Varanasi

Originally posted May 14th, 2014

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I can’t say I was sad to leave Varanasi on Easter Sunday when we set off for the tiny domestic airport just outside of the city 5 hours early. Nor did I regret our decision when we ended up unable to check in for 3 hours and sitting in a small waiting area with exactly one bookshop, one Himalayan Herbal Healthcare, and one small food stand. Varanasi was hot and complicated, with an overwhelming main street and an abundance of what our Rishikesh taxi driver would have called “cheater cheater men”, which he’d warned us there were many of in Delhi. After two nights and three days, I still hadn’t quite been able to figure out how I felt about Varanasi or whether any of what I had seen went deeper than surface level. It’s a place I’ve thought about often since I left, so I suppose one thing is clear: it made an impact. IMG_2057.JPG

Located between the Varuna and Asi rivers, the origin of the name “Varanasi” may appear quite logical, but this is a city of many names. Also called Benares or Kashi and referred to by turns as “the city of learning”, “the city of light”, and “the city of temples”, Varanasi seems to have as confused an identity as this multiplicity of names suggests. Varanasi is a city of both water and fire; it’s a city where Hindus come to die but it’s also a city overwhelmingly filled with life. Whatever you want to call it, this place is a perfect representation of what I found apparent in so many Indian cities as it showcases the confusion between the holy and the all-too worldly; between the beautiful and the repulsive.

Varanasi saw the foundation of Buddhism in the 500s BCE, and has long been held sacred by Hindus as one of the seven holy cities which allows those who die there to enter moksha – release from the cycle of rebirth. However, at times the intense showmanship when it comes to religion makes the sacred seem to be little more than a display of devotion meant to inspire tourists to spend money; every man is out for himself and in direct competition with all those around him. And the caste system which is still all too obvious within India is certainly a powerful force in this city. Only the lowest “untouchable” castes can burn the bodies as it’s an ‘unclean’ or impure job, but we were told they themselves are not allowed the honour of being burned on the main ghats. There’s a separate place for the poor. As it is, a burning ceremony is expensive for the average Indian family with the cost of transportation, wood, materials to prepare the body, and taxes. When they can’t afford to buy enough wood, bodies are at times either placed in the Ganges unburned, or partially burned. Which is pretty disconcerting considering the number of people who bathe, brush their teeth and do their laundry just a few ghats down from the designated cremation area.

(Here’s an article about a woman from the Dom caste who has this prestigious yet undesirable job)

We arrived in Varanasi by plane early in the morning, walking out of the airport and into the dust and heat which was quite oppressive even at that hour. Taking a taxi into the area of the city by the main ghats (the stairways leading to the Ganges) we quickly realised that finding your way around Varanasi takes practice. We would soon learn that wandering through the small alleyways it becomes easy to lose your bearing, squeezing past water buffalo and weaving through street vendors. The ghats which were perhaps just a few minutes ago hot and busy suddenly make for a reassuring and refreshing relief from this claustrophobic atmosphere.

After being dropped off, our obvious confusion was noticed by the owner of a small internet café who attempted to give us instructions to our guesthouse. Just then, one of his friends came up and said that he knew the place we were looking for and that the owner was a buddy of his. This seemed pretty unlikely as our destination was an obscure guesthouse which has no website and no advertising; you really only go there if you know the guy, and I had booked it on recommendation from some friends who had just stayed there. But we waited around a minute and it paid off! An awkward man showed up on a motorcycle and, with a weak handshake, introduced himself as our landlord. I hadn’t been convinced that he’d understood me on the phone the week before, so I was relieved that he knew my name and appeared to have been expecting us. So are we walking there? Nope. He pointed to the motorcycle. Well, I guess if you’re okay with it, we are too. So he got on, followed by my mom and our duffel bag (luckily the big bags were safely stored away in Delhi at this point) and then by me. It was quite the thrilling ride, winding around tight corners, but luckily not a long one as we were very close by.

This place was the definition of simple. We walked through rough wooden doors, down a little corridor where this man’s wife was taking care of their baby parrots, and into our room where his two little daughters were sleeping. He pulled them off of the bed and they helped put on pillow cases and a sheet and our room was ready. Just a bed, a simple bathroom and, very importantly, a fan, but this place became home quickly and really was all we needed.

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As our guesthouse was located at the top of one of the ghats, we spent most of our first day in Varanasi wandering along the Ganges beginning to familiarize ourselves with the area.

There is much historic splendour along the Ganges in the form of ancient buildings constructed by the rich maharaja from the past, although most are irreparably unmaintained at this point. Of the 84 ghats in the city, the two most famous are the Dashashwamedh, the main ghat which Lord Brahma was supposed to have created to welcome Shiva (at the very least all concede that he sacrificed some horses here), and the Mahasmasana – the ‘great cremation ghat’. While the former is a place of celebration in the form of Agni Pooja, the worship to fire, the latter is, as the name suggests, where bodies are burned around the clock.

For part of our walk we were accompanied by an Indian Dr. Seuss who seemed to think that the best way to communicate any information is through rhymes. I think he was wrong.

Once again, as the sun set, we saw several aartis beginning along the Ganges with the huge crowds and bright lights making them an unavoidable spectacle. DSC_0320.JPG

Our second day in Varanasi we began by touring a selection of the numerous temples the city has to offer. Mr. Landlord had organised a rickshaw driver to take us from place to place and then to drop us off in the Mughal district to tour a silk factory since this is one of the most prominent industries in the city. At each temple our rickshaw would pull over somewhere on the street leading to it and we would disembark, leaving our shoes in the vehicle and walking barefoot into the temple. Of the places we visited one of the most distinctive was the Durga Temple, also known as the Monkey Temple because an absurd number of monkeys live there, impressing and intimidating you as enter this place of worship.

As we were zigzagging around the city we rode through the Banares Hindu University. Considered the best university in India, it is also one of the largest in Asia. The campus was very impressive and as we entered suddenly everything became quiet and green; it was a peaceful haven from the rest of the city.

Our last stop on the tour was the Mughal, or Muslim, section of Varanasi, where the famous Banarasi silk sarees are made. These are traditional wedding sarees made popular throughout India for the quality of the fabric and the opulent gold and silver used in their elaborate patterns. We watched as two men worked at massive looms in a small, dark room, weaving together rich pinks and purples with gold and silver to form floral-patterned fabric. Then we walked down the small winding streets and got to peak into a room where men were sitting embroidering details on the finished fabric. Finally, we were taken to the store where finished products were sold to simply view the fabrics – “no pressure to buy mamma!” our guide stated over and over again, smiling a largely toothless smile and reassuring us time and again that as my mom was his American mamma and he is my Indian brother, he would never cheat us. Then, to no one’s surprise, we bought some goods and he ripped us off. I think there was probably an unspoken agreement that this was always going to happen – we were the wealthy American tourists and he was the Indian salesman and that story just had to play itself out. We had an entertaining time, though, and watching the weaving was beautiful, as were the pieces we ended up buying.

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Another hour or so of wandering around the city – which included a break at a well-known tea shop run by a teenage boy who spoke fluent French – and it was evening: time for a boat ride. You can’t go to Varanasi as a tourist and not view it from the water at least once. Our boatman rowed us past all the centre ghats, pausing at the cremation ghat where dusk made the fires even more prominent than usual, burning in front of the dark city. He told us about the different maharaja who had built the crumbling buildings that we passed, and explained that his family had always been boatmen, although they did not have enough savings to buy their own boats but instead worked for others. We circled back to the ghat where the main aarti takes place and viewed it from our boat which was sandwiched in among dozens more. While it was lovely to watch, and beautiful to see candles floating down the Ganges (we also bought a couple and set them afloat) the fact that it seemed like a show might be because it is: according to some, this practice is far from traditional, but recently created to attract tourists to the city. (BBC article)

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We were brought back to our hotel and made an appointment to meet the same man at 5:30am the next morning for a sunrise ride. Varanasi does look it’s best early in the morning, although I wouldn’t say it’s calm even at that hour. Many people were out, starting their days with meditation or doing laundry, and, of course, there were the fishermen. Yes, this river which body remains wash into, where people brush their teeth and do their laundry, this river is also home to delicious fish which one can purchase at the market!

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Varanasi is a place with two very opposing images. The way it’s publically portrayed, as holy and timeless, and the way people describe it as dirty, touristy and uncomfortable. There’s the way you feel when you are sitting in a boat looking at the calm waters and the clear sky, and there there’s the memory of being in a crowd when it’s hot and dusty and the smell of cremated bodies lingers in the air.

These two very different quotes about the Ganges seem to sum it up:

“Ganga is not only a river. She is truly a Divine Mother. She rushes forth from the Himalayas as the giver of life, carrying purity, bliss and liberation in Her waters. Ganga is not only water. She is nectar – the nectar of life the nectar of liberation. She is a source of inspiration to all who lay eyes on her ceaseless, boundless, rushing current. She irrigates not only our farms, but also our hearts, minds, and souls. She is the Mother Goddess – giving freely to all with no discrimination, hesitation or expectations. Her waters purify all who bathe in them, all who drink from them. In fact, She is the remover of contamination.” 

-paramath.com

 “Which black river am I talking of – which river of Death, whose banks are full of rich, dark, sticky mud whose grip traps everything that is planted in it, suffocating and chocking and stunting it?

Why, I am talking of Mother Ganga, daughter of the Vedas, river of illumination, protector of us all, breaker of the chain of birth and rebirth. Everywhere this river flows, that area is the Darkness.”

– Aravind Adiga “The White Tiger”

Both of these impressions are ones that you feel fairly immediately in Varanasi and I suppose they can overlap and intertwine to make this city, while confusing, an interesting and layered one.

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Rishikesh (and Haridwar)

Originally posted May 10th, 2014

First up: Rishikesh

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The birthplace of yoga, Rishikesh is a city built along the shores of a beautifully green Ganges.

Its most distinguishing feature besides the river itself is the numerous ashrams scattered throughout which attract hoards of Western hippies to this peaceful mountain region. It’s quite the destination for those searching for tranquillity and spiritual instruction. Or for people who want to hang out and watch monkeys, like we did. There were lots of monkeys.

We showed up exhausted after a 14 hour bus ride, throughout which my mother decided it was her responsibility to stay awake with her eyes firmly fixed on the back of the drivers head just in case he dared make any careless manoeuvres. The first thing we did was head to our guesthouse’s balcony for a reviving breakfast. Then I had my first shower in three months which didn’t run out of hot water within a few minutes and which I could enter with bare feet and laid down to rest on a bed with real pillows. It was one of the best moments of my life.

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A short walk down the road, past a man dressed as Hanuman, the monkey god, and we appeared at the Ganges – a river known as Mother Ganga and held sacred by Hindus, making many of the cities along its shore sites of pilgrimage. As we reached the stairs leading down to the water we were surprised by how impressively green and powerful the water was, making us think for a split second that somehow we’d turned the corner and appeared in Verona. Any illusions that we’d entered a romantic Italian city immediately vanished, however, as soon as we stepped onto the crowded bridge which shook all too perceptibly with every step and which was serving as playground to a dozen monkeys. On the other side of the river there was one particularly imposing temple and several nearby ashrams. We browsed through the many shops aimed at tourists and walked past numerous cafes offering relaxation and a pleasant view, while street vendors tried to sell us postcards or powder-bindi kits (which we may or may not have bought…).

DSC_0004.JPGDSC_0069.JPGDSC_0036.JPGDSC_0018.JPGDSC_0042.JPGBack at our hotel we asked the English owner of our guesthouse what we needed to do with just one day in Rishikesh. She sent us to the evening aarti down by the river, a half an hour walk from where we’d been that afternoon. An aarti is a worship ritual during which songs of prayer are sung while lamps are lit in order to offer light to the gods. The name comes from the word “Aratrika” which means “removes dark (ratri)”, and it is a crucial part of almost every Hindu ceremony. So we set out early to get some food first and ended up at a little place down by the water. The abundance of flies diminished the atmosphere slightly but the food was very good.

DSC_0073.JPGThen we took a long, meandering walk down to the area where the main aarti takes place – Parmath Niketan – along a lovely riverside path. For the final half of our journey we were joined by an extremely friendly Indian man who approached us trying to sell drums and then, realising we weren’t just a tough sell but genuinely didn’t want one, he settled for conversation. We still showed up too early for the sunset ceremony and spent some time in an ashram garden, happy to find some shade. As soon as the gates opened, we chose to sit on the steps closest to the river, dipping our feet into the cool water while watching the place slowly fill up. It was pleasantly less touristy than we had expected as the vast majority of the visitors seemed to be there for spiritual reasons rather than curiosity. Throughout the entire ceremony you could see how passionately invested so many were and how sincerely they joined in with the prayer.

One of the young boys in yellow leading the aarti was playing an instrument and singing the prayer. His voice was one of the most beautifully clear and pure sounds I’ve ever heard, and while we, of course, didn’t know exactly what was being chanted, the even and repetitive singing was entrancing. It also served as a beautiful backdrop to the entire scene as we sat there, feet in the Ganges, witnesses to the emotions of the crowd: faces around us expressed by turns enthusiastic pleasure, calm enjoyment, and focused devotion.

Then H.H. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji Maharaj (luckily for his friends, he goes by a shorter version: Pujya Swamiji) came down into the crowd and joined with some other VIPs to light a fire and say some prayers, all of which I’m sure were very significant but I can’t say I knew what was going on. It turns out he’s quite the famous holy man with an assortment of accolades listed on his website. (We talked to someone later in our journeys about this aarti and he expressed disapproval of Pujya Swamiji as he didn’t believe that it was appropriate for holy men to become so embroiled in politics.) At this point some kind of lecture started during which many people began to leave and we decided to head out as well before the sun finished setting. After we left the aarti concluded with the iconic offering of light to the Gods in thanks for the light they provided all day long. However, we were happy to head back to our comfortable guesthouse and, as we saw the same process in Varanasi a few nights later, I don’t feel much regret for leaving early.

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The next morning our time in Rishikesh had already come to an end. After breakfast we decided that there was little point in hanging around longer since we had an hour’s drive to our train station in Haridwar and chose to get there early in order to see a bit of this sister city before we left the area. Turned out this was a pretty ignorant idea as there was no way we could wander around and see anything in just a few hours, but we had quite the adventure nonetheless.

HARIDWAR…

On the ride over my mother expressed an interest in the red thread bracelet on our taxi drivers wrist and he explained that it was blessed and that the god Hanuman would protect the wearer from harm and bring them good fortune. We quite liked this idea, so he stopped the taxi on a side street and bought us some. Perched in the front seat of his taxi in front of the train station, he held the string up to a makeshift altar on his dashboard while saying a prayer and then continued to pray as he wrapped them around our wrists. So now the deal is that we’ll be protected as long as we don’t remove them but let them eventually fall off on their own.

Then we got to experience an Indian train station for the first time. Like everything else, it seemed to function in a unique state of organised disorder. We stored our bags in their locker after much confusion about the process, including me running around the station trying to buy the cheapest ticket possible since ours was technically from another station and therefore not valid at the storage room. There were people sitting on the floor all over the station and we decided to temporarily escape the crowds by heading out into the streets… (ha!). We entered one of the first restaurants we found with quite low expectations. It was a chain specialising in dosas and the image on the door was a cartoon of what looked like an Italian chef, but surprisingly we then had one of the best meals I’ve had in India – a vegetarian thali (basically a tasting platter with lots of little dishes) which I’d seen many times on menus but this was the first one I’d ordered.DSC_0186.JPG

As we finished up, we saw some commotion outside and went to investigate. There was a political rally going down the street in support of the lotus party and its candidate, Modi. Most people we talked to while in India stated that they planned on voting for Modi if they were going to vote at all. Others claimed that there was no good choice as everyone was corrupt and that Indian politics was the same as it had always been; lots of promises and no intentions to follow through. DSC_0189.JPGDSC_0191.JPGDSC_0207.JPG

It was clear that there was nothing we could do with just two hours left to kill so back it was to the train station for us. We picked up our bags so that they could serve as seats and sat on the main platform watching all the life around us. Monkeys ran back and forth above our heads, which was charming until the man next to me showed a deep gash in his arm from when a monkey had bitten him five days earlier. That combined with the line of people who started forming eager to have their pictures taken with us drove us a bit further down the platform.

We watched as those without reserved seats in the more expensive coaches shoved themselves into the luggage carriages where they would have to stand for the duration of their journey. Quite a few leapt into doorways as the train was moving, hanging on from there or sitting on the stairs. Space certainly isn’t left unused in India. There was one family arriving by train who seemed to be moving house – the three or four children and two adults kept jumping back into the train to collect more packages, bedframes, and chairs and passing them onto the platform before they loaded up every person and walked out of the station. DSC_0211.JPGDSC_0232.JPG

Finally our train pulled in (but on time!) and it turns out the reserved seating area is lovely. They just kept bringing us food. First it was a snack, then a meal, then tea, then dessert… It went on and on and highly efficiently. It was only 5 or so hours and then we were in New Delhi ready for a night of rest before our flight to Varanasi!

Playing Holi in Delhi

Originally posted March 22nd, 2014

Celebrated in the north of India to show joy about the coming spring, Holi is one of the oldest Hindu festivals and an incredibly distinctive one. More about fun than religion, Holi starts the evening before with bonfires and on the day is celebrated by raucous and playful behaviour; pulling pranks and, of course, the iconic throwing of coloured powder and paints – then hugs all around and wishing everyone a “Happy HOLI!”. Still, this holiday does of course have its roots in Hindu mythology. I couldn’t actually get anyone to describe what these roots were, so I looked it up.

Apparently the term Holi comes from the name Holika – the legendary sister of a power-hunger king with a very long name I can’t even begin to pronounce who wanted to be worshiped by all of his people. When his son Prahlad worshiped Vishnu instead, this king told his sister to kill the boy. She had the power to walk through fire without being burned (I can’t say I would find this a very useful power day-to-day, but I guess it’s cool) and so walked into a fire with her nephew in the hopes that he would perish. But of course he was saved by the Gods and she died instead. This is where the bonfire tradition comes from. Then when it comes to the paint-throwing, apparently this is attributed to Krishna who, as a child, threw coloured water over milkmaids as a prank. Fairly loosely related as far as I can tell, but there you go!

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I’ve read that Holi is a time where anything goes; where rules and conventions are put on hold and everyone can participate in the fun equally, regardless of age or gender. This is what some sites wrote about Holi:

“Everyone gets involved – with no distinctions between caste, class, age or gender.” BBC

“Women, especially, enjoy the freedom of relaxed rules and sometimes join in the merriment rather aggressively.” About.com

I’d say this is a pretty misleading and simplistic description when compared to how Holi actually plays out in most places around India. Based on my own experience and what I’ve heard from others, the very fact that rules are relaxed and chaos encouraged leads to incredibly apparent challenges for women. Maybe this is a holiday where men and women are allowed to leave social conventions behind and play by the same rules – or rather, lack of rules in this case – but this is India and in much of the country men and women simply aren’t equal here for 364 days of the year and this mindset doesn’t suddenly vanish on Holi. So on that one day where anything goes, obviously the effect isn’t equal for both genders.

Maybe in places like Naddi Holi is equally participated in and enjoyed by all involved, and maybe that’s what Holi is supposed to be, but what I experienced was very far from the descriptions I included above. There wasn’t one single Indian woman in sight in Delhi. And for good reason – most young Indian men used this festival as an excuse to touch women, some more innocently with lingering hugs and others more overtly. It can also just be very aggressive – water balloons are thrown from rooftops, coloured foam is sprayed in your face and powder forcefully rubbed into your hair. Often all of this is happening simultaneously and with all the anonymous hands grabbing at you at once it’s incredibly disconcerting and overwhelming. Most of the people I talked to who had been in India for Holi before stayed locked in their hotel rooms all day this time around. It’s the kind of thing that most people tend to do once to experience and then spend every other year avoiding.

In fact, I even read that in 2012 in Delhi, International Women’s Day fell on the same day as Holi and any activities planned had to be held days earlier because women were too reluctant to leave their homes.We also talked to a shop keeper the day after Holi who, when we asked him if he’d enjoyed the celebration, replied that he’d stayed inside all day. He said that young people these days use Holi as an excuse to get immensely drunk, harass people in the street and pick-pocket. He claimed that this is quite a recent change, and I’m sure that it’s far more common to manifest itself like this when celebrated in city streets among strangers than in small communities of relatives and friends – how it was traditionally celebrated.

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Still, I had a pretty great time all things considered and I feel very lucky to have had the chance to participate in such a unique holiday during my time here in India. I took an overnight bus to Delhi with some friends the night before, arriving in the city early in the morning on the day itself. We checked into a hotel, had breakfast, and as soon as I stepped outside to make a phone-call, it began. There were quite a few of us interns from Naddi, Rajol and Punjab and it was fun walking around as a big group and seeing everyone transform throughout the day.

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