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

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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The first person you meet when you go abroad is yourself.

31 08 2010

I’m paraphrasing E. M. Forster for this post’s title, because the quote may end up being the main theme of my travels after “ke garne”. Forster was a great traveler and spent a good amount of time in India, whose culture is similar to Nepal’s in many ways, both being predominantly Hindu nations (if you haven’t read a Forster novel, I highly recommend it. If you’re not a reader, several of his works have been made into very good films such as A Passage to India, A Room with a View, Howard’s End, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and Maurice). Forster’s quote foregrounds the best reason to travel anywhere, because you learn (or re-learn) so much about yourself. I’m learning so much and I’ve only been here 2.5 weeks! Imagine how “smart” I’ll be after 5 months.

With my internet down for most of last week and without hot water for the last 2 days (going on 3), I’ve had plenty of opportunity to adjust to doing without. My refrigerator shuts off several times each day so that my food remains a few degrees above room temperature, at best. This  forces me to carefully consider my grocery purchases and to shop more often. All of this and we’re not even to the post-monsoon season electricity rationing period yet when I’ll only have 4-8 hours of power each day. But then, I actually have a computer with internet access, a small water heater that provides enough for a 5-minute shower, and a refrigerator. I’m lucky.

In my last 2.5 weeks, I’ve seen and heard the horrible and wonderful.

  • My daily walk to the campus where I’ll (theoretically) be teaching takes me past at least 2 beggars afflicted with leprosy, and more beggars with other unidentifiable social and medical problems.
  • Nearly every cab ride with a driver who speaks English involves the telling of his life story and in these life stories, there is always death, disease or family strife with occasional happy moments.
  • I was eating lunch the other day in a lovely little cafe when I heard a dog being hit by a car. There are stray dogs everywhere and accidents (or purposeful poisoning of dogs) is fairly common.  The dog began yelping and I ran out to find her but she must have slunk into an alley or dark corner, as animals do when they’re sick. There was nothing I could do, so I ate the rest of my lunch while listening to the yelping slow to a quiet whimper, until it stopped.
  • A local ethnic group living near the garbage dump is protesting their conditions by blocking dump access so garbage is piling up on street corners everywhere. Cows have emerged from nowhere to feast throughout the city, which is beautiful and sad.
  • Teenage boys in a tourist neighborhood accosted me for money. I noticed their bags of glue immediately. Click here for more on Kathmandu’s glue-sniffing street children.
  • Boys of about 7 years, one carrying a baby in a sling on his back, wove through multiple lanes of heavy traffic begging for money and playfully pushing one another. The baby nearly toppled from the sling with each shove. If I gave them money, would they also sniff glue?
  • Out of work necessity, I bought a computer printer yesterday. The salesman unpacked the printer, installed the ink cartridge, demonstrated every feature of the machine and its use, and printed a test page for me before re-packing everything. If I had brought my laptop with me, he would’ve installed the printer driver as well. Even American Geek Squads don’t provide this kind of service when customers purchase electronics.

And these are only some of the highlights to meeting myself.

Garbage pile

Growing pile of refuse near my apartment.

Settling into Shangri-la

19 08 2010
Scooby & Kathmandu House

Scooby guards the house where I live in Kathmandu.

It’s been a busy last few days! I went for my security briefing the day before yesterday. With family here and having been to Nepal I was familiar with much of it, but not from the perspective of a security expert so I was able to hear background info that contextualized the bits and pieces of my prior knowledge. One of the big topics was the impending earthquake that is expected to hit Nepal anytime (geologically speaking). Nepal ranks alongside Haiti as one of the world’s poorest countries and according to AFP News, will suffer greater losses than Haiti. I’ve experienced earthquakes before because we have them in Seattle where I’m originally from, but nothing of the scale that Nepal could experience.

I’ve pretty much settled in my new place, and I’ve posted some pics for the curious. It’s a 2-bedroom apartment with a third room for storage, plus kitchen, bathroom and living room. The apartment came furnished, but I still needed to buy many smaller items like garbage cans, towels and bug spray to defeat the giant cockroach that lived in the kitchen when I first arrived. The cockroach was easily 4 times larger than the largest one I saw while living in New York City. But I managed a direct hit with the bug spray, which was hard because cockroaches are very fast, and I haven’t seen the thing (or its offspring) since. It’s a silly American trait to expect a bug-free home, but in this I am very American!

Scooby the dog lives out front and I can hear him whining as I write this. He’s very cute, but my landlord’s son warned me not to pet Scooby since he bites. Good to know. I bought a box of doggy biscuits for him and the dozens of homeless dogs I see here everyday, so Scooby doesn’t bark at me as much anymore.

Apartment rooms

My Kathmandu living room and kitchen

Many of the Nepalese people I am in contact with are surprised that I don’t have servants yet. The Fulbright Office will find servants for me if I want them and many Fulbright scholars do hire housekeepers and cooks. To have a housekeeper come several days each week would cost anywhere from $60-65 and a daily cook would cost a little more. I also have the option of sharing a car and driver with the other scholars, if I wish. My in-laws have servants and it’s pretty typical for wealthier Nepalese in higher castes to have servants, but as a Westerner it seems so pre-Civil Rights movement to me. I don’t like the way I see people treating their servants, even if they tell me their servants are “like family”.  When I ask these same people how often their servants visit family, the answer is usually “several times each year”. This means they work everyday, waking early to prepare breakfast and going to bed after everyone else is asleep and has no more needs for the night. I’ve decided to wait until I see how busy I am with my teaching and projects. The argument for hiring servants is that I’d be employing local people as well as creating additional cultural connections. But I can also fully experience the culture by doing my own grocery shopping instead of having someone else do it for me. We’ll see…

Roof view

Looking southwest from my rooftop