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.

[YouTube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IU2rcfGzv2w]

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.





India bound

20 10 2010

 

1922 photograph of Varanasi

 

Suresh and I are heading to India for the next week for a part art research, part vacation, part religious pilgrimage trip. I’ll try to post along the way but that might be unlikely to happen. We’ll spend a few days in the sacred city of Varanasi, also known as Kashi or Benares and situated on the Ganges River. As many of you know, my art focuses on water and images of water, making Varanasi a must-see. It’s one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites for Hindus, and according to many sources, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world.

While we’re in Varanasi, we’ll visit nearby Sarnath, where Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Deer Park. Sarnath has an archeological museum containing the Lion Capital of Emperor Ashok (the national symbol of India and one of the images MMU Intro to Art students learn about in class). Next, we’ll spend a couple days in Bodhgaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment sitting under a Bodhi tree. Supposedly, the Bodhi tree there is a sapling from the original tree under which Buddha sat. Bodhgaya, as well as Sarnath, are major pilgrimage sites for Buddhists as you can imagine. Another major site is Lumbini in Nepal, where Buddha was born. Hopefully we’ll get to Lumbini next month because it’s very near my husband’s ancestral village.

Then it’s on to Allahabad for more watery art research. Sangam at Allahabad is the confluence of two visible sacred rivers and one invisible sacred river, thought to run underneath the other two. Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s right-hand-man, was originally from Allahabad and there’s a Nehru Museum there as well.

Lastly, before flying back to Varanasi, we’ll visit Khajuraho, known for it’s medieval Hindu and Jain temples covered with erotic sculpture. I’m sure you’ll be eagerly awaiting the photo uploads from Khajuraho. The eroticism depicts the sacred union of the gods and goddesses as a metaphor for the spiritual love and union believers should have with their god(s), so keep your pants on!

Stay tuned for trip updates.





A Holiday for the Modern Woman

1 09 2010

Today was Krishna Janmastami, or Lord Krishna’s birthday. Last week was Janai Purnima (see posted video) and Gai Jatra, or the Cow Festival (see Nepal Photostream). Next week is Teej, a 3-day festival for women. Later this month is Indra Jatra, when the living child-goddess Kumari makes her yearly appearance. It’s kind of a joke that every day in Nepal is a holiday, but we’re in the midst of festival season that began with the Naga Puja (see earlier post) and runs into January/February. Nepal’s biggest holiday is Dasain in October, followed closely by Tihar in November. The fall festival season is partly why I decided to visit Nepal now.

Shiva lingam

Kathmandu Valley Shiva Lingam (Photo credit: Yosarian)

I experienced Teej from afar during my 2006 trip (it fell in August then) but there’s no avoiding it this time because my sister-in-law is excited to celebrate with me. You might understand my hesitation in a minute. It’s about the only time women take a break from their household duties, mostly because they’re fasting part of the time so aren’t required to cook. Some devout women don’t even swallow their saliva during the fast (I’m really looking forward to this). Women celebrate and hope for a good future, but since a Hindu woman’s position derives from her relationships with male relatives, it’s a time to pray for her husband’s prosperity and happiness and hence, a happy marriage. Unmarried women celebrate in hopes of marrying a good man. (You can imagine what all this means for widows. They aren’t allowed to celebrate and as widows, lose status in society since their primary male relationship is gone). During Teej, women sing and dance all day and try not to pass out from hunger. Alternately, they sit around a giant lingam, the phallic symbol of the god Shiva, and offer him flowers, sweets and coins (Intro to Art students: you’ll be tested on the words phallus/phallic later this semester). As a modern woman, it’s all very cringe-worthy so I’ll just concentrate on the idea of art and life coming together and think of the Shiva lingam as a sculpture instead of a phallus. But of course as an artist, I’m trained to decipher visual symbols, so avoiding the phallic association is difficult. It’s very common for unmarried women to have a small Shiva lingam in their homes, which they rub everyday in the hopes of marrying soon. Again, very cringe-worthy but these are deeply felt religious and cultural beliefs and traditions.

Celebrants all wear red. I couldn’t fit any of my saris or kurta surwals (traditional Nepali clothing for women) in my suitcases so today, my sister-in-law and I went fabric shopping. You can buy ready-made traditional clothing, but it’s more common to buy the fabrics and have them tailored to suit your style and size. I didn’t find anything I liked in red, but bought three sets of fabric, one of which is pinkish-purple. Call it my subtle protest. If I make it to the third day of Teej, that’s when women here publicly “purify” themselves in the holy (and polluted) Bagmati River, rubbing mud on different parts of their bodies to exonerate the previous year’s sins. By the way, the ritual bathing area is right alongside the cremation ghats. Yeah, I can hardly wait.





Naga puja

15 08 2010

My mother, whom I’m sure is reading this, would be horrified to know that yesterday was Naga puja or snake god day (she hates snakes). Because snakes regularly grow new skin before shedding the old, they represent rebirth. Their worship on this particular day helps guarantee knowledge, wealth and fame.

The day began when a young boy came to help replace the god posters flanking the house entrances. He secured the posters to the walls using cow dung. Cow dung is used in many Hindu rituals since cows are sacred, but it also has practical life-giving properties such as being a fuel source in places where where firewood is scarce. He also used the cow dung to attach paisa (coins) and a halo-like fan of plants resembling wheatgrass blades over the Nagas head(s).

Only men can perform the Naga puja, which doesn’t sit well with my feminist tendencies but one must surpress these feelings in many non-Western cultures. The men of the house blessed the Nagas by putting tikka on the snake images. Tikka is the paste of colored powder that Hindus wear on their foreheads. Each house has a place where the naga resides and only priests can identify this place. I don’t know if the snake area is real or symbolic but maybe it doesn’t matter. Hindus do not kill snakes because to do so brings bad luck. So don’t kill those garden snakes you find near your house. Just cart them further away from the house. This is easier said than done in a country where cobras live!

I asked if there was anything else required for the day, like eating (or not eating) special foods, but apparently the puja was it unless you’re a member of a snake god sect, in which case you might perform other rituals.