Real Varanasi

After our relaxing 3 days we prepared ourselves for ‘the real Varanasi’ and headed off by autorickshaw to be dumped 15 minutes walk away from our destination “The brown bread bakery”. Rated by the Lonely Planet, but not by us. Overcharging, uninterested and the volunteering they apparently offered seemed to be seasonal (I am not sure that poor and abused kids are only in such a condition from October till May, but overall felt the whole brand they have built up (Everyone knows The Brown Bread Bakery) seems to be a self fulfilling prophecy of money-making to me. My advice? Ask around there are loads of good projects to get involved with, don’t follow a guidebook to help people, chose a cause you actually care about, one that you can actually contribute to and one that is less well supported. Locals always know of good causes you can help out with. We sacked the place off and followed a tout who took us to another basic hostel come hotel, for just Rs150 for a double room (that’s 1.20 each).

Unfortunately like Aurangabad an overstretched city like this experiences many power cuts. In 46C heat with 60% humidity you feel that. We woke up when ever the power and our life line the ceiling fan turned off. Reading was the only option. It was tough, but had to be done after 3 days extravagance. We considered that we deserved it and sacrifice is a part of travel. The Golden Lodge was a good cheap place though and the guys who ran the place were really interesting guys, the chef had a crazed (as most are) laugh and was happy to have in depth conversation about being a Hindu and of Brahmin caste. Brahmins always wear thin cord around their shoulder and waist. It turns out that there are too many Brahmins working in religious institutions and religious teachers for the amount people need, so now the are setting up businesses and tend to do well as they are the most respected group in society. Before you ask, yes if you wear a cord and pretend it will not wash as you have to have in depth knowledge on the lineage of the Brahmin caste and this is something other Brahmins will ask you instantly.

The first day was pretty much sent exploring the old city, a rambling maze of narrow, cobbled alleyways which ultimately all led to the Ganges and the Ghats. As Varanasi is one of the most Holy cities in India and the oldest constantly inhabited city in the world things center around religious practice. This generally focuses on the Ghats as the Ganges is the provider, absolves people’s sins and the toilet all at once. The Ganges has 25 raw sewage points in Varanasi and yet people bathe, drink and wash in these waters. This is despite the fact that 8 million fecal particles exist in every litre of water, over 100x the recommended for drinking water. I know this due to the many conversations I have had with Indians about the irony surrounding the situation. Hindus do not eat pigs as they eat and wallow in their own excrement and are the lowest class of animal. And yet the most holy river for the Hindu religion has more poo in it than most other rivers in the world. Ha. Tragic really and everyone in India agrees, generally with a slow shake of the head in dismay.

Either way the Ghats are a hive of activity at any point as not just foreign visitors pour into the area. Mostly Southern Indians come to Varanasi for their major “Puja” (prayer) and every morning will visit the golden temple, make offerings to Shiva and then walk down the alleyways to the Ganges to bathe in the holy water or float a candle down the river. The place is a mass of colour, sounds and action. Different ceremonies are happening at the same time, people bathing, chanting, waving flames around, tai-chi like moves on the banks, loudspeakers reciting prayers all at the same time.

The next day we took another another stroll through the lanes of Old Varanasi to get used to the layout and the place in general. We looked at some of the temples, performed puja ourselves at the Ganesh shrine to wish for good fortune in the wealth department (Ganesh’s specialty) before investigating a boat ride the following morning. Before a further explore we needed tea. It was just 10:20am and I was already soaked all the way through in sweat. It is seriously hot in the summer in the confines of the old city. Gazing across from the highest view point on the river bank we saw a dust devil form and die on the sands on the other side of the Ganges through shear heat. It was that hot.

Understanding the fabric industry:
After a brief scope around we headed back towards our hotel and stopped in at some of the many clothing shops lining the streets. Khadi is the Varanasi fabric of note and what they are famous for. It is a hand woven cloth that can use various materials, but ultimately results in a loosely woven, but thick cloth. Ghandi used Khadi as a symbol of Indian independence and urged Indians to only buy Khadi cloth to support the people. In India it works well as its thickness absorbs a lot of sweat, but its loose weave means that a draft penetrates to your body, cooling you down and drying the material quicker than machine made fabric. The sellers were a mass of information on fabric and were more than happy to teach you what they knew. Did you know that in order to tell what material is being used you can pull off some of the thread and burn it? If it smells like newspaper it is cotton, if it smells like plastic it is polyester and if it smells like burning hair then it is silk. A lot of the sellers will mix polyester with silk and sell it as raw silk to improve their profits, but not if you know this! If you are going to try this then you must take thread from both directions of the fabric and test it, as fabric is produced by weaving thread in two directions. You can also see if a fabric has been machine or hand woven. Machine made fabric shows uniform lines on one direction as small imperfections deposit more colour in some areas that you can see.

We sat with the Khadi wallers (men) and drank tea from disposable unbaked clay pots, which you chuck out of any window onto the street for the rain to reclaim the clay into the earth. What an ace idea (although seen in some UK festivals it is not used widely enough!) We discussed the nature of Khadi, who produced it, learnt about its background and became more and more interested at looking at the distribution of Khadi clothing in the UK. Not only does it support local people with a fair wage, but is also a practical material that Westerners know little about.

….and back to reality:
Being spat out of a shop after sitting there for hours is like being given birth to… the heat and smells hit you once more like being slapped…. in a good way! The next day we thought we would relax and catch up with ourselves. You need time to relax and take stock, sitting and observing things as they happen, for me, is the most valuable experience, as you get to pick up on things that you wouldn’t otherwise see. I learnt about Paan that day and how people process Betel Nut bark to produce a highly concentrated stimulant that is rolled in a Betel Nut leaf with dried coconut, the actual Betel Nut and tobacco. This is the red substance that we now know covers the pavements and stains the rubbish bins (people spit like they would with chewing tobacco but all over the place). Apparently unscrupulous dealers are replacing the red jelly that is formed with red food colouring that is reducing the potency of the mixture, something many Paan chewers are concerned about.

A man cutting Betel Nut leaves to make Paan

At the Ghats a tout/guide/ overly friendly person introduced himself in the usual way, which spells money grabbing. We are becoming accustomed to this now though and as long as you do not feel guilty for taking and then not giving (what the Indians often pray on) then there is no problem. The guy was helpful in showing us around and explaining some of the temples and the well that Shiva and Parvarti supposedly bathed in together. Then he fetched us some tea and then tried to sell us some marijuana, when this didn’t work he tried to take us to his shop and then the factory where the things he sells in his shop are produced. When a decisive “No” is given they continue to follow, but as long as you don’t mind that and continue as you would then they lose interest and leave you alone. Shanty (to be easy/ chill!) is the key.

Meandering through the lanes, picking up the best spinach and onion pakora (deep fried crispy veg) en route and realising that rice flour is the key, we stumbled across the burning Ghats, which is where wealthy Hindu’s burn and scatter their dead. We actually ended up walking above the pyers quite by accident. Usually priests lead you up there and drag a donation to help pay for the wood that is used during the burning process. There was no one around and so we saw 7 bodies at different point of decomposition, flesh and form exposed to leave a prominent image in our heads about this truly interesting ritual. Different types of wood are offered, sandlewood being the most expensive, the amount of wood is weighed and then calculated accordingly depending on the size of the body. The bodies are carried down to the Ghats through the lanes with two pole bearers at the front and back, who are not related to the dead. All the way “Rama is true” is repeated, which they ultimately say to mean “Here is the dead, the one thing that is guaranteed is to ultimately be reunited with God (Rama)”

The next day the boat ride came. We woke at 4am to get there for sun rise and after a spot of negotiation agreed on a slightly above the guide price, but this meant we secured a full 2 hours, which many people had said was too long. It was not. Trawling slowly down the Ganges watching morning puja take place, with more people spilling onto the Ghats to perform their personal prayer and blessings.

The morning was misty and yet still humid, which gave the distance a dulled view and dampened the colour of the place, giving it a really eerie feel. Across from the Ghats on the other bank is a flat of sand that is flooded during the monsoon, a few temporary huts and boats sat there bobbing in the slow current and just a few boats were out pulling out inadequately sized fish and definitely something I would not want to eat. We slowly rowed past all the Ghats to the south, each having been built by a different civilization that owned or influenced the city at the time. At the southern most point I landed ashore to pick up some tea and slowly headed back upstream to see the same backwards. We saw a fish that was dead by “natural” causes- I suspect the toxicity of the river. We saw a dead cow being ripped apart by wild dogs and a man literally 6 meters away having a wash. We saw people washing their clothes directly next to the sewage outlet pipes. We saw the ceremonies and daily chores all being performed simultaneously. You can see why the Ganges is believed to be the provider of everything that the city needs, but unfortunately it just isn’t as effective at doing that as it should be given the state it is in.

The next day we had arranged to do some Yoga with a guy that was recommended to us by our Hotel Manager. After a lot of the warnings of fake teachers we felt this would be ok. It was. For Rs200 (3 pounds) each per 1.5 hour session we covered the basic Hathi Yoga positions and 30 minutes of meditation, which compliments Yoga as ultimately the aim it to develop external and internal strength. We both left feeling great and looked forward to the next day. The next day came and went in a relaxed “what did we do today” kind of way. This session was equally good and straight afterward we headed to the Ganges feeling very Shanty for the evenings Ganges puja, which literally worships the river as provider. The ceremony was awesome, with intoxicating loudspeakers blasting out recitals of blessings and prayer. 7 bells were rang in time continuously and the drums rolled along with the spoken prayer. The usual throng of sellers left you alone if you looked involved in proceedings enough out of respect (for once) and just during the climax of events the rain began, people’s faces lit up as the monsoon rains finally reached Varanasi. It was just a shower, but the season had finally caught us up and at the most meaningful point. Magic.

The next day we had an afternoon train and so we just had time to go back to the Khadi shop to complete our final round of negotiation. This needed to include packing as the postal service require you to have a cloth stitched wrapper sealed with a wax stamp. We picked our colours and arranged things for our return journey back through Varanasi, which we felt was inevitable considering we pretty much buried ourselves in the old city, while there is some much more to explore.

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