctor took my pulse, inspected my tongue, then prescribed some pills and four sessions of Sirodhara, a therapy to reduce stress. While lying on my back, for an hour, his assistant “gently” drizzled warm oil on to my forehead, from a brass vessel hanging overhead. All I know is, it was quite euphoric, incredibly relaxing and gave me a good night’s sleep afterwards. Problematic was trying to shampoo all the oil out of my hair!

We’ll be moving on soon. God willing, we’ll be back next year and hope not to see further destruction in our favorite city. A reassuring reminder: we’re told that throughout history, Varanasi has been destroyed and rebuilt a total of four times with Modi the cause of the fifth. On a lighter note, he managed to move the cows from the lanes of Varanasi, while the British Raj could not. But there’s still a few around!

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.

A Last glimpse and farewell to Varanasi

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On our last morning, we managed to get up early to walk on the ghat at first light. Late night concerts, sickness, or just pure laziness had prevented us from enjoying my favorite time in Varanasi. The sun just rising, the air cool and fresh, and lots of activity.  I was so pleased to be feeling well again and out on the ghats.

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Even though respiratory and intestinal infections are common in Varanasi, our small circle showed their concern and Sanjiv our, hotel manager, worried over us.  Over the years, he’s become friend and confidant, making it harder to say goodbye each year.

Old and new friends alike gave us a heartfelt farewell. I did a last errand through the neigbhorhood lane where the pharmacist, cookie lady, restaurant owner, travel agent all called out goodbye. Frederic came and ate with us, Helene and Remy dropped by our hotel as we were leaving and Premgit and Sandhya came to the door to see us off.

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More music and the back lanes

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The musical bonanza continued. Gerard went to three more concerts. One was a sitar player we knew called Shujaat Khan; it was the first time he’d seen him live. His playing was impeccable and his voice hauntingly beautiful. I was unable to go because of the usual intestinal malaise of Varanasi. Few who stay for any length of time avoid it.

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An Indian couple from Atlanta, Georgia sitting in the local teashop ask why we choose to come to Varanasi every year. Their comment about the city is the peaceful coexistence between Moslems and Hindus, not always the case in many parts of India. I’ve always found the presence of Moslems surprising because Varanasi is the most sacred Hindu city in the country, the birthplace of Shiva. But perhaps they’re right – there are at least five Mosques within sight of our hotel on the edge of the Moslem quarter and we’ve never witnessed a hint of a communal clash here. Sanjiv, our hotel manager, says although there is very little cross marriage, the communities depend upon each other for business.

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Our friend Katinka arrives at breakfast today saying she needs a new hotel because her bed has collapsed. This prompts the elderly French lady, to tell the story of when she stayed at the same hotel in the early 80s, the room boasted an impressive four poster bed although she had to make minor repairs each year. Then one year, when she came the bed was gone. What happened to the four poster? The landlord told the bizarre story of two Americans stashing money in the hollow of the bed, Little did they know, the bed also had termites. When they returned a month later to retrieve their money, it was half eaten by the ants. Enraged they smashed the bed.

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Once again, Gerard had the chance to walk the back lanes with two other photographers. They happened across a wedding in full throttle.  

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Later, stopping for the never-ending cup of chai

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with Santosh and Remy.

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Varanasi is a magnet for photographers and we’ve met our share on this visit. Frederic who is focused on photographing dance; our English friend Premgit has been photographing tribal devotion for many years, an Australian Kirran has spent the last couple of weeks photographing the dobi washermen on the Ganges. And yesterday we met an American living in Thailand, who focuses on youth and street photography. Both of us vacillate about being inspired and discouraged by these professional photographers.

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We hope this isn’t indicative of the state of spiritual endeavor in Varanasi!