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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Old Friends and Dhrupad Mela

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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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Two Walks and A Boat Ride

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We were having lunch with Helene and Remy in Shree Café. Long time visitors to Varanasi, we’ve become more friendly with them in recent years. Santosh invited us all to take a walk with the family on the ghat.

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Helene and Remy stay in the guesthouse above the restaurant and have become very close to the family, but we only get to socialize with them on these Sunday afternoon walks.

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Highlights of this afternoon were delicious apple pie and classical Indian dance at Assi Ghat.

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A few days later, Gerard and I rose early, when the air was still cool and fresh, to watch the sun rise.

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Dawn is one of the more popular times to take a boat ride and watch the golden sunlight shine on the sacred city.

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There’s plenty of people about but the atmosphere is more contemplative. A wonderful time to take an uninterrupted walk.

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We mentioned meeting up with Krystyna and her companion Karel when we were in Goa. Karel had never been to Varanasi so we arranged to meet while we were here. Gerard and Karel immediately connected.

We were both excited to have the opportunity to spend more time with them. They only stayed a few days but we spent a lot of time together. Karel had done a Krishnamurti translation in Czech some years ago and wanted to visit the Krishnamurti Center just down the Ganga from Varanasi.

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We visited it briefly a few years ago but wanted to see it again with them. So we rented a boat and paddled our way downstream

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past the burning ghat,

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to the beautiful serene compound sitting high on the bank of the river. Karel and Krystyna planned to spend three or more days there.

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We joined them for lunch and saw their cottage – simple but beautiful. There were several people from all over staying there, but the conversation was minimal. We found the atmosphere very attractive and may stay there another year ourselves. Karel and Krystyna bid us farewell until our paths cross again….which might well be in Prague. We have an open invitation.

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A Varanasi Wedding

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Rajesh is our oldest friend in Varanasi; we met the first time we came nine years ago. Through the years, we’ve become more than just acquaintances. This year, when we stopped by his stall near the Golden Temple he said, “You must come to my sister in law’s wedding in just a few days.”

P1030641When we voiced concern about not having the appropriate attire, he said, “We don’t judge people by what they wear but what’s in their heart and you will be most welcome.” Moments later, Rajesh’s father in law appeared and after only a glance, handed us an invitation to the wedding. He also put to rest our concerns about dress. When Gerard asked him how he knew us, he said, “Our whole family knows you. Rajesh has mentioned you through the years and we’ve seen pictures of you on FB.” Rajesh added, “And we all read the blog!”

After I’d had time to consider what to wear I realized my case was too small to accommodate this festive occasion. A new outfit was required. By happenstance, over lunch at Shree Café, Uschi, another friend of ours who’s in the clothing industry here, recommended a ready made store where we should ask for Deepak. Deepak couldn’t have been more helpful, and after a relatively short time I’d made my purchase and it had been sent off for alterations.

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Thinking we were arriving fashionably late, we were, in fact, one of the first to arrive at the wedding – one must always remember Indian time. Everybody was very welcoming and when Rajesh showed up he introduced us to all the different family members.

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The groom finally arrived in usual fashion riding a white horse, led by a band and followed by frenetic young dancing guests. The groom was seated on the customary couch for photos while his bride was led to him under a canopy.

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They’re obliged to sit for hours, posing for endless pictures. We took the opportunity to go up to the roof where plentiful snacks and main course meal were laid out. We had a chance to talk with Rajesh’s older brother’s wife, Megu, who’s from Japan. She met her husband 15 years ago in Varanasi and they now run a renowned Japanese restaurant here. She appreciated the fact we couldn’t talk to everyone and seemed happy to spend time with us. Eventually, we went back downstairs where the photo shoot was still in progress. We’ve both commented on how patient the couple have to be to pose for a myriad of pictures. Along with maybe half the 500 guests, we left before the actual ceremony – not apparently that unusual.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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The last day of the concerts was Shivratri, Lord Shiva’s birthday, enthusiastically celebrated in Varanasi, ‘City of Shiva’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A new glimpse of Varanasi

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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