Varanasi (Part 2 of 3) : Shiva's Labyrinth

Varanasi Travel Blog

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The Longest Job

'Should I go left or should I go right?'  Stepping out of the Shanti Guesthouse on my first morning in Varanasi a flicker of electricity courses momentarily from my toes to my top.  I love this sensation.  A tingling feeling born of the thrill of the unknown.  What lies ahead or around the next corner?  I still get this feeling from time to time even fifteen months and many towns and cities down the line.  A new city today that I have only seen thus far under cover of dark.  After my train arrived six hours late last night an entrepreneurial kid no doubt specialising in rescuing foreign strays led me through Varanasi's disorientating after-dark maze of cluttered lanes and alleys.

Architectural mongrel-stratification, Varanasi style. Beautiful in its own odd decrepid way.
  The prescient thought occurred to me as I stumbled along behind the little sprite that Varanasi was a city as likely to be disorientating come day as by night.  'So which way should I turn to take my first daylight steps?'  Left?  Or right?  Uncertainty and excitement.  The fuel of travel.

'So how do you like Benares?' a man asks me a couple of days into my stay in Varanasi.  'Benares, you mean I'm actually there?'  Despite being an avowed Indo-phile, in all my (not too capacious) readings on India I had not made the connection that Benares and Varanasi were one and the same place.  My efforts to find the former; the ancient evocative sounding holy city on the banks of the River Ganges had all drawn a blank in the maps and guide books I had consulted.

Cycle Rickshaw takes a break.
  I was disappointed.  But suddenly here I am apparently.  Perhaps it can sometimes be true of travel that you don't know how to get to where you might want to be going until you find you've already gotten there.  Varanasi, a city that defies my sense of maps and mapping.  Another appropriate strain of thought to begin to aid ones conception of this mysterious destination.

Varanasi is Benares and also Kashi to the devout Hindu, amongst many other names.  Identities one before another reaching ever deeper into its past.  The city of Lord Shiva who apparently founded it 5,000 years ago.  A smouldering pile of 'sacred fire' ash smokes away at Manikarnika Ghat, also said to have been started by Shiva and it is from a straw ignited in this holy heat and taken to the wooden funeral pyre that all cremations here are started.

'Tata'
  Varanasi's traceable age (as far as any city can be traced) is often set at around 3,000 years old making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth.  It is a city sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists (amongst other of India's religious sects and minorities).  For the former, to die here in Varanasi and have one's body united in death with that of the River Ganges is to escape the unending cycle of life, death and rebirth (Samsara).  For the latter, it is at the northern city district of Sarnath where Gautama Buddha is  believed to have given his first lecture on his philosophy for achieving the same end through meditation and relinquishing of worldly considerations.
Orange Gloop Ganesha

Varanasi is a baffling, bewildering but thoroughly beguiling destination.  My favourite in India (if not my world thus-far trodden) and the most thought provoking and visually stimulating of my journey to date.  To truly begin to get a feel for its admittedly strange charms you must enter its lairs (its layers) without fear or inhibition.  Walk it, walk it and then walk it some more.  Barely a single day of my two weeks in Varanasi gets much more complicated than 'just another stroll' through the city, the old or the new, though of course the special aura of mystery that bewitches near everyone who comes here is most deeply tattooed into the skin of the former.  Every day my friend Lucy is learning the flute and then later Hindi and checking out opportunities to watch fantastic classical Indian music performances (several of which I benefit from) and considering yoga options but when she asks me at our daily river-side chai and chat sessions 'So what did you get up to Steve?' .

'Man of da streetz!' - Graffiti Gandhi :)
..well, 'I just went for another stroll' or 'Threw myself into the labyrinth again.  Took some more pictures.'  Nothing more.  And I've rarely been so content on this journey.

Because every single such stroll in Varanasi will reap you a blinding host of new images and experiences.  Luce and I talk about this often too.  Every walk, even if you take the very same route becomes a unique miniature adventure.  An exciting new narrative composed of the sounds, sights and experiences you encounter.  It's a sensory onslaught of a city.  No doubt about it.  One that requires and rewards patience and concentration.  If you just let yourself get bowled over or - worse - put off by the dirt, dilapidation and chaos you'll miss out - really miss out on a true heartland ( and mysterious hinterland ) of Indian culture and tradition.

Another Varanasi alley
 

Varanasi is a grubby cracked kaleidoscope composed of the fragments of human lives, beliefs and histories mixed with a tangible hint of the supernatural too.  Like a kaleidoscope, all images offered are dizzying, fractal, somewhat surreal and never the same twice, as mentioned.  Mesmerising.  Strangely seductive.  And the harder and longer you stare at it the more details and forms begin to emerge from what at first seems little more than a 'mess' to speak to your reeling imagination.  Like staring ever deeper into one of those Magic Eye pictures where a 2-dimensional snow storm eventually bequeaths the patient viewer with previously hidden multi-dimensional wonders.  (Though not everyone could manage to see them).  So whatever you do here people, succumb to Varanasi.

'Welcome to the Machine'
  Enter Shiva's labyrinth with joy and trepidation in your heart.  Just make sure you take a pocket brim full enough of bread crumbs to scatter behind you and mark your route.  Or a reel of string long enough to spool out to the same effect so you can find your way back. 

But what if when you turn to head home you find the cows have licked all the crumbs away or the city kids have nabbed all the string to use for their 3 Rupee kites.  Then you'd be lost right?  Good!  Now let us proceed.

First to consider the unique physical fabric of the place.  I initially described Varanasi as a phantasmagorical city.  Somewhere floating between ours and other worlds upon the misty banks of the Ganges, and whilst this feeling remains one true reaction to the place, Varanasi is as many truths as you wish to make of it.

A pot of some of the wried pasty stuff that goes in paan packets, another product Varanasi is famous for.
  And of course at root ( ‘forgive me Lord Shiva‘ ) it is a very human, very earthy city.  Built up layer by layer over several millennia.  Cities on top of cities.  Buildings and temples stacked endless centuries deep, one on top of the other.  The rich, rank sedimentary layers of human endeavour. 

Viewed over a long enough period of time the form of Varanasi, though crafted in stone (and latterly concrete) would appear almost as ephemeral as the souls that daily ascend from its funeral pyres, the city having been damaged, destroyed and rebuilt that many times.  Death and rebirth.  Destruction and creation.  Reincarnations.  How appropriate that this duality be Shiva's particular forte ( 'The Transformer' one of his endless titles ) and the city's form so thoroughly embody its spiritual function.

Heros, villains and damsels (detail of some of the often splendidly OTT masala movie posters)
  Varanasi a city that segues back and forth between numerous realities and laughs with the deep dusty chest-rattling chuckle of ages at any attempts to solidly define it.  Not a city to be pinned down.  Writers and travel taxonomists beware.  

But unlike most cities to which the process of creation and destruction is a shared narrative, Varanasi seems somehow to retain a vestigial sense of all of its former lives even if in reality most of its visible structures today stretch to little more than a couple of centuries in age.  The touch of past incarnations cold but tangible like phantom limbs.  This effect aided somewhat by myriad glimpses of visible pasts.  Buildings and temples and statues and gods that continue to just about hang on, determined to peek through modernity’s cracks.

Cycle Ricksaw Seat (detail)
  India’s unique half make-shift and make-do form of modernity has many cracks, both literal and theoretical. 

This potent overlaying of history, architecture, image and statuary is a fate and an aesthetic shared between Varanasi and the thousands of gods her labyrinth of withered arms enfolds.  Layering.  The best way I feel I can analogise this process, which is one of time and image and flux, lies appropriately in an observation of the city itself.  For upon her building facades, walls and corrugated metal fences, particularly outside of the ancient town, you will observe the modern phenomenon of movie bill posters and other papered advertisements or political party campaign images pasted, torn, then replaced, re-pasted over with yet more pictures, one on top of the other ad infinitum.

Market forces ( we're forever told) shall prevail through difficult times.
  But in their weathering and tearing away a little of what images went before remains stuck and contributes to an increasingly surreal and chaotic composite image.  In time, when so many tens of layers deep of bills have been pasted on top of one another that they almost form a physical structure in their own right the bill pasters move on and only this accidental, schizophrenic image remains.  Itself to wash away in time.  Form founded out of a hundred others fractured and torn.  Villains, politicians, heroes, damsels and clowns sneer, faun, smile, pout and leer all from the same square foot of wall or corrugated metal fencing.
  
The old city is a labyrinth of twisting, turning, intersecting alleyways with the occasional arterial thoroughfare wide enough - just - for a cow and a motorcyclist (mutually bovine entities) to chew and honk past one another.
'Tata Rainbow'
  The uneven paving stone floor, frequently broken up and bordered by foul soup-like gutter confluences of what once was water (destined for a river that by this point has long forgotten what it was to be clean), is at times a near universal mulch carpet of litter and cow excreta.  ‘Dirty’ or ’filthy’ are the adjectives sadly most commonly applied to Varanasi and so it is.  But only avert your nose, not your eyes in horror.  The viscous primordial slew of vegetal matter, rotting flowers and fruit, cow crap, multi-special urine, mulched newspaper, broken clay cups and sadly less biodegradable horrors such as foil paan sachets, crisp packets, plastic bags, bottles and polystyrene thali trays, in their own tragic way, are part of a rich fomenting process darkly nourishing this ancient beast of a city from its centuries deep roots up and so not to be too finally condemned.
Pots for sale
  I find myself confessing I’d almost love it a little less without all the mess.  But pedestrians be wary.  Watch out  for your feet and foot holding - and all of those cows!  And why oh why do so many of you continue to wear flip-flops here?!  Madness!  You must all love the warm, wet feel of cow sh*t between your toes.  You strange bunnies ;) 

The walls of the city are part living, part decaying works of art in their own right.  In body, pie-bald mongrel constructs of open brickwork, over-plastered concrete, ancient hewn stone, wooden-slatted fascias, metal shutter or concertina gates and shop fronts all of which liberally sprinkled with painted effigies or grouted on ceramic tile illustrations of deities.  Nature was here before Man and his cities and gods of course and grand old gnarled and knotted trees persist miraculously, curling towards the light amidst the buildings that have such an oh-so temporary tenure upon Mother Nature’s realm.

Pans for sale
  Projecting at all sorts of odd angles, growing between, atop and around homes and temples, their roots, intimately entwined with Varanasi’s own, all reaching down for the river, often bursting through roofs and walls, gripping and clawing and holding the hold darn fiasco together perhaps.  

As I stumble past piles of broken brick and mortar ducking beneath the many darkened arches, or around broken walls and doors I am quite convinced the only universal aesthetic of Varanasi is that of the many thousands of large, vibrantly coloured, expertly executed adverts (text and image) for products, places and services that are hand-painted all over the city’s walls.  Absolutely everywhere permissible, and sometimes not.  The beautifully curvaceous Hindi and also south Indian Tamil or Malayalam advert scripting running along the creaking, cracked walls like stitches inserted and over-locked with oversize needles.

'Hercules Cycles'
  ( As with the trees, one of the only things, like sutures, holding Varanasi’s structure together?  If I were to tug a loose thread would the whole crazy edifice collapse?) These painted banners upon the ghat walls and buildings and above shop fronts remain a functional fine art tradition of the Man of the Street throughout India and a warm reminder for me of my favourite hero of the literary Indian diaspora Mr Mohan Biswas ( A House For Mr Biswas - V.S.Naipaul) whose humble seeds of love and ambition were sewn in this trade.   

At ground level, beneath or even amidst these commercial art murals, all of the Old City’s tall structures are given over to trades.  The foundation of any city economically and here literally I suppose.  No space other than those occupied by Gods (more of which later) is given over to waste.

'The Red Saddle'
  Many of the tiny hovel operations seem part set below ground level.  Impenetrably dark and full of mystery like troglodyte caves.  Tradesmen not ascetics within. Once at ground level themselves, Varanasi, progress building it up, is once again pushing itself down into its own foundations.  Sedimentary layers.  History washing them across the city and letting them settle like river silt one on top of the other.  If you're observant you will often notice this effect in practice.  The uncomfortable, forced relationship between architecture, faith and Time’s gravity.  All of a sudden a concrete path will suddenly have to make way, eddying briefly around a far older, lower wall-carved image of a god now sunk shoulders deep in 'progress' before carrying on its way.
'Stretch'
 

There are the countless convenience kiosks with their impossibly intricately stacked identical wares (how do they all survive selling the same stuff next to one another?); the sweet meat and pastry shops; the thali doling Punjabi Daba Bhavans; the brightly coloured interiors of sari boutiques; an occasional kite wallah shop whose 3-6 Rupee balsa wood and tissue paper diamonds keep the passions of Varanasi's youth fluttering high upon the breeze; the often tiny shadow and scent filled chai wallah and lassi shacks; the puja material stores; hardware shops; cycle repair stops; the blinding-themselves-with-the-darkness subterranean tailors with their Singers’ softly zinging away; areas of metal, stone and woodwork.  Vegetable and flower markets sprawled over the alley grounds and up ghat steps.

One of the innumerable unexpected god effigies that pitch up on, under, on top of the walls in Varanasi
  Nowadays too, along the busy tourist backwater of Bengali Toda the travel agents, cafes, internet outlets, CD/ DVD / T-shirt shops, restaurants, shops for musical instruments and instruction therein (the 'dom-di-dap diggi-d-diggi-d dom-diggi-dap' of Tablas and Jambais a regular soundtrack to a stroll in this area). 

Occasionally as if suddenly dropping into a fast flowing stream you will find yourself in one of the narrow bazaar alleyways.  Those snaking around the security guard heavy proximity of the Vishwanath or ‘Golden’ Temple are particularly crowded and frenetic.  Here the smell of jasmine, marigolds, burning ghee, sandalwood and other incenses overtake Varanasi’s potent spectrum of less salubrious aromas as you fight your way through shops glittering with sequined costumes, silk saris (for which the city is so famous), arrays of gold and jewels and endless shelves of gem and glitter spangled arm bangles.

Fabrics for sale

High up above all the madness the buildings stretch and loom.  Mostly concrete and plaster constructions prematurely aged by the incessant wearing attentions of the monsoons, but if you walk the Old City and crane your neck enough your eyes will fall upon many finely wrought if beleaguered and decaying examples of old Mughal architecture.  Over-painted, cob-web and power cable bedecked examples of grand balconies and haveli windows.  Much finer and more complete structures can be observed as you walk the ghat fronts where many of the grand buildings that face the Ganges were once fantastic follies built in homage to their various gods and the river by Maharajas and Mughals united in wishing the permanence of stone to commemorate their otherwise fleeting lives.

Rainbow of Faith - the often beautiful side-by-side compositions created by the temples, and carvings and homes in varanasi
 

Temples and shrines are almost as populace as the city’s cows and share the same habit of turning up in the most unexpected of the city’s infinite nooks and crannies.  Loitering with good intent on street corners, or skulking behind gnarled wooden doors or in family courtyards; sometimes a collection of them gathered together and chattering with the trees (safety in numbers) in a rare open yard; or just so small they can stick to a wall or fly and perch up high.   Hindu temple gopuram towers of all sizes stretch but fail mostly to assert themselves above the far more determined morass of civic construction that’s built up around them.  A fabulous six hundred year odd old temple sits right down besides the Ganges at Manikarnika ghat, splendid in all its carved finery but somewhat forlorn as it sits askew, having started to list and sink momentarily into the river bank from almost the day it was born.

Kali
  No firm foundations in this city!

The housing blocks themselves seem to lean in toward one another the higher they grow, as if huddling together, closing in and over you, or to protect themselves from the chill winds of Progress they feel like the ache of threat in their old bones blowing in from the New City.  An invisible disease.  Contagious and passing root and body from one building to the next like an outbreak of Dutch Elm infection.  Surviving trees, sprouting at inconceivable heights appear to push and keep the opposing facades apart with their tired but muscular limbs. 
 
And what of the city’s inhabitants?  Well, not the people I mean.  I’ll wax lyrical about them another time.  Tomorrow perhaps.  But its eldest inhabitants.

'Varanasi'
  Ideas of whom existed before the first clay brick of the city foundations were lain.  In fact, the ideas from which the foundations were formed.  The gods.  How could we forget them!  The teeming millions of them in the Hindu pantheon, many of whom make their way to Varanasi.  Not to die like the mortal humans who flood here to join the Ganga’s confluence, but to continue to live in this most holy of cities.  For they are old, ancient beings who wish only to warm their (many) hands upon the here still hot embers of undiluted faith.  The faith without which they would die back to mere ideas or less. *

Varanasi is populated by gods and their images unnumbered.  So many so that one cannot shake the feeling that 'one is never alone' in this city.

'A Thousand Elephants'
  Gods of all sizes, hiding in the shadows, skittering along behind you, staring from wall carvings, their eyes following you from paintings and posters or peering down from nooks and small housings within walls.  Shiva, the city’s supposed founder is chief among them and once your eyes are accustomed to Varanasi vision, you will barely be able to turn, lift or drop your head without spotting curious little clusters, two, three, four, six or more of his nub-like stone Lingums or tear-drop shaped Lingam-Yoni combinations (symbolising the fruitful unity of he and his wife Shakti or Parvati the male and female organs respectively) hiding in the shadows.  One supposed Brahmin chap ushers me down to look at two huge such objects in an underground temple housing that must spend half their lives under water when the monsoon waters swell the Ganges high.
  These things are quite literally everywhere in this city!  Often little stone shelters stand over them to protect them from the bullying impositions of the larger city.  Some of them so old and worn by the touch of Time, weather and human veneration that they have almost been rubbed back to flat stone.  They sprout like wild, mystical mushrooms of all sizes, with their curious patterns of sandalwood paste, from that fertile mulch of faith and human detritus already the subject of much imagery herein.

Elsewhere and everywhere the gods themselves.  Shiva again, occasionally Kali (the violent later incarnation of Parvati his wife), Durga and often the friendlier more animistic hero gods of Ganesha and Hanuman.  But its odd.  These great and powerful entities seem a little under siege even here.

India National Congress
  They crouch in dank alcoves, can be found cowering in the shadows of Varanasi’s many abandoned architectural graveyards or wrecks, peeking from beneath rubble and planking, or staring down at you from high up ledges.  Some homeless.  Religious refugees.  Sometimes small arched portals recessed into walls stand empty.  Their former tenants no more.  A vacancy.  Gods only need apply.  Invariably too the city’s many garish god statues are kept firmly under lock and key.  Held behind the bars, and in cages within outer metal gates of their shrine encasements.  To protect them from us or the other way around?    

Many god effigies in Varanasi - Hanuman the monkey warrior and elephant-headed Ganesh most populace amongst them - are coated in layers of orange paint.

Lingam-Yoni Tear Drop
  Sometimes the walls, bars and surrounds of the shrines, cages and alcoves of their confinement too.  Layer upon layer upon layer has been applied.  So many layers that over time the form and features of the original god have become softened, blurred and somewhat indistinct.  Amorphous blobs, their powers buried deep within.  I asked a man 'What the orange paint was for?  Why orange and why so much of it?'  He claimed it was merely to make them bright and stand out from Varanasi’s drab palette and that there was no further significance.  This despite the orange as a favoured colour of many saddhus too.  Ginger gods and holy men.  But it may be true.  He seemed to be the tender or pujari of the particular shrine in question.  The painter too most probably.
'Warped Lingam'

Apart from the most sorry and neglected corners of the city where lineal time has imploded and nothing changes anymore and even gods struggle to survive, all of these deity statues and effigies receive regular puja attentions.  Garnishings of sandalwood tikka (or bindi) marks, streaks of holy ash smeared upon them, scatterings of rice, pink petals and jasmine buds and strings of marigold heads laced all about them.  Never once in all my many wanderings of the city do I come across somebody dressing the deities in this manner.  Yet the blooms often are fresh in face and aroma.  This gives rise in my mind to the image of the Puja Fairy.  Like her sister Tooth, a tiny timeless entity, born at that same moment as the gods and human imagination ( 'Hello Chicken meet Mr Egg.

Pavements, built up and forced to eddy around far older, now lower carved effigies of gods.
' ) who flits along the gloaming streets of Varanasi at the times of day where the borderlands between reality and dream become most porous (an area the entire city hovers precariously close to), Varanasi's phantom past images start to hover over one another like translucent laminate sheets and human minds are most distracted, to garland her sacred masters and mistresses.   

Yes a labyrinth this old has many inhabitants.  And breeds many a new one.  Be wary again friends.  Cows and their bi-products are the least of your concern.  For you never know in a labyrinth of course what monsters of the imagination or more material world may lie in wait around the next corner! 

It is on one of my daily plunges into the Varanasi vortex that I have an unfortunate encounter with some of the less welcoming denizens of Shiva's Labyrinth.

Look Up
  Blissfully lost once again - led on by a shadow here;  coaxed deeper by a wild aroma there and seduced ever onwards by blind instinct - I'm suddenly descanted from a dark alley, high dark walls all around me, into a suddenly bright and airy courtyard square overhung with a mix of old and new architecture on all four sides.  One of the buildings has an incredible facade with carved relief script.  Sanskrit maybe?  I cannot tell.

As I step into the light and place a preparatory hand on my camera I spot a dog, lying, watching me from the side.  No problem.  Nothing unusual.  India is overrun with such mange-blighted street dogs.  Usually indolent and indifferent beings too busy biting their own butts to mind you.  I step further toward the centre of the square.

The Puja Fairy has made her visit once more! :)
  The dog starts to growl at me.  No problem this happens all the time in India too.  Photography and architecture forgotten now, my priority just to move on without incurring the greater ire of my canine observer, but the dog starts to bark violently.  Not too much of a problem either though.  Stay cool.  This territorial posturing is also something one has to brave out often enough on The Road.  But this dog is not happy.  The violence of the barking increases and the dog is on its feet now, towards me and trying to face me down in the centre of the courtyard.  All of a sudden, as if out of a movie scene three more dogs appear, one from each of the corners of the square other than that which I had entered by.  Ambush?  'Uh oh!'

The other three dogs rush in and join their comrade all of them growling, barking, jousting forward and back snarling.

Temples, shrines, trees and homes all trying to occupy the same space... and somehow by the magic of the city, succeeding!
  Testing my proximity and fear.  Teeth bared.  I am facing the furry mob but backing slowly, slowly step by step toward the far corner alley mindful not to take my eyes off the pack.  The barking intensifying all the while.  The dogs begin to make snarling lunges towards my legs.  'Hey!  GET BACK!  GET BACK!!!'  I'm now shouting impotently.  'CHALO!!!' [ 'GO AWAY!' ].  Getting scared now.  The dogs just get louder and then with both my arms put out before me in defence (my camera clutched either as potential weapon or sacrifice) one of them dashes at me and starts mauling my left shin.  'OOOW!!'  F**K!!  I know you're not supposed to either show fear or turn and run from dogs but my attacker is now getting its teeth into my left knee and the others emboldened by the example are after flesh too.
Buried but not forgotten!
  I beat off the biter and turn and run!  Sprinting blindly.  Sweating.  Shouting.  Terrified.  I make the alley exit.  Barking barking barking.  Into shadows again. Blindly running on bouncing off the brick walls in my panic, fright and flight.  A wall of noise, the four dogs, the Hounds of Hell chasing, chasing, chasing and barking after me snapping at my heels teeth on my right calf muscle.  'OW!'  Kicked off.  The walls of the labyrinth a blur all about me.  F**k f**k f**k f**k F**K!!!  Yes, my assailants can f**king smell fear now all right!  A turn, another alley, another turn.  Light at the end now.  A main alleyway T-junction.
Gots behind gates, behind bars,lock and key.
  I dash along, dogs howling at my rear and burst out into the wider strip of daylight without even a care for the possibility of a bike or rickshaw taking me out as I flail into and across the path and, unable to decrease my momentum, smack my left shoulder violently into the opposite wall.  And then there are people and commotion and barking subsiding and shouting and... and... suddenly the nightmare is over.  A wall of people between the dogs and I and people who the dogs know somewhat and obey, turning tail and disappearing back into the darkness that is their territory.

Everything is still blurred in my eyes and mind by panic and adrenaline and measures of pain.  An Indian man is helping me.  One of my rescuers I suppose.   'It's okay, okay, sit down, sit down sir.

The burning wood compound at Manikarnika Ghat.
  Take rest.  You must rest.  Sit here' he motions to a tiny squat stall at an alley intersection.  'Thank you, thank you I just need to... I just need...'  'It's okay rest one minute or two' encourages the man further, now kneeling before me pressing and kneading my legs and knees (  'OW!') to see where things ( 'OUCH!!' ) hurt.  My heart rate slowly begins to drop below the point of critical mass. 

The man continues his slightly over-solicitous attentions.  Initially I'm just happy to be sat and still and still alive.  'It's okay you don't have to - OW! - keep doing that, but thanks' I say to his curious little efforts at massage.

Two giant Lingam-Yoni statues. Subterranean. These will be under water when the river Ganga's waters rise.
  'It's okay, it's okay, you must rest, rest yes... you must good karma puja Ganga.'  Wait, what was that last bit?  'Yes sir what you must do make good karma puja,  good karma baksheesh to river Ganga and then no more bad dogs will trouble you.'  What the?  Is this guy frickin' kidding me!  Already bitten and about to have my ass baksheeshed!  Unbelievable!  'Yes, you give small baksheesh puja for good luck, no more dogs' he grins now indicating over my shoulder where, entirely unnoticed by myself (or just appeared out of thin air for all I know in Varanasi's mysterious shifting ways) a cubby-hole shop sits with a small wooden kiosk shelf covered in bright puja materials.
Cycle Rickshaws (detail)
  Gold tinsel fringed red lace ribbon, marigolds, jasmine buds, tikka paste, coconuts et al.  'Yes make good ganga puja backsheesh for your mother father sister no more dogs.' 

I remain as calm as circumstances and my adrenaline-soaked heart permit but fix the guy with a firm 'you are f**king kidding me right?' stare and ask slowly between clenched teeth 'Okay how much for puja things?' figuring even I on this one occasion will concede to the fact that I owe somebody - sh*t, maybe even karma if you like - something for my salvation so for the sake of few Rupees, what the heck.  '30 Rupees sir.' the mystic masseur grins.  'Fine.

'Bhagya Shree Gas Agency'
' I agree through still clenched teeth.  He eagerly bags up my magical dog-repellent goodies.  I hand him a 50 Rupee note.  'Oh, yes is 50 Rupees sir.'  F**K!  INDIA!  'YOU SAID 30 RUPEES!  THIRTY, NOT FIFTY!!' I bellow at him, snatching back the 50 Rupee note, all the chase-tensed nerves zinging violently inside of me; short zinc fuses to the last, igniting this minor explosion.  '30 RUPEES OR NOTHING!'  'Okay, okay sir yes 30 Rupees puja no dogs thank you.'  He smiles and hands me my change and marigold-coconut baggie.  F**k man!  This country.
Another crumble-down, tumble-down moment strolling in Shiva's Labyrinth.
.. sometimes... talk about any frickin' opportunity to make a few Roops!  F**k, I bet even the dogs were trained to chase me just there to his little puja pothole!  (I'm kidding of course). 

I trudge off, grimacing down the alley, away from the teeth of dogs and opportunistic puja-wallahs.  The eyes of a brightly coloured statue of Ganesha follow me as I pass.  My bread crumbs ran out long ago.  Scattered in the chase.   By incredible good fortune none of the dog bites managed to actually break through the material of my Berghaus trek-trousers and so my flesh is only bruised but not breached.  No rabies dilemma.  Suddenly, to my surprise I've found my way out of the Labyrinth and am staring at the Ganges from near Ram Ghat, puja materials in hand.

You never know what lurks around the next corner! "BOO!" :D
  I smile.  Once the miff and anger subside you have to laugh at India and your position within it, often even when it hurts you or annoys the p*ss outta you.  Recounting this tale to several people since, I concede 'Well, you can hardly be genuinely credited with having travelled the world for two years if you don't return with at least one good "I got chased by wild dogs" anecdote.'  So let's tick that experience off the list shall we.  I grin, wince when I put pressure on my left knee, and hobble off home to lick my wounds. 

I will pace the centuries and the broken sidewalks of my soul again tomorrow, if with a limp, for I am lost within them and in love.         

* Varanasi makes the mind wander in many ways and in provoking 'new' images and ideas to that mind it reveals our own strata of memories, experiences, influences and thought processes.

'Strange Trees'
  Some conscious.  Some not.  But I can’t let parts of this particular entry be passed off without acknowledging ( having recognised them after or during the act of creation) the obvious routes my own mind sometimes wondered down; paths already well trodden or lain by Terry Pratchett with his concept of ’Small Gods’ from the Discworld novel of the same name and his great city of Ankh Morpork, stratified as it is in filth, faith and no small measure of magic and built upon the banks of its own unctuous, insalubrious brown river of unfathomable content.

[ Afterword 14/03/2010 :  During my eventual reading of Diana L.Eck's Banaras : City of Light it was shown to me that the area in which I purposefully lost myself and was therein punished was the area just up and behind Sankata Ghat.

Small Gods Keeping Warm in the Dark
  Sankata-ji is (appropriately to my unfortunate experience) the 'Goddess of Dangers'.  The text reads : 'Sankata-ji, as she is called, is located high above Sankata Ghat in the labyrinthine lanes of the city where only Banarsis [residents of the city] can find their way.'  A fact I can testify too!

This experience, I now know has another layer of coincidental imagery too as dogs (pariah animals, considered unwholesome and unclean in the pecking order of Hindu animistic lore) are the vehicles of Kala Bhairava ( the 'Black Terror') and his deputy Dandapani, fearsome club-wielding protector gods who between them as 'police chief' and 'sheriff' of the city as Eck names them are charged with scaring away demons, evil spirits and other undesirables such as red-haired tourists from Varanasi's precincts.

A rather spectacularly garlanded diety statue of Kali (who in her previous form is Parvati, Shiva's wife or consort)
  ]

Soukshopper says:
wow, amazing story and the most interesting points of view and photos. this reminds me much of my epxeriences in the labyrinthian souks of marrakesh. thank you for this wonderful story - truly inspiring.
Posted on: Mar 04, 2010
Africancrab says:
You always write beautifully. I fel like I'm on the move with you through your writing, inspiring Steve. You did it again.
Posted on: Mar 04, 2010
Stevie_Wes says:
Thanks for the encouraging comments gang... writing this one was like trying to give birth to a two stone baby so I'm glad it's finally out in the world after an over-long gestation period and making some of ya happy :)
Posted on: Feb 23, 2010
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photo by: rotorhead85