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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Pushkar Revisted

Taking a rickshaw to the bus station in Ajmer we both agreed, now we’ve arrived in India. Women in traditional Rajasthani red and gold saris and scarfs draped over their faces, their husbands with multi colored turbans. The press of people, rickshaws, elaborately painted lorries, cows and dogs; a choke of fumes, a whiff of spice, flies converging on enamel bowls of sweetened curd and trays of milk cake, garish billboards advertising movie stars, politicians and gurus.

The bus we boarded for Pushkar was the most dilapidated tin can we’ve ever had the pleasure to ride in India. The sides no longer rigid, swaying back and forth with every bump in the road. Gerard looked at the back to see the cross members broken and gyrating as if they were doing the twist. All attempts to weld hand bars back to the ceiling had failed. The floor heaved as if an earthquake was about to erupt. As we worked our way over a small mountain pass, on each hairpin turn, the bus snapped and groaned as if it was about to fall into pieces.   We arrived in town grateful that the bus did not expire with us in it.

P1000182My father liked to say, “you should never go back.” He had a cynical streak/view of life and believed that you’ll always be disappointed a second time. Just like people, places will let you down. Gerard and I have proved him wrong over and over again. We go back to Varanasi and Goa year after year and are not let down. Rather, it improves as we become more familiar. But certain expectations inevitably form. I’d loved Pushkar the first time we visited last year. It’s a pretty town, sitting beside a lake surrounded by gentle hills and has a spiritual ambience

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But what I reminisced most about during the past 12 months was our guesthouse, Rising Star. Our spacious room, the family chanting around their household temple downstairs in the evening and the delicious home cooked meals served on the roof. So with a booking made we returned dragging our cases from the bus stop. The two brothers met us with long faces…”Sorry Sir, we don’t have your room for two days.” A girl was supposed to leave but got very sick and couldn’t move. They offered us the only vacant room – dark and damp on the first floor. We didn’t relish moving after two days or into a room where someone had been deathly sick. I felt let down and fearful there wouldn’t be another room in town, and for a while that seemed the case; the rooms we looked at were too noisy, dirty or overpriced. Finally we found the “White House”. And it was just that, painted all in white and very clean; friendly owners, good food, nice room. So once again, we’ve proved my father wrong…you can go back. But sometimes an adjustment is required.

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The first night here, right next to the hotel was a house performing funeral rites. The period of public mourning lasts for 11 days and fortunately for us this was the last. Friends and family assembled and loudspeakers, set up on the roof, blasted live chanters till after midnight. Surprisingly, we managed to sleep through much if it because we were so exhausted from traveling. The following evening a small nearby temple broadcast in a similar fashion more chanting till 11 pm. And of course in the early morning there’s always some temple near and far beckoning over loudspeakers the faithful to come and do their devotion.

Gerard asked our friendly waiter/cook at out roof top restaurant, “Why do all events, weddings, funerals, temples etc, blast from loudspeakers at ear shattering volume. Are they sharing with the community at large?”

“Not really. Indians are a loud bunch.” He replied. We reflected — the horn on the lorry playing musical tunes with horns, the ticket collector on the bus with his piercing whistle. Is it any wonder Gerard suffers from tinnitus?

The waiter continued, “ Everything in India is LOUD. Loud music, loud clothes — so much color, loud food — so much spice.” There must be more to it than that. Maybe it’s a matter of competing with 1.3 billion.

We’ve said it before; traveling in India is not only about India. Today, we ate breakfast with a woman from Croatia who was nine years old when the Yugoslav war broke out. Since visiting Bosnia for work, I’ve had an interest in that part of the world and had made questions about the war. As we talked, the only thing that was clear from her point of view was that the region in general is in worse shape now than before the war. She thinks it needs a single ruler to keep the lid on ancient grudges. But where to find such a ‘benevolent’ leader that actually has the citizens interests at heart? We couldn’t remember meeting a Croatian here before. Both of us were fascinated to hear what she had to say.

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Pushkar is a pleasantly relaxing place to begin our winter sojurn in India. Spending our last afternoon sitting on another rooftop restaurant above the lake, sheltered from the afternoon sun and fanned by a gentle breeze, watching flocks of birds silently circling the water. The sounds from pilgrim bathers below are hushed. The beet, carrot and pomegranate seed salad tastes even better with the view.

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Maha Shivarati in Ujjain

DSC_0439Ujjain was another three bus rides away, and once again took the best part of the day to reach. More remote dry and dusty places Gerard’s discovered! A religious destination with many temples along the river, and where Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years.  The town was significantly bigger and much more crowded than Maheshwar.

I had found a hotel on the internet, which seemed a little too far out of town, but had rooms available. The hotel was large with three stories of rooms.  Our “standard” non/AC on the ground floor had no room to swing a cat, and only marginally acceptable in terms of cleanliness. The whole place was newly painted periwinkle blue and white giving it a fresh deceptively Mediterranean look. In the center was a large lawn where the hotel restaurant, which was pure veg, served dinner at night. The best feature of the hotel, and one of the highlights of entire stay, was the exceptional food this hotel served up. The guidebook had warned us, that food in Ujjain was “thin on the ground!” That was true, our restaurant seemed to have no competition.

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Being on the edge of town turned out to be our good fortune because we soon learned the festival we had just left was not isolated to Maheshwar. According to Wikipedia, Maha Shivarati is a Hindu festival celebrated every year in reverence of Lord Shiva. The “Night of Worship” occurs on the 14th night of the new moon during the dark half of the month of Phalguna (Feb/March), and is when Shiva, The Lord of Destruction, is said to have performed the Tandava Nritya or the dance of primordial creation, preservation and destruction.

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The festival continues through the following day. It also marks the last day of Khumbh Mela, although it was not celebrated in Ujjain this year. (Held every four years, the location changes among several holy cities.  We passed through Haridwar when four years ago Kumbh Mela was held there. Memorable – but we didn’t stick around.)

DSC_0421Back in Ujjain, the place was jumping! We gave up trying to enter the main temple and pushed through the throng of pilgrims and visitors to the ghat where it was even more crowded. If this is just Shivarati Maha, thank God we weren’t here for Kumbh Mela!

Ujjain is supposed to be especially atmospheric at dusk when the temples rising above the ghat are majestic and ringing bells and incense fill the air. But on that day it was too crazy for us to wait and find out. A few hours were enough before we retreated back to the hotel and another meal. We’re definitely feeling our age! Throughout our brief two-day stay in Ujjain, amongst the tens of thousands of people, we didn’t see a single other western tourist. The only English spoken was by our waiter, and even that was touch and go! And as far as returning to Ujjain – been there and done it!

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The following day we took the SLOW train to Varanasi. It meandered through the countryside stopping frequently at little stations with picket fences. All in all, a scheduled 40 stops over a 28 hour journey! Most of the train is sleeper class and there is no pantry car. A polite gentleman begins a conversation in halting English with me. He says he is a railway servant. Then when I’m lamenting the fact there is no pantry car, he asks if we like chai? Our response is obvious. At the next stop he beckons us to follow him to the platform.  A man holding a tray with little decorated china cups and a large metal thermos is waiting. He pours tea for the man and his friends, including us.  Sugar is offered to our liking in a separate bowl. Obviously this man is an important “railway servant.”  We stand in the early morning sunlight on this pretty country platform sipping tea from cups that I immediately want to purchase and bring back to the US. Another golden moment in India!  The man alights at the next station – to my disappointment.  I’d already begun to anticipate lunch!