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!

 

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!