A Last glimpse and farewell to Varanasi


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.









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.


A new glimpse of Varanasi


On arriving in Varanasi we reconnected with our French friends, Helene and Remy, from Benaulim. They stay above Shree Café whose owner, Santosh, is an accomplished photographer. We arranged to meet on the Ghat early the next morning to take pictures. As the sun rises over the river, pilgrims do their puja and ritual bath. With so much activity no one notices that we’re taking pictures. Being accompanied by a local helps us to see the theater of ritualistic Varanasi, the most holy city of India, through his eyes. Santosh and Remy are both such good photographers, I feel intimidated. I can either get so immersed in what’s going on, I forget to take the picture or, preoccupied with taking the picture, I miss the rest of the scene. But the city is a photographer’s paradise and being in the company of more skilled shooters helps me to think more about what it is I want to portray through the lens. It’s also inspiring for Gerard to be with other enthusiasts; it broadens his view of both what to capture and how to do that. We both know that, like most other practices, the more you do it the better you get at it.


Santosh and his family have now become friends after many years of a casual acquaintance, which began around Indian classical music and Santosh recommending the names of local musicians we hadn’t heard of. It’s through photography that we’ve gotten to know him better.  Whenever we need advice he’s always available, with his soft spoken manner.

Meeting people isn’t hard in Varanasi but being connected to an Indian family opens a door not always available to tourists. Gerard and I were happy when, for the second year, Santosh and Seema asked us to join them and their three children for their marriage anniversary. If you own an excellent ‘pure veg’ Indian restaurant where do you go for a treat? We piled into cycle rickshaws and headed to a fancy Chinese restaurant. After chile paneer and sezhuwan noodles, everyone went next door for gelato.

seema and cricket

On the weekend, we again joined the family for an afternoon walk. They arrived with their son, Gulu, brandishing a cricket bat. Other small boys converge and within minutes, a game begins along a narrow platform on the ghat. His mother, Seema, takes charge as an enthusiastic umpire. The game proceeds slowly, with frequent interruptions to search for the ball — on the riverbank, inside a docked boat, or among the ruins behind the steps.



Varanasi has a strong appeal for a certain type of traveler, but one that defies definition. One night our guesthouse rings with Chinese chatter, a few days later there’s a group of 22 Chileans. What is it we all find so attractive? The city is dirty, the lanes congested with oversized cows, stray dogs and noisy motor scooters; the Ganges is polluted (although thousands bathe in it daily without apparently getting sick). In spite of all this, many like us return year after year.


Gerard and I have asked each other what it is that brings us back here.  and, each time we try to narrow it down to this thing or that; but it just doesn’t capture how we feel. Overall Indian cities don’t attract either one of us. But Varanasi, the oldest living city in the world, one could say is a ‘living monument.’ It may not be the prettiest of ancient cities, but at least it hasn’t been torn down and replaced with concrete. The stone pavers in the alleys are worn smooth, wooden doors have hundreds of years of patina, and as we’ve mentioned before, for us, it’s lanes are so reminiscent of the medinas in Morocco that we fell in love with some forty years ago. It is the river, it is the narrow lanes, the ghats, the public cremation, the underlying spiritual quest by so many…and the people. Not only concerned with extracting money from tourists, they have time to smile and talk, making Varanasi feel more like a large village, not a city.

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In the chai shop we frequent every morning, Gerard said, “I know that man.” And before he had a chance to say to me who he was, Martyn looked over and smiled, “I know you.” Gerard said, “And where’s the rest of your family?” Three years before, Martyn, his wife and two young children were traveling for a year when our paths first crossed in Varanasi. A few weeks later we saw them again in Darjeeling and this time we became more acquainted. All of us continued on to Sikim where we went our separate ways. Martyn is one of those jolly souls who seem to see the positive in everything, making it easy to connect with him. He explained that this year he had come by himself for only three weeks, primarily to have dental work done in Delhi. He had time and briefly thought of going to Goa, but quickly decided on returning yet again to Varanasi. He’s been coming here since 2000. We asked him what it was that kept pulling him back here, and he replied, “I can’t put my finger on it.” But he did say on his first visit he’d planned to stay three or four days and ended up staying a month. He just couldn’t leave, and still hasn’t had enough.



On our last morning, Santosh, Gerard and I went out early again to take pictures. Santosh thought it would be more interesting to go downstream, past the burning ghat, to an area we’d never seen before. The tourists and pilgrims quickly faded; no more “boat ma’am?” no girls selling faded postcards, even the chai wallahs disappeared. Far less congested, you get the sense that this part of the city hasn’t changed in decades, possibly in a century.


Finally we turned away from the river and into the lanes. Winding our way back, through vegetable and fruit markets, cow pens, doors left open for passesby to see in: it’s another Varanasi.


Without Santosh we would never have been able to negotiate the winding, twisting lanes. A great opportunity to be led through this maze and take photographs with a local. He has less reserve to point the lens at an interesting face, which in turn gave both of us more confidence to do the same. It was a great ending to our stay in this city that continues to call us back.


In previous posts we’ve tried to capture what attracts us so much to Varanasi. Eastern Sounds, Varanasi: the Lotus on the Ganges












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 Chausathi temple. With such exuberance emanating across the alley, it makes it easier for us to arise and do our own morning practice. And just in case we’re not fully awake, 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. I can hear no political jihad, Al Qaeda or ISIS in his voice.


As we get ready for breakfast, the school master 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 we may have aged, much that is important in Varanasi has not really changed at all.


My mind lingers back toward our arrival in the city eight years ago – that never to be recaptured first impression- an explosion of color and vibrancy. The ancient Ghats descending down to the Ganges, glittering in the morning sunshine. It was India at its most exotic. Intoxicating, but also scary –would I ever find my way through the maze of little lanes if I dared venture out alone? Saffron robed sadhus with painted faces and dreadlocks; others half naked and ash covered. Hustlers touting puja offerings, boat rides, a massage, a hair cut…


Today, the city has not lost its mystery but with familiarity it no longer threatens.With the ebb and flow of pilgrims and tourists, for the short period of time we’re here I now feel part of it.


The 6pm mosque call rings out and the day’s cycle is complete. As the sun sets, a mass of paper kites flutter in the sky, black specs in the fading light, like book pages charred by fire, blowing in the breeze. While we may not be able to capture the wonder of our first arrival, such timeless moments lure us back each year.