Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Loving Varanasi: Part 2

Varanasi, the city that BK and I were texting early this morning about missing, is defined by its Ghats, there are several dozens of them. But we have chosen the off-season to go there; it is the monsoon, and all the steps that lead down to the Ganga are under water. Every day, we see an increase in the water level, every afternoon, there is rain, every evening, it is the most utter joy to sit on a chair in the balcony sipping mint tea, the only thing I quite liked in the Ganpati Guest House menu.

Every touristy place you go to, there are certain things you are expected to check off your list. As per the tourist laws, we took a sunrise boat ride the next morning. I realized that sometimes, with these boatmen, you have to put your foot down and demand that they move, because by the time our man was ready to sail off, the sun was already up. I chose not to be too disappointed though and got some excellent pictures, two that look incredibly unreal. The boatman’s daughter Preethi, a very pretty little thing, hops on and makes us float away small lit wicks kept between flowers on a paper plate. A clear ploy, for, at the end of the half hour trip, she gets Rs 100 from Bilal.

Bilal is a Kurdish doctor we have met the previous day. He is staying at the guest house too. That’s the thing about travelling in Varanasi, I realize later. You meet dozens of people and strike up conversations. Many interesting tales are traded in, some bond over a joint, some become friends you keep in touch with, others are good company for an evening. Of course, most often you would be expected to explain the Indian caste system and talk a bit about the various Gods (a tiring exercise, more so when you realize how difficult it is to simplify our complex religion and explain to someone who hasn’t grown up in its intricacies).

Bilal accompanies us for the Ganga Aarti the previous evening, another absolute must do when you are in the city. The rains have covered the steps, hence the theatre happens in two places, one on a high platform and a smaller one closer by. These prayers, I am told, are done at sunrise too, but it is the evening one that draws in the crowds.

I call it a theatre performance because that is pretty much what it is. The hour long prayer to River Ganga is beautifully choreographed and is performed by young priests dressed in silk, some rather good looking men (ahem!). The Ganga is worshipped with incense, flowers, fans, conchs, the famous tiered-lamps, etc. This whole process is said to have been going on without a break for over 1000 years now! When you think about it, it is actually mighty impressive. So is the city, though no building is over 300-400 years old, the lanes and the buildings look like they have stood forever.

You get carried away by the aarti at the main Ghat, the Dasaswamedh Ghat. I go back twice more, the third time, I have a balcony seat view from a boat (for which I pay Rs 50), just about 10 feet from the aarti. That is most impressive. The smells, sounds and the sights add to the sentiments you have about Varanasi. The cynical me of the shaky faith wonders whether loving the city is an idea you are fed with from childhood, some good religious marketing. Kashi, Varanasi is to Hindus what Mecca is to Muslims. So perhaps, from the constant cultural references, from the halo that is given to the place, from the awe that accompanies the mention of it, you are culturally conditioned to like the city. Perhaps it is the vibe of faith of millions of people that rubs off you. Either which ways, there is something magical, something that gets under your skin, something that changes you and your perceptions. I choose my non-cynical side and prefer to soak in that feeling.

We take it easy, being lazy and blaming it on the weather. It is too hot to be out in the afternoons, though the narrow lanes shade you from the worst of it. Day breaks early. I am high on adrenaline perhaps and survive on less than 5 hours of sleep every day, so much that I fear I would collapse. Slowly, the lanes and the way they are laid out start to make sense. You can walk the length on the city by skipping along its Ghats. But because of the rains, we have to navigate to the main road and then to the next Ghat again. If you know the way or the language to ask for the way, you need not see the main road at all, the lanes would take you to every next Ghat.

We check more things off the list, the Nepali temple with erotic sculptures, many other Ghats, Benaras Hindu University (BHU) and paan chewing. The Nepali temple is five minutes from where we stay, again accessible only on foot. There are several Nepal-government sponsored boys studying Sankrit and the Vedas. Kashi, for centuries, has been a great learning centre for traditional sciences and the Holy Scriptures.

BHU is nice too, though the ride proves expensive. The Bharat Kala Bhavan is a huge museum. I was never a very museum person, but these days, I quite like them (don’t tell me that’s age and wisdom speaking! Ugh!). We don’t ponder before each exhibit, but I am super excited to see an Indus Valley storage jar dating 2700-2000 BC! I also love the Alice Boner gallery where her lithe figurines of the dancer Uday Shankar are almost poetry. The New Kashi Vishwanath Temple is a modern structure, marble tiled and spacious. Reminds me of the Krishna temple in Bangalore. We visit dozens more temples. A bright red Durga temple, another where you are assured of being rid of all obstacles, many more.

Lunch one afternoon is at the Sami Café, near Gowdolia, housed in an old building owned by the royal family of Kashi. Known for its Meditarrean cuisine (I try hummus, pita bread and falafel, extremely good), the garden café overlooks a lovely old Kali temple. Please, please go for the fantastic Turkish coffee there.

BK goes back to the guest house. I get talking to the café guys and ask where we could get some good Benaras paan, the betel leaf concoction that is part of the local culture. I pass the bonding test then and they buy me a paan (rather good) and get talking, mostly off the record stuff. It is a good, good conversation.

We take in Sarnath too, with Jayoung Nam, an incredibly sweet Korean-America I get along fantastically well with. Sarnath is beautifully quiet after the chaos of Varanasi’s streets. The museum there has the original Ashoka pillar from which we get the national emblem and an incredibly beautiful statue of Buddha. Sarnath is a 3-4 hour trip.

We come back and head to a little known place. More on that, on learning to identify the path to the burning Ghats, and on the intense, deeply moving experience of visiting the main temple, on meeting a descendent of Ravana, do read tomorrow. I promise it will be the last part of loving Varanasi! Plus pictures tomorrow as well.

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