Varanasi (Part 3 of 3) : For Varanasi - with Love and Squalor
Varanasi Travel Blog› entry 232 of 268 › view all entries
Ugly and beautiful. A phrase and an observation familiar to the mind that travels long enough in India. To try to separate one from the other; to praise the beauty whilst cursing and turning away from the squalor is to start to unpick a true appreciation and a truth of India. That the two are inter-related. Renowned as the land of contradictions, India is also the apogee of juxtaposition. Would the intense colours of Rajasthan be so striking were it not for the dust and drought and desert that are their backdrop? Would the forts and palaces that punctuate this land appear quite so grand without the clutter of tiny lives and ramshackle houses that thrive with greater meaning amidst their shadows? Would the rich melee of often struggling, subsistence level lives in India seem quite so overwhelming, in positive ways, were it not for the litany of hardships and privations that outsiders perceive them to be rooted in? The nation's much loved symbol of the lotus blossom.
Of all of India's cities, this time around, I have loved Varanasi the most deeply. And I love it almost as much for its squalor as for the things I consider more conventionally beautiful about it. In fact, they are one and the same thing. I love its squalor and chaos. They, for me, are beautiful to observe and to experience. And I think, filthy though it can undoubtedly be, I would love it a little; maybe even a lot less were it any different.
This final entry in my initial tentative reactions to this incredible chimera of a city is more a series of passing portraits of the people and the richness of human activity that can so much more make a city than its architecture, history or its rivers, though the relationship between all of these things of course is symbiotic.
The Puja Petal Kids
'You are first customer. First customer is God!' explains Kuzvu. 'Wow Kuzvu, I've been called many names in my life but never God.' 'Yes, you buy flower from me, good luck karma for your family.' Karma comes into conversation (shall we call it 'commercial discourse' ) often in Varanasi. Even buying weed, the goondas that hover around Manikarnika Ghat would have you believe, can bring you some instant good karma. Kuzvu is one of the more sparky and engaging of the Puja Petal Kids who float around Varanasi's ghats like so many tiny spores on the breeze, sticking to your sleeves.
The Puja Petal Kids. Doomed to sell blooms from the minute they learn to mouth words. Scampering along with their older sisters and brothers, learning the trade from toddler age.
The diya lamps are the small cup bowls made of pressed, dried leaves and containing a small cluster of petals, a few blooms ( often marigolds) and a candle composed of a wick stuck in a lump of clarified butter. They will light these for you with their single Rupee boxes of matches. Once lit after sundown, the lamps are set afloat, puja prayers released into the black watery tresses of goddess Ganga's hair. A most beautiful sight. Fairy glimmers, flickering adrift in the night.
Children enliven the ghats in other ways too with their gambolling and games. Kite flying is a passion for all ages here. As the evening breeze picks up tens upon tens of the little 3 Rupee tissue-paper diamonds of colour are let out into the air. The boys letting out the long reels of scavenged and recycled nylon wire from their hands or little cylindrical spools.
There’s a knack to keeping them up. An easy one I am assured. A twitching, tweaking, teasing flick-flick-flick of the wrists. A knack I do not have. Any time the reigns were handed to me the kites would immediately commence a kamikaze plummet towards the ghat steps or river. Lost too my childhood skills with marbles. The kids flick their little glass spheres at one another with unerring assassins’ precision.
The Cow Crap Queens
Walking south away from the spread of the main ghats, Harishchandra Ghat, Hanuman Ghat and eventually Tulsi and Assi Ghats and beyond, one can experience glimpses of the more agrarian, and to the ‘western’ mind, undignified labours from which livings must often be eked out in India. As the architectural landscape lowers, Varanasi’s well weathered grandeur petering out, a curious trend in exterior house decor starts to predominate. As you follow the paths and roads as close to the river as possible, perhaps on your way to cross the pontoon bridge to Ramnagar Fort, entire wall surfaces are suddenly covered to an inch in a repetitious pattern of saucer sized brown circles. Each imprinted with the mark of a hand at its centre.
A little further out again, the Ganges flowing to our left, Lucy and I ignore a local boy’s warning ‘Not to go up there, is bad’ and pursue our chosen path regardless. As we crest a small verge, suddenly spread out before us is an entire field laid out with thousands upon thousands of little crescent shaped cow pat cakes drying in the sun. A healthy crop field of cow excrement ready to be harvested. In the middle of the field the Cow Crap Queens squat on their haunches and chatter and laugh as they claw great piles of cow dung and skilfully slap and pat the crap about.
The women sit with their gold nose studs and bangle ornamentation glittering in the sun. Bright eyes and broad white toothed smiles glittering as richly. They wear lavishly coloured saris wrapped about their forms in casual, beautiful defiance of the dust and dirt and shit all around that besmirch their fabric fringes only to heighten the effect of their aesthetic charm. Beauty and squalor remember. Possibly no better single image presents itself to me in Varanasi to best encapsulate this idea that is India’s secret alchemy.
Leaving The Queens behind to craft their brown gold (a task you and I would likely not undertake for $15 a cake) Lucy and I progress ever further along the Ganges towards the rickety pontoon bridge that for now is the only crossing of the Ganges in Varanasi (excepting boats of course ) south of the British era Raj Ghat bridge that trains clatter across 6 or 7 kilometres north east of here. All of a sudden an unsavoury whiff is in the air, "Yuk!" The grassy embankment we're treading across has turned into one large communal open air toilet.
Weavers and tailors and tiny traders and more
Manesh ushers us into the darkened, dingy interior of the old building. Packed earth and dust and sack-cloths upon the floor. Doorless openings between rooms. We are ushered through one of these voids to a yet darker room where a solitary bulb sheds a weak corona of light onto the work of the young weaver (in his twenties) who sits at his loom in the gloom skilfully passing the shuttle from end to end ' clakka-clakka-clak, clakka-clakka-clak. The concertina of cardboard patterning sheets with their Morse Code of punched holes fold into one another, suspended in the air - flappa-flappa-flap, flappa-flappa-flap.
Today Lucy and I have strolled into the Muslim district of Varanasi's old town where for centuries the famous hand-loomed silk saris, shawls and scarves of Varanasi have been spun and considered the finest in India, if not the world. Formerly a prime export. Considered difficult and poorly rewarding work it has always been the pursuit of Varanasi's Muslim population, a religious community usually condemned throughout the nation's history (excepting the 300 odd years of Mughal rule) to undertake the more menial tasks. Of the 300,000 weavers estimated to live in Varanasi, 90% of them are Muslim and 10% dalit - dalit's being the much oppressed lower castes, or non-caste 'untouchables' and so equally subject to economic and social disenfranchisement.
The industry though is falling to its knees these days and most weavers must take second employments to hope to make ends meet. According to an article in The Economist * 'demand for their wares has shrivelled' following the trend of city-based Indian women to adopt 'western style' clothing and now only use saris for weddings and other traditional events. Less elaborate, and therefore less added-value, styles have become the preference too. The advent of machine operated power-looms (in Gujurat mainly, Varanasi remains proudly, defiantly tied to its hand-loom skills) has hammered another nail into these artisans' cultural coffins. Manesh explains that a high end six metre silk sari can take up to six weeks to make.
Following this impromptu 'tour' we are of course politely obliged to cross the alley to the family's house-shop where Manesh's father, sixty nine year old Shankar (whose birthday is Christmas day and who recalls how much his family prospered under the Raj, former suppliers to Harrods of London) invites us to sit on the soft white-padded floor, stacks of colour all around us, and watch as he stretches out before us lengths of divinely hand-crafted silks like a magician, one after the other.
Many of these fine silken wares find their way into the many sari boutiques and bespoke tailoring shops of Varanasi. Brightly coloured coves of seductively draped cloth into which you will frequently be encouraged to enter to take refuge from the muddy hues of the cow-laden, waste-littered streets, sip a complimentary chai and talk sari shop and 'cheap cheap prices' for ’best quality’.
Who else do we have in these here alleyways and streets? What other semi-precious stones of humanity are to be found set in the dust and dirt? The post card selling kids ‘5 Rupees, 5 Rupees!‘ The bead and trinket sellers who spread their rugs and wares on the ghat stones, selling by candle-light at night when the power goes down. The maddening masseurs. Never trust a handshake in Varanasi unless you’re keen for a head massage, shoulder and back massage as, once firmly in their grip, this is without doubt what you’re about to be propositioned with. There are the so, so captivatingly ancient looking women who sit upon the flag stones and steps of the backstreet vegetable markets with their skin so delicately and infinitely creased by a life of labour and sun.
There's the lady sat perched on a wooden box platform at a back alley crossroads, her faun coloured shawl drawn around the pinched features of her beaming face whose prominent beaky nose, prominent cheek bones and pinched, slightly collapsed mouth give her the appearance of a cheeky parrot. She sits behind a collection of pots and jars and a pile of watered green leaves. The tools of the betel nut paan sellers trade. Another tradition for which Varanasi is famed in its quality. 'Hello, what's your name?' 'PAAN WALLI DIDI!!' [ 'PAAN WALLAH SISTER!!' ] she laughs out loud. On another back street a penniless book wallah Ashka Sharmar sits with his blue scarf tied around his head and his smart blue pin stripe suit-jacket besides a sad tattered pile of pamphlets and books that he folds up in a small bundle and carts away at days end.
The Backstreet Kids
If you want to get a good taste, away from the central ghat areas, of lives lived Varanasi style I would recommend a long walk along the ghats north all the way to the Raj Ghat bridge.
Here you will be beset by tiny chirruping flocks of Varanasi's children, it being the weekend or school done for the day - I know not which. You will also be introduced to a common character of life in India, 'School Ben'.
On my first foray into this world of children and their happy mothers and grandmothers - the latter sometimes a little over keen to have their screaming unhappy tots hauled in front of the scary, cold black eye of your camera, but there’s no refusing them - I did not have any gifts on me having left them at my dormitory.
Holier than cow?
Varanasi, being one of India’s most sacred and auspicious cities, attracts a fair population of babas, Saddhus and other kinds of holy men.
If you’re up early doors you can often see these holy men down by the banks of the Gange’s applying their makeup, like cabaret queens ahead of curtain-up whilst their saffron robes dry on string lines. They smear Shivaite stripes and wads of holy ash across their brows. Bright, smudged sandal wood tikka marks pressed upon their foreheads.
The only holy population that outnumber the saddhus in Varanasi is that of the cows. True owners of the streets of this ancient city.
Which brings us nicely to our final scene I guess. The picturesque nightly occurrence of the Ganga Aarti ceremony. A large scale communal puja to honour the river goddess Ganga. Every night at around seven o’clock large crowds of locals and tourists gather around, sitting upon and standing behind the marble and wooden platforms of Dasaswamedh Ghat, the ghat from which fresh-faced brides and grooms, the former bound to the latter by a sash from their saris, descend the steps to cross the Ganges to ‘the Land of the Dead‘ to perform a special marital puja. As you stand and watch the Puja Petal Kids are out in force with their delightful little diya lamps and delightful bright wide eyes : ’Please take my flowers. You promised yesterday you’d buy one from me [ I’ve never seen this kid in my life ] 10 Rupees good karma for Ganga for you!’
Come night, flood lights beam down from above blue satin-frilled arches topped with saffron umbrellas.
It’s a heady, incredible atmosphere. Just another of Varanasi’s delights and treasures. This great river of humanity that flows besides, and commingles with the river of myth and antiquity, the Ganges.
In returning to considerations of my first journal entry in India and the nature of arrivals ( New Delhi : Early Indian Daze ) I can honestly say that the certain portion of my soul that has yearned for 15 years to come this country only truly tells me it has arrived in the India of its hopes and imaginings and is happy once I arrive in Varanasi. It remains, for now, the most effecting and fascinating destination of this or any other country I have travelled in to date. Accordingly I extend my time here, delaying my onward rail connection to Bodh Gaya.
For Varanasi - with love and squalor, x
* 'Looming Extinction' from The Economist 10th January 2009.
[ Afterword 14.03.2010 Whilst staying in Varanasi and falling into a deeper reverie about the place by the day I purchased the 1983 work Banaras : City of Light by Diana L.Eck. So overwhelmed by the places my own mind and imagination were going in response to my wanderings of Varanasi was I though that I vowed I wouldn't... couldn't read a text of anyone else's take on the city until I'd set my own thoughts in some sort of order through writing first.
As it happens, following notable problems with writer's block caused by the sheer force of over-stimulation that Varanasi inflicted upon my mind it was over three months before I had finally bashed out (in to the author somewhat half-backed form) my three journal entries and at last permitted myself to read this book having carried it all the while.
Banaras : City of Light is at heart a detailed and academic approach to the history, culture and religious traditions of Varanasi and whilst some will consider it 'too dry' at times it is mostly an accessible read and, I would argue, an absolutely indispensable one to those wishing to travel to Varanasi with some hope of understanding what they will observe and experience at the physical and, possibly, metaphysical level in response to this incredible, ancient city. It is quite a remarkably lucid window on this baffling and beautiful destination. Not only this, no other book has done more in one sweep (and many other books) to help clarify and educate me in some of the infinite complexities of Hindu myth, lore and ritual. The gods, their manifestations, abodes and tales of origin and pre-Hindu origin too.
Coming as one of my final reads in six months in India it has also answered many questions and solved many of the tiny mysteries accrued in my mind over of my time in the country. This act further enriching my time spent here in retrospect. And I like the fact that it has happened in this way. At this stage of my travel life I remain a largely ignorant person but take great pleasure from trying to decipher what I see around me in my own way. Investigative, patchwork and sometimes 'make-believe' tourism. Often inventing possible reasons and responses to unfamiliar social phenomena like making up my own lyrics to a song whose tune I wish to sing but do not know all the words too. Clarity at a later date though is necessary and only serves to help relive and reinvigorate one's memories.