Thursday, October 6, 2011


Think of the quietest, most serene place you know. For me, it would be early morning at our cottage (yes, I do sometimes get up early).  The mist hovers over the water, smudging all the colours and softening the rugged landscape of the Canadian shield.  The water reflects the shoreline, and not a ripple disturbs the surface.  Ah, peace at Six Mile Lake.

Now think of the exact opposite.   You've just imagined Varanasi.  There's nothing muted about Varanasi. There's so much activity, your senses can go into overload.  This will be a long post, trying to describe the variety of experiences we squeezed into a mere 2 days.

Varanasi is the most holy city of the Hindus, situated on the banks of the Mother Ganges river, brown with silt and swollen by the best monsoon for many years.  Broad steps, called ghats, descend from the town on the embankment down to the river.  On our two boat trips on the river, I came to think of the ghats as stages for the performance of life.

We had a car bring us from the airport, but we had to walk the last part of the way to the hotel, because the streets were too narrow for the car. We reached it through a narrow lane past one of Mother Teresa's hospitals, dodging big cow plops.That was the first time - but not the last - that we would see cows in the street.

Our hotel was right on the Ganges at the Shivali Ghat.  There were street repairs at the main entrance, so we walked down onto the ghat, and then climbed a narrow unlit staircase where even I had to duck to the lovely central courtyard.  It looked pretty unprepossessing from that perspective, but when we got into the hotel itself, it was quite lovely.

We had dots painted on our forehead for luck, flowers sprinkled over us and served tea as we registered in the small office. The hosts were delightful and accommodating, moving us to a room with a great view, and repositioning the Internet router for best reception in our room. We had a lovely Thale dinner there, our first such dinner in India.

Our window looked out on the ghat, and we could go out on the long balcony and see life unfold:

Men coming to wash and worship and to - shudder - drink the water, water buffalo coming for their morning or evening swims,

                                  barbers shaving customers

a group of women in colourful saris who wash themselves, then their saris, and then build a lingam of mud left from when the Ganges dropped silt on the ghat in monsoon, cover it with flowers, light candles and perform some kind of ceremony

young nuns in some sort of initiation ceremony, escorted by drums and cymbals and tinkling bells, 

water buffalo wading in for a drink.

There were boats docking and leaving, Hindu holy men facing the river and chanting. And that's just a few of the things I saw one morning at dawn on the ghat outside our window.

We took one boat ride at sunset, to see the evening aarti ceremonies along the ghats.  There were Hindu holy men in bright orange robes, worshipping with water, sandalwood, incense and fire.  In fact, from our vantage point on the water by the main ghat, there were several ceremonies, with competing music and chants. Smoke drifted over us from the cremations taking place on the ghats, some newly set with flames dancing to the sky, others with embers gently glowing.  A body drifted by - those who can't afford cremation sometimes sneak bodies into the river so their relative can participate in the holiness of the site.

Like others along the river, we floated little lights along the water.  A beautiful young girl joined us on the boat with a wide shallow basket in which there were shallow saucers filled with beautiful flowers.  One by one she lit little lamps (like tiny candles in paper muffin holders), handed them to us and we gently placed them on the water.

We also walked in the city. Everywhere we walked in the narrow twisting lanes, there was action and noise.  The main reason I said Varanasi was the opposite of serenity was because of the traffic.  Toronto traffic is to Varanasi traffic as a gentle hum is to a series of cymbal clashes.  And it assaults both your eyes  and your ears,  not to mention your equanimity.  Here's a list of what you see on the streets of Varanasi:

  • Motorcycles and motor scooters: nobody wears a helmet, and there can be many people sharing a vehicle
  • Auto-rickshaws:  an auto-rickshaw is a three wheeled vehicle built on a motorcycle frame, with a solid floor, front end including the windshield, and a body halfway up the back, with canvas on top.  The driver sits in the middle at front with handlebars.  There is a backseat that might fit two Canadians cozily.  There's about a six inch shelf facing the back seat and either a shallow seat facing backwards at the back or just a running board.  This vehicle is green on the bottom and golden yellow on top and they are ubiquitous.  So far, the maximum number of passengers I've observed is fifteen.
  • Bicycle rickshaws, with a single seat and a small canvas awning, usually restricted to two passengers
  • Bicycles of all shapes and ages, with varying numbers of passengers 
  • Carts, simple flatbeds, powered by men, bullocks, bicycles, horses (rarely)and sometimes with a cart trailing behind loaded with astonishing loads
  • Small three-wheeled  trucks of all sorts
  • Some big trucks and buses, all highly decorated
  • A few cars, jeeps and mini-vans
  • A road wheelchair, sort of like a recumbent bike, powered by a sari-clad woman with her arms
However those are just the styles of transport on the road.  Stalls spill onto the road. Pedestrians walk on the road, all the sidewalks being filled with vendors; some were terrifyingly young unaccompanied children. Old men sleep at the curbside.  Sacred  white cows wander at will down the middle of the road, impervious to the beeps of horns.  Herds of water buffalo amble by.  Dogs sleep peacefully on the pavement.  Goats are plentiful.

Chaos rules.  In Delhi I noticed drivers might wander across a lane.  In Varanasi, people don't respect even the direction of the street!  At one place there was a boulevard with cement divider about 3 feet high and 2 feet wide.  Still, many rickshaws (auto and bicycle) would drive down the wrong side of the boulevard.  And roundabouts!  Well, it would really be too inefficient to go three quarters of the way around a roundabout.  Better to just drive around one quarter of it going the wrong way.

Horns in India are more a road-runner cartoon style beep beep than a full-throated honk.  And they're used for informational purposes, announcing one's presence to all these vehicles, most of whom have no rear mirrors, rather than to express irritation - sort of like "Fore" on a golf  course.  In fact many vehicles have "Blow Horn" painted on the back, requesting such a warning since they can't see behind.

At one point, we were trapped in a jam at a round-about in a mess that really redefined gridlock for me.  Vehicles interwoven so tightly that even bicycles could not squeeze through.  Vehicles pointing in all directions all mixed up as they had chosen random routes around the circle.  20 minutes sitting stock still, soaking in the atmosphere. Thankfully we had complete confidence in our driver, and air conditioning!

We saw the Golden Temple.  One can't take cameras in, so we stopped at a small shop which stored things in small locked boxes 'for free'. Of course, we're becoming accustomed to the obligations for purchase that such services attract.  We visited the area of the main ghat, saw cremations up close and met a procession carrying a body in a bright sari down to be cremated.

We visited the area where they make the silk that Varanasi is famous for.  The male weavers sit cross-legged in dark low rooms lit by a single light bulb.   The loom is powered by a treadle worked by the weaver's feet and the loom is directed by loops of cardboard on which are punched out the pattern (like a player piano) which raise and lower the appropriate threads.  The weaver must know the order of thread to send through with the shuttle.  The weaving is almost all done by Muslim men, while the trade of silk is almost all done by Hindus, including the beaming store owner who enticed us into parting with a chunk of change for a variety of beautiful silks.

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