Varanasi, Benares or Kashi – take your pick (India report #1)

11 11 2010
Ganges sign

No caption necessary

Okay, finally a post on our recent trip to India. I’m breaking the trip into segments beginning with the biggie: Varanasi. Varanasi is the city’s official name but it seems most residents call it Benares because, as our driver informed us, Varanasi is a tongue twister. The city was historically/religiously known as Kashi, or “city of light”. How fitting, coming on the tails of my “festival of lights” post. Of Varanasi, the Lonely Planet guidebook says,

  • “Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favorite stop of all.”

They speak truth.

I’ll throw in a few images here and there, but you can see the majority on the Flickr link at right. It was really difficult deciding which images to include after photographing a colorful, chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet place! Either it’s impossible to take a bad photo here or I’m becoming a really good photographer. I suspect the former.

Altogether, we spent a week there between the couple days at the beginning and the few days at the end of our India tour. I packed for 70-degree weather but in most of our India itinerary it was 90 degrees. The trip might have been even more chaotic were it not for the fact that my husband Suresh is fluent in Hindi (in addition to English, his native Nepali and a smattering of Bengali and Urdu…doesn’t it make you sick?). Because even the northern part of India, where they predominantly speak Hindi, is so vast, he could pretend to be Indian. So even though he had me, the Westerner, in tow, we were still able to navigate the city and score much better prices for goods and services. And let’s face it, Americans buy most everything at fixed cost so we’re terrible at bargaining. Being from a part of the world where bargaining is common, Suresh is good at it so I let him do all the talking. The only problem we encountered with our travel together is that at every hotel, they kept giving us rooms with 2 single beds. We finally came to the conclusion that everyone assumed Suresh was my local guide instead of my life partner. I don’t know what that says about me if they assumed I’d be sharing a hotel room with my guide, but we got a kick out of it.

Ganges View

Parlor of Ganges View Hotel

Here’s an image of one of our hotels, the Ganges View, which was amazing! We had extra excellent service to boot because half the hotel staff are Nepali! The hotel is the former home of the Indian version of a princess and passed down to family over generations until the current family converted part of it into a guesthouse. It still retains a palatial air and they home-cooked delicious vegetarian dinners for guests in the spirit of this holy city. What made this place even more special is the attitude of the owners toward art and culture. The current owner studied art in school and maintains a large collection of artworks and books in every nook and cranny of the hotel. He and his family are true patrons of the arts in the traditional sense because they host a cultural lecture/peformance series, actively buy artwork, and employ 3 generations of artists on commission (where the transaction occurs before the artwork is created) rather than on speculation (where the artist finds a buyer after creating the artwork). The grandfather artist has been coming to the hotel to paint nearly everyday for 20 years, and now his son and grandson accompany him. They copy historical works, Indian miniature painting and the like, which are displayed in the hotel and (I’m sure) sold for profit to gullible tourists like me. So picture me drinking sweetened milk chai on the rooftop garden of our hotel with a river view while enjoying artists paint and monkeys scamper on the railings. Here’s an image of the grandfather artist copying a painting:Copy art

Part of the overwhelmingness of Varanasi is its association with the cycle of life and death. To die in Varanasi and especially along the banks of the Ganges River is most auspicious for Hindus and an almost guaranteed way to achieve moksha (release from rebirth). I’m sure you know that Hindus believe in reincarnation after death, but the whole goal is to escape that cycle of rebirth and achieve true union with God. So even though we think of Hinduism as polytheistic, at its core is monotheism. Those who want to achieve that spiritual union come to Varanasi to die in “death hostels” along the riverbank so they’ll be that much closer to the cremation ghats. This could be why there’s such a distinction here between hotels for Hindus and hotels for non-Hindus and foreigners. We were told that Varanasi has 84 ghats (access stairs or platforms at river’s edge) but only a few are reserved for cremations. However since this city is the beating heart and soul of Hinduism, cremations occur 24/7 with at least 30,000 cremations every year (around 100/day). These are done in open air and in public view, hence the overwhelmingness of the city. The same plein-air cremations occur in Nepal and the rest of India, but not to the same extent. The air is constantly thick with smoke and I’ve discovered that I’m allergic to cremating bodies…not exactly something I’ll report on my next doctor’s visit. The bodies of the deceased are prepared and carried through the small lanes to the water. In fact the morning we left, we were walking through the lanes to catch a rickshaw to our hotel when we saw a body just laying in the middle of the walkway as it was prepared and wrapped for the final journey. Seconds later, I was accosted by an overly aggressive postcard vendor who, when I told him to leave me alone and have some respect for the dead, barked, “Varanasi is a nice city and people like you aren’t welcome here and shouldn’t return.” This little story is probably a good example of the “take-no-prisoners” guidebook quote.

Prayag Ghat

Varanasi Ghats

 

Despite the emotional rollercoaster complete with guilt trip sales pitch, I still had a wonderful time. We went on several dawn boat rides to watch the sunrise on the Ganges. We visited a copy of Kathmandu’s Pashupati Temple for visiting Nepalis, where I could actually go inside to view the garba griha (temple’s inner sanctum) unlike the original Pashupati in Kathmandu, which is reserved for Hindus. We saw the evening aarti (river worship) ceremony and it was great even if it’s performed primarily for tourists. The food we ate was delicious and I took advantage of the range of Indian food that doesn’t really exist at Indian restaurants in the United States, where the fare is mostly Punjabi. I love Indian breads dipped into different dhaals (lentils), vegetables, or dairy products such as yogurt or paneer (cheese) and let me tell you, there’s more than just naan bread in India. Plain or potato parantha is my current favorite but chapati is a simpler but equally delicious flatbread. South Indian breads and snacks are very popular throughout India and I ate my share of idli, a fermented dhaal/rice bread, and paper-thin dosa breads scooped into or covered in rich sambars. Bread and sambar makes a perfect breakfast comfort food that may replace my American egg and hashbrown breakfast cravings! Thank god there are a few good South Indian snack shops in Kathmandu where I can continue to indulge my taste buds for the next couple months. Yum!

Varanasi is particularly renowned for their silks and brocades, so you can bet I took advantage of the silk factories and markets! If my “sis” is reading this, she can look forward to a fancy new silk outfit for next year. Varanasi’s silk industry is entirely run by its large Muslim population. Despite being a Hindi epicenter, upwards of 40% of the population is Muslim, which reminds me of the old Delhi Muslim neighborhoods. Close to Varanasi are several of the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites such as Sarnath, Kushinagar and Bodhgaya. I guess all that cosmic energy attracts a diverse crowd.

The cosmic energy on a holy water site was good for my art karma, and I was able to create a slew of new artworks in my water series. I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m very excited about the the new body of work! Here’s a taste of images to come…

Kathryn Hagy splash

In process splash image from Varanasi's Scindhia Ghat

Advertisements

Actions

Information

25 responses

29 11 2010
Ashish

Hi Kathryn,
I am Ashish and I help run the website http://www.varanasi.to
I noticed that you have written blogs on Varanasi and was wondering if you would like to submit your blogs for publication on the website. If you have any photos or advice for fellow travelers which you would like to submit, we can put those in the Varanasi Alive.
Thanks a bunch,
Ashish

22 11 2010
LC

Hi Kathryn,
How great you are in Benares, what a magical place: I have amazing memories from there. 🙂
Leona

23 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hey Leona! Thanks for checking out my blog!

23 11 2010
Michelle Fiester

Leona,
How long ago were you there? What attractions did you see while there? I have never been overseas and am fascinated by it!
Michelle

22 11 2010
Amanda Walker

Kathryn,
I love the pictures you took, especially of the Varanasi Ghats. The buildings and the boats are so beautiful, so many colors! Does the whole city have this look? Do a lot of cities in India/Nepal have these types of archetecture?

23 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Amanda,

Varanasi is like no other place I’ve been. And the Ganges riverfront is different that the rest of the city. On the other hand, some of the architecture you see in those images is similar to what you might find in other areas of India, since the buildings may date from the same time period and be of the same style. Nepal is different. One does find Indian-inspired architecture in Nepal, but it’s infused with the cultures of Nepal. And India itself is a mix of different cultural styles.

Both India and Nepal are very colorful, however. In that they are similar. In Nepal, you find a lot of terra cotta brickwork so much of Kathmandu has a pinkish-orange glow. The colors work here because of the quality of light and other factors such as natural surroundings (tropical plants, etcetera).

19 11 2010
Anna

Kathryn,

I thought it was interesting to read about the “death hostels” (I read the article too). It must be amazing to be able to celebrate an old person’s death. There must be a lot of people who want to die there, but do you have to “book” a time there or what people can die there? Is it like a hospital almost?

Anna

23 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Anna,

Those hostels aren’t really like hospitals. I’m uncertain about how one goes about booking a room. It must be a very odd conversation to have on the phone when trying to book in advance, right?

18 11 2010
Michelle Fiester

Hi Kathryn,
I guess I should have been a little more specific with my question. haha. When I asked if they bargain for everything, I truly meant, do the people go into any and all stores and markets, and bargain for all things that they want and need, from food to technology? What do you think the success rate is?
Thanks!
Michelle

23 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Michelle,

Well, if I base my answer on experience shopping with my husband, I’d say that people do try to bargain as often as possible. There are fixed price shops for certain goods, but it’s not unheard of for people to ask for a “discount”. So yes, people bargain for the things they want and need from food to technology. It’s hard to find out if you’re successful unless you know how much other people are selling/buying for compared to what you’re paying. If people don’t like the price you offer, they’ll just smile or walk away. Likewise if you don’t like the price they’re selling for, you can do the same thing.

18 11 2010
Kayla

Hi Kathryn,
I thought it was interesting to hear how cremations happen regularly over there. Since they just do them out in the open does the air have a smell to it or does it just smell like normal smoke. Also have you ever been approached like that any other time like the man who told you you didnt belong there?

23 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Kayla,

Cremating bodies are a touchy subject. But to try to be as honest as possible, the smell isn’t unlike singed hair/fingernails. And that man who approached me was a singular experience for me, but aggressive vendors exist in many tourist places. He just added to the unusualness of that morning and his behavior was a stark contrast to the somberness I felt at the moment of seeing the deceased person. But that’s my reaction as someone from a country that mostly keeps death behind closed doors. In places like India and Nepal where death is only a beginning of another life, life and death experiences are treated very differently.

18 11 2010
Lindsey

Kathryn,

You mentioned bargaining earlier in your blog. I would imagine I would have difficulties doing this! Do the people who are selling items know when a ‘foreigner’ is about to buy something? Do they automatically know that they may not have to try as hard since many just buy it for the fixed price? It may even be humorous to the sellers to see somebody just take the initial price??

Lindsey

18 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Lindsey,

Most Nepalis can spot foreigners by obvious things like skin color, clothing, and language. In India, the signs may be slightly different. Non-resident citizens (those who’ve emigrated from the country but are back on a visit) are sometimes overcharged as well, since they dress and act differently. But there are other cultures and countries where people bargain just as hard, if not harder so some tourists may actually be good at bargaining.

15 11 2010
Michelle Fiester

Hi Kathryn,
Do the people bargain for everything? I imagine our Western grocery stores, Walmarts, etc., and I can not even imagine going in there and trying to strike a deal. They would laugh me out of the store! Especially because I am very bad at it.
Is it maybe just stands that are set up on sidewalks that they bargain with? It sounds like such a unique, beautiful country.
Michelle

15 11 2010
Ben Kromminga

Hello Kathryn!

In this blog you posted a picture of the grandfather copying a painting. Does the Indian art culture value art that is not original? It seems that in the United States we mostly value art that is original? So I guess my question is if art that is a copy of something else is considered just as legitimate as a new piece of art-work in the Indian realm?

18 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Ben,

I think that many Americans think they value original art but when I see some of the art that some people hang in their homes and offices, I’m not sure most Americans truly do value originality. Just visit the local Michael’s or Gordon’s at Lindale and note all the mass-produced and cheaply made (but expensively priced) art they sell.

Having said that, I can’t really speak for the entire Indian culture since there are at least 30 languages in India and as many variations in tradition/belief. The image the grandfather was copying was a traditional Mughal painting representing a period 300+ years ago. India’s contemporary art scene is a thriving world with many exciting artists. There have been many golden eras within India’s art history, each original in their own way but influenced by other things. And each of those golden eras influenced other eras. So, I’m basically expanding your question to state that there’s no simple answer and that we have to either examine details to come up with a defined answer or be willing to look at the breadth of Indian history to see the complexity.

12 11 2010
Jim Hagy

What no silk shirt for me to wear to my fly fishing club meetings? Dad

18 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Never say never.

12 11 2010
Jim Hagy

YEA Kathryn

12 11 2010
jane gilmor

This post is so nostalgic for me –reminding me of my boat trips on the Ganges in 1993 and similar encounters with the dead waiting to be cremated.
I saw Crit and Ron Streed who have lived in Katmandu twice and they love the Blog–again it reminds them of the wonders of those places and people!

18 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Oh, yeah!

12 11 2010
yer sis

Lovely photos.

Looking forward to my new silk outfit. Thank you!

11 11 2010
william allen

Hola! Question number 10! So you have the Muslim extremists and then the normal Muslims, and to a certain degree you have American Muslims, who have been aclimated to the American doctrine and may not see things as there brothers and sisters in Europe. Do the Muslims get along with the Hindus and is their religion and beliefs a little different due to their proximity to the Hindus or do you not see any Hindu influence?

18 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi William,

I was only in Benares for a week as a tourist, so I’m not really in a position to answer your question in a way that’s fair to India’s Muslims and Hindus. If you crack open any newspaper or news website (especially in light of Obama’s recent India trip), you’ll see articles on tensions between certain of India’s ethnic/religious/political groups. Ever since India’s Partition (and before), there have been tensions, but also stories of how people from different backgrounds worked together and/or helped one another. So that’s my best answer during this Eid al Adha week.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: