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.

Old Friends and Dhrupad Mela


For nearly ten years, we’ve spent most of the winter in India. It has become a home away from home. And a prominent room within that home is Varanasi. Through the years we’ve done our best to convey what this place means to us in pictures and writing. And of course, those efforts fall short. To put it simply, we now feel very comfortable here. The area around the guesthouse is a neighbourhood we feel part of. Even though most of our acquaintances up and down the lane are merchants, Gerard and I are warmly and sincerely welcomed.


Varanasi draws a specific type of tourist, ones that are not easily put off by cow flaps and dog turds in the lane. It seems that we respond more to something that’s harder to put your finger on that’s found in abundance here. So often we spend our meals talking with another traveler and trying to gain their insight on Varanasi, on India, their home country and perhaps the world. Just this morning, we shared breakfast with a young woman from St Petersburg (Russia not Florida) who certainly did not tow the party line. Even though there are people growing concerned about Putin and his power, the question is why weren’t they concerned 17 years ago? He’s been around that long. She called him a thug. Another interesting conversation is with a young woman from Shanghai over our masala chai at the Boatman’s tea shop. Again she is far from typical; 31 and not married, and at this point has no intention of getting married. When Gerard asked what does the society think of unmarried women, she said, it’s completely unacceptable. And what do your parents think of you travelling alone in India? I told them I was in Asia! But what if they want to see a picture of where you are? I pretend that I didn’t hear them! Most upwardly mobile Chinese think India is one of the worst places to go, too dirty and dangerous. They would rather go to Europe or US. Gerard laughed, quoting statistics about gun ownership and violence in the US.


Our guesthouse is near a few small music schools where European students return every year to continue their learning of various practices of Indian classical music. Many of them coincide their visit with the Dhrupad Mela – as we do. Dhrupad is an ancient style of singing that needs to be studied for decades before it can be performed. Its progression is also very slow therefore many Indians and Westerners alike are not attracted to the style. But those who are drawn are very passionate about the music. For me, listening to Dhrupad is a bit like listening to Cecil Taylor, an extreme avant-garde jazz pianist. When I’m there I’m totally involved; if I’m listening to a record it’s harder to get into it.


This Mela is the only Dhrupad festival in India and has been sponsored by a very wealthy Varanasi family for the last 44 years who are dedicated to keeping this music alive. In a small restaurant around the corner from us, a few students, mostly about our age, gather for dinner and speculate on who will be performing that night. By the way, with no advance program, the music goes from 7 pm to 7 am each night, free admission. In the morning, the same group is sitting around discussing who they heard, and how late they managed to stay. We never made it much past midnight. But at the end of the four days, Gerard said that he was nearly saturated. But he’ll still be ready for the upcoming two-day festival!


We’re very happy to be able to meet up with our old friend, Frederic in Varanasi. We met in Himachal Pradesh six or seven years ago and have stayed in contact ever since. He’s a semi-professional photographer and has been documenting dancers at a Kathak school. He manages to find time to have a meal or two with us so we can catch up.

Gerard had the idea that this was going to be a quiet visit with plenty of time for writing. But how could that happen in this place where there’s so many interesting people to talk to! One evening, on our way down to Assi Ghat, and constantly being delayed by Gerard talking to people, Frederic said to me, “Does he also talk to trees?” Please, Frederic, don’t even suggest that! Coincidentally, when we first met Frederic, it was Gerard’s persistence that finally broke through his reserve. Well, maybe at our next destination we’ll get back to the writing.


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.