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





Immersion Illness

19 08 2010

After moving into my apartment, there was shopping to do and one of the hallmarks of an international experience is determining in which store to buy things. Students from our Mount Mercy Mexico trip 2 years ago have fond memories of the 2-hour excursion to find bubble wrap. One would find bubble wrap in shipping or office supply stores in the U.S., but where does one find bubble wrap in Mexico if the same stores don’t exist? Each of these shopping trips requires a walk or a taxi ride. If you’ve ever played the video game “Frogger” you’ll understand what it’s like to cross a Kathmandu street. Navigating the streets is an artform. It can be dangerous to react by moving suddenly because most drivers anticipate your direction and move to avoid you. If you stray or stop suddenly (my natural reaction) you’ll get hit. Most streets are very small and congested with cars, trucks, and tons of motorcycles weaving their way through. There are almost no sidewalks anywhere and where there are sidewalks, they end abruptly or contain gaping holes and debris so that most people walk on the road anyway. Running a simple errand can be exhausting because you must be alert at all times.

I had good taxi experiences up until yesterday when a driver quoted me too much for a ride back to my apartment. I knew it was too much so I asked him to use the meter.  He compensated by driving me around to a completely different neighborhood so that the metered price would match the quoted price he wanted. I knew we were in the wrong neighborhood and there was no excuse for it. If there had been a bandh (strike) or something I would understand, but I’m notified by the American Embassy of all bandhs via text message and email and there was nothing happening then. Irritating.

Being married to a Nepali with relatives in Kathmandu makes my Fulbright experience a lot different from most Nepal Fulbright scholars and students. I’ve been here one week now and I realized I haven’t been to any tourist sites yet. I’ve spent most of the week in meetings, running errands or hanging with my in-laws, eating Nepali daal-bhaat-tarkaari (lentils, rice and curried vegetables) at least twice a day, drinking chiya (sweetened milk tea), watching Bollywood soaps and videos on TV, and passively engaging in a favorite Nepali pastime: gossip.

To cap the total immersion, my mother-in-law was in the hospital. After going to two different hospitals to find her, I visited several times and spent the better part of yesterday morning waiting to speak with her doctor. I had to leave for an appointment before he made the rounds to her room, which she shared with three other people and a host of visitors who were very curious about the white woman (that would be me) in their midst. A Nepalese hospital is an awfully strange place to find a foreigner.

After all this, I needed a break so I confined myself to my apartment today and did very banal but comforting things like cleaning the bathroom.

Better than any relaxation CDs or sound machines, the nightly monsoon rains are calling me to sleep.