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

Festival of Lights

7 11 2010

This week is, believe it or not, another Nepal holiday – the festival of lights – known as Tihar, Diwali or Dipawali here. I’ll quote/paraphrase from Mary Anderson’s The Festivals of Nepal in order to somewhat explain Tihar. Anderson states that “Tihar literally means ‘a row of lamps’ and lighting displays are traditional, but this festival is actually a succession of significant holidays celebrated for a variety of reasons.” Whereas Dashain ushered in the beginning of harvest season, Tihar ends it and an ancient New Year begins again. Laxmi, goddess of wealth and good fortune,  is Tihar’s primary deity. “Nepalese adore this beautiful goddess, make gifts and offerings to her, worship her idols and propitiate her, especially at Tihar festival, when she circles the earth on an owl, inspecting the homes to see that they have been scrupulously cleansed and a light left burning in her honour. For if she is pleased she will protect the money box and grain stores of each family, and grant prosperity throughout the coming year.” Laxmi sounds a little like Santa Claus, don’t you think?

The 5 days of Tihar begin with crow worship and people set out small bowls made from sewn green leaves filled with food for the crows. Actually, in my walks around Kathmandu, I’ve noticed these small offerings here and there so people leave offerings for crows on other days as well. In the Hindu pantheon, crows foretell of death and disaster. However, I read a recent article that crows rank in intelligence with dolphins and primates so maybe regular crow offerings to avoid ill omens aren’t such a bad idea?

Tihar’s 2nd day is dog puja (dog worship). There are so many stray and ill-treated dogs in Kathmandu that I wish everyday was dog puja. On this day, dogs are garlanded with flowers, given a tika mark (blessing) on their foreheads, and fed special treats. Dogs mythically guard the gates of death and honoring dogs on this day might help your soul pass lightly into the next world. I typically carry around a bag of doggy biscuits but even the stray dogs won’t eat them so they must taste horrible. Or, the street dogs are so suspicious from their harsh life that they won’t eat food from human hands. My last theory, after seeing many dogs kindly receiving butcher scraps is that, after a life of fresh raw meat, dog biscuits just don’t cut it.

The third day is Laxmi puja and the day that cows are worshipped in the same way dogs are (tika, flower garlands, favorite food). Laxmi puja is one of the biggest days and it seems everyone was out lighting firecrackers, singing and dancing, and preparing light displays to guide Laxmi to their front doors. I walked around and took pictures of all the great displays in my neighborhood and you can see in the rangoli designs below how the cow dung mixed with red ochre and holy water and covered with powdered pigments, flowers and candles decorate the entryways of people’s homes. I love all the different democratic artworks to attract Laxmi, and the swastika you’ll see below originates in Hinduism (and is utilized in Buddhism/Jainism as well) as a sign of good luck or well-being. Swastikas were only later corrupted by the Nazis, but are still everywhere in Nepal and some other Asian countries. Note the ‘tika’ in ‘swastika’ bestowed as a blessing mark of colored powder/paste on the forehead of Hindus during worship or on auspicious days.

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Yesterday was Mha puja, or worship of one’s body or self. I know a few people who act like everyday is Mha puja, but that’s beside the point! “Mha puja purifies the heart and soul for the coming New Year and asks for enlightenment in sacred, ancient rites which strengthen the perpetual bonds of kinship in families.” The head of the house makes a mandala (Intro to Art students: you should know what a mandala is by now) for each family member. The mandalas can be made of pigments and food such as rice and small beans. A series of tika blessings are bestowed upon each family member, oldest to youngest, and the family feasts afterwards. My husband says Mha puja is mostly celebrated by Nepal’s Newar ethnic group (indigenous people of Kathmandu Valley), some of whom are Hindu and some of whom are Buddhist.

Today is Bhai tika, which, for my husband’s family and many Hindus, is the most important day besides Laxmi puja. The word ‘bhai’ (pronounced ‘bye’) literally means younger brother but all brothers, younger or older, are worshipped by their sisters, “…thus being assured of increased prosperity for the coming year, and a long and healthy life. So important is Bhai tika that if a man has no sisters a close female relative or friend is honoured to bestow this benediction.”  I hope my brothers aren’t reading my blog. However, brothers are supposed to buy gifts for their sisters or give them money, so if my brothers are reading this, God bless you and send me a check! 😉 This whole bhai tika thing is so culturally entrenched that I’ve been confused when introduced to female friend’s brothers (after thinking they had no blood brothers)  only to be told that these are ‘bhai tika’ brothers. A couple Bhai tika oddities are that menstruating women aren’t allowed to participate in tika because they’re considered impure during their cycle. Actually, menstruating women are forbidden from doing many things in Hinduism because of this bogus impurity belief, which is one aspect of Hinduism I detest. The second Bhai tika oddity is that the extended family of a woman who has just given birth aren’t allowed to give or receive tika if the birth occurred within the past 9 days. I asked my husband’s family why and they had no firm answer except that they believed a family should be doubly blessed after a birth. I agree. My mother-in-law sarcastically mentioned that the “recent birth” excuse is followed by people who don’t want to spend the money on Tihar decorations and gifts. Who knows. I’ll have to ask a Brahmin priest for the religious root of this tradition.

Throughout Tihar and especially during these great feasts that culminate in Bhai tika, people eat sweets. A Nepalese favorite during Tihar is sel roti, a type of donut-like sweetbread made of rice flour and flavored with sugar and light spices such as cardamon. I’ve eaten far too many today but part of Nepalese kindness is forcing food onto guests so no matter how much I ate, it never seemed to satisfy anyone. Here’s a short video of a street vendor cooking sel roti.


As I write this, Kathmandu citizens are sucking as much life out of this holiday as they can and I suspect that the firecrackers, loud music and dancing, gambling (as the Goddess of wealth, Laxmi loves gambling) and drunken revelry will continue into the night. But by being here in Nepal instead of the U.S. at this time of year, I’m saved from the post-Halloween Christmas frenzy, and I’m thinking in particular of a local Iowa radio station that plays Christmas carols from the day after Halloween (way too soon) through Christmas. I was thinking all this as I walked through my Kathmandu neighborhood the other day, with weather still in the mid to high 70s, when suddenly I heard snippets of “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.  Someone had musical Tihar lights that were actually musical Christmas lights. So Laxmi and Santa are forcibly  intertwined for me.

P.S. India pics and that Indra Jatra video I promised are coming soon.

Serendipity Experimental Printmaking Workshop

8 10 2010

Check out the blog that Lasanaa started to document our recent Serendipity Experimental Printmaking Workshop. The workshop ended yesterday (just in time for the big Dashain holiday) and was a GREAT success. I truly enjoyed it and I think the students did, too. In fact, I know they did because it showed in their excitement level and the work they produced. Tomorrow we’ll be documenting their artwork in order to produce a small catalog and selecting exhibition-quality prints. One set of prints will be displayed in Kathmandu’s Srijana Art Gallery after the Tihar holiday in November, one set will stay with Lasanaa for future fundraising purposes and I’ll take one set home to Iowa to share in some capacity with Cedar Rapidians and the MMU community. Images of student artwork coming soon! Enjoy!

For the Love of Printmaking

3 10 2010
Sirjana/Srijana Art College

The sign says it all.

Today was the third day in our week-long experimental printmaking workshop at Sirjana/Srijana Art College (transliteration from Devanagari script sometimes differs but I’ll use their “Sirjana” spelling from here on out). The workshop was organized by Lasanaa Alternative Art Space and includes current and former students from Nepal’s 3 art colleges: Tribhuvan University’s Lalit Kala campuses (grad and undergrad), Kathmandu University and Sirjana Art College. There’s a little sibling rivalry amongst all these schools, so bringing students together is an attempt to minimize it for future collaboration and happiness. Naturally during our afternoon mealtime, the students break into their respective cliques, but at least they’re working very well together in the studio.

As I think I mentioned before, only 2 of the 3 schools have printmaking programs focused on traditional etching processes, so we’re throwing experimental techniques at students as a way of leveling the playing field and broadening creative thinking. The energy on the first day was amazing! Much more energy, I’m sorry to say, than I’ve seen from past American printmaking classes (Future MMU printmaking students, take note!) I demonstrated some monotype techniques and asked the students to be crazy and inventive, and they were! Within 1 hour, nearly everyone made at least 2 prints. All this with too many people in too small a space. On top of that, the power went out (a common occurrence in Nepal) and only returned in the last hour of our workshop, so everyone was working in dimly-lit conditions.

Nepal art student

Printmaking workshop student with her monotype plate.

At the beginning of the second day, we had a group show-and-tell. Everyone said a few words about their imagery and I encouraged them to ask other students how they’d made their images in case a technique was unfamiliar. This was great because they learned from each other about new processes to try. In Nepal, there is still a very strong educational system where teachers are believed to hold all knowledge, which is then passed to the student – usually in the form of lectures that enforce memorization instead of critical thinking. It’s easy to understand the continuation of this tradition in a country where the word “guru” has real meaning (guru being the Sanskrit term for teacher or religious leader). So, another objective of the workshop is to force adoption of new learning methods, which painfully came to a head in today’s class.

For last night’s homework, students were supposed to think of a concept or idea but not what visual form that concept would take. Some of my readers, those who believe that art should merely depict beauty, will begin to feel sorry for my Nepali students. Many of these students have only created art to please and never questioned who they were pleasing and why. To answer these questions, and others, for the first time in your life is really hard. It’s a process that involves thinking about your influences, beliefs and choices. We talked about their concepts for 2 hours straight, asking them follow-up questions leading to (hopefully) deeper revelations about their art. Nearly everyone left today’s class feeling confused, but I think that’s a good sign because it means they’re questioning everything. We’ll see what they come up with tomorrow!

Talk about Nothing (and Everything)

20 09 2010

I’ve been busy these days so I’ll lump a few posts into one instead of breaking posts down topically.

Shiva Bhairava sculpture

Shiva Bhairava (The Terrible One); Nepal; ca. 16th century; Gilt copper alloy; Rubin Museum of Art; C2005.16.14 (HAR 65436)

An American colleague at Kathmandu University Centre for Art and Design, Adam Swart, gave a talk on Himalayan art earlier this week. Adam was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal a while back and after returning to the States, began working at the Rubin Museum of (Himalayan) Art in New York City. Now he’s back in Nepal teaching art and working on museum projects. The Rubin was built after I moved away from NYC to Iowa, but it looks spectacular and I’ll have to visit next time I’m in NYC. I checked out their website and I love their current lecture series, a nod to Buddhism, entitled Talk about Nothing. The description states that:

  • “How we perceive and conceive of what is and what isn’t is a universal question. It may, in fact, be the biggest question. It is at the heart of Buddhism’s Diamond Sutra, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. And here at the Rubin Museum of Art–itself, a museum of ideas–we have brought together some of the world’s most active minds to talk about…nothing. There will be a lot to say.”  -Tim McHenry, Producer

Adam discussed the Rubin’s collection scope of Himalayan countries, including Mongolia, which isn’t really that close to the Himalayas but whose work is stylistically similar because, historically, Mongolians employed Himalayan (specifically Newar) artists. He showed representations of objects and images from various Himalayan cultures through time and the ways in which influences traveled from place to place through travel and trade (e.g. Silk Road).

I’ve  been teaching much more lately and my schedule is really filled these days between classes, workshops, my own research, and day-to-day life in Kathmandu. Because Kathmandu is the capital city, there’s a lot happening. I also attended a gallery reception and lecture for an exhibit of Nepali and Indian photographers entitled Rivers of Pilgrimage. Since I’m photographing sacred water sites in Nepal, the exhibit timing couldn’t have been more perfect. There are so many festivals and rituals involving water here (and in India) that I feel like I need another grant to even begin tackling the vastness of this topic! Speaking of water, I attended a fundraiser for Pakistani flood victims the other night. In Cedar Rapids, we were all affected by the 2008 floods somehow, which maybe makes the devastating images from Pakistan hit home for Iowans. The area impacted by the Pakistan floods is larger than the entire country of Nepal. I’ll just let that fact stand on its own.

Kumari on IndraJatra

Kathmandu's Kumari on the eve of the 2007 Indra Jatra (Photo credit: Manjari Shrestha)

There’s a little interruption in life this week because guess what? Another holiday is here! This Wednesday is Indra Jatra to celebrate the symbolic end of the monsoon when, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the Kumari (living child goddess) makes her yearly appearance in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. You can read more about Kumaris here but briefly, the Kumari is revered and worshipped by Nepali Hindus and some Nepali Buddhists. Kumaris are chosen when they are quite young and their goddess role ends when they reach puberty. The autobiography From Goddess to Mortal, written by former Kumari Rashmila Shakya (in conjunction with author Scott Berry) attempts to dispel Kumari myths such as that it’s bad luck to marry a former Kumari (they do marry, but have to deal with this stigma). Fascinating reading if you have the time and interest. Traditionally, Kumaris bless Nepal’s ruler on Indra Jatra but since Nepal’s monarchy was abolished a few years ago and there is currently no prime minister due to political in-fighting, I’m wondering who the Kumari will bless? I’ll let you know when I find out.

16 09 2010
Sundarijal on the Bagmati River

Sundarijal on the Bagmati River

Last time I visited Nepal, I was dying to see a place called Sundarijal, but we never made it for various reasons. The name Sundarijal means “beautiful waters” and if you’ve seen my artwork, you’d understand why I wanted to go there. Located in Shivapuri National Park, Sundarijal is a watershed for Kathmandu Valley where several tributaries of the Bagmati River converge and cascade down the hills and mountains into raging waterfalls that are especially forceful right now because of the monsoon rains. I finally went this week! Through a Facebook chat session, I recruited my bhanja (nephew) Bharat to be my guide, translator and body guard. Bharat’s older brother Dilip is currently an art major at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa. Bharat had never been to Sundarijal so he was just as excited as I was.

The trailhead was an hour from downtown by bus and the official park entrance was another hour walk (uphill). Nepali citizens pay an entrance fee of 10 rupees and foreigners pay 250 rupees – a pretty steep markup! Still, that only translates to about $3.50 for me, so I can’t complain. Bharat talked to one man who told him about a place on the trail called Chisopani where we’d have a view of the entire Kathmandu Valley. He said it wasn’t far. Everyone we talked to along the way said, Yeah, yeah, keep walking and you’ll get there, it’s not far. The problem is that Nepali people don’t like to give  “I don’t know” answers because they lose face. They were telling the truth when they said we’d get there if we kept walking. But it turns out that Chisopani is a full day’s hike. In Nepali, Chisopani means “cold water” and we didn’t have enough chiso pani to get to Chisopani! Bharat was crestfallen, but I was secretly glad to find out we’d have to turn back because my poor knees were dying after walking 2+ hours uphill. Plus, it was about 80 degrees that day.

But I have to say, the pain was worth it because the sights were amazing! We walked beyond the riverbank to terraced rice fields. Bharat, originally from rural Nepal, decided we could shortcut through the rice paddies on farmer’s footpaths and along farmhouses where we’d occasionally stop for directions. Corn cobs hung from balconies. Corn kernels dried on blankets in the sun. Cute little goats were everywhere. We didn’t make it to Chisopani but there was still a valley view from our highest point. I’ll shut up now and share some images.

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Spoken too Soon

9 09 2010

I spoke too soon when I said I’d begin teaching today. But I did have a chance to informally chat with some sophomore printmaking students at the Tribhuvan University Lalit Kala campus today. Yes, the strike is over, but the current session (i.e. semester) ends next week. So I’ll show up next week for the last day of class until the next session begins in November after the holiday season ends. And I’ll help Master’s-level painting students on the main TU campus for the next 2 Fridays until their session ends.

I do wish I could teach more at the downtown Lalit Kala campus because they have so little. The Campus Chief was jokingly and yet proudly showing me his filing cabinet today. It’s an old, rusty, metal oil barrel with a jimmy-rigged locking lid. In a way, it’s ingeniously secure. I mean, who would ever think to look inside it for files? When I spoke with the Nepali students, they were bemoaning the lack of colored inks they have to work with in their classroom.  I said, “We only give our American students a few colors, too. Having fewer colors forces you to learn color mixing.” They gave me this look like, “Oh no, she’s one of them!” (It’s true, I am a teacher. Can’t help it).

Lalit Kala entrance

Front gate of Tribhuvan University's Lalit Kala campus in Kathmandu's Bhotahiti neighborhood, sleeping dogs and fruit sellers included.

And speaking of students, all the American Fulbright students arrived in the last week and, like American students, have already planned their first party. However the party is postponed because the student hostess discovered bed bugs in her new apartment and needs to move. This was supposed to be her birthday party. What a gift to receive on your birthday. And the airline lost another student’s luggage. Everything she’d packed for the next year is gone. Hopefully it will turn up. Now I don’t feel so bad for going the last 2 weeks without hot water and a working refrigerator, but the electrical circuits were fixed today and I finally took a long hot shower instead of a quick cold one. It’s 80 degrees here, so cold showers aren’t as bad as they sound. Sorry if I’m not doing a good job selling the Fulbright program (or Nepal), with all these lovely tales of life gone wrong. This is all part of the living abroad experience. I heartily encourage students especially, to check out the opportunities available to you via Fulbright. You can get funding to conduct research, work with non-governmental organizations, and/or teach English abroad. Check out this link for student Fulbright grants!