Varanasi (Part 3 of 3) : For Varanasi - with Love and Squalor

Varanasi Travel Blog

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One of my favourite smiles I now carry in my backpack from my travels :)

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.

"Smile for the camera..." well, okay, it's optional for kids!
  A plant whose roots are set down in mud, that struggles up through deep waters to eventually burst through the surface and bloom most beautifully into the light and air.

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.

Basket weaving lady in the backstreets of Varanasi

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.

Backstreet Kid Chaos - a whirlwind of screaming, pen grabbing pocket-sized humanity :)
  Sometimes darn hard to shake off once attached.  Kuzvu eschews the usual tactic of so-wide-they-blind smiles, favouring a most endearing frown when she speaks instead.  'Halloo, take flower.  Fifteen Rupees.  Take ta-aike flower for Ganga.  For mothersisterfatherbrother ta-aike my flower, pleeease!'  Eyes wide.  Frowning.  'Kuzvu, you're so much prettier when you smile.'  A smile erupts across her cheeks.  'You buy flower from me sir?  First customer good luck for me.'

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.

'Little One'
  Picking up the English language, syllable by syllable, word by broken word as they fall from the lips of foreigners like gathering up the tiny pink petals that fall from the diya or aarti lamps they hope to sell as they skitter along side you.  One by one, over the months and years, the kids collect and arrange the linguistic petals procured from a thousand minor interactions to craft cute little bouquets of sentences.  Over time, as with Kuzvu, their English often becomes quite commendable.  It's taught at school too.  All these children are up early to learn before going out to earn.  Tim, a good lad from California I get to know observed : 'Yeah, the charity school where I help out, they do yoga and English and study and then at night absolutely every single one of 'em's out here sellin' somethin'!'  Helping their families.
Puja materials hole-in-the-wall.

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.

Puja materials being used to prepare the very picturesque diya or aarti lamps set afloat on the Ganges after sundown.
  High, higher, yet further and higher still they tease them into the skies.  Some so far they become tiny points of colour reaching the far side of the Ganges though many of them fall to a watery grave before they can return if the winds turn too treacherous or too calm.  The breeze tickled bones of kite skeletons hang forlornly from every overhead power cable in the city.

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.

Pujari performing the evening Ganga Aarti ceremony
  My attempt, off target again, bobbles harmlessly away.  Cricket played, as often in India upon the most improbable, impractical of surfaces - here the ghat step platforms with stumps painted up, along, up and along the steps - is a favourite sport too.  Even played after dark under the overhead arc lights that bathe the ghats in eerie amber-gold light when the power hasn’t gone.  Before this, come evening as you look along the ghats that stretch as far as the eye can see in both directions, the clustered silhouettes of kites fluttering high in the distance over the city appear as ashes upon the breeze.  Little grey-black forms thrown up from the crematorial burnings, jagging and spirally upwards.  I wonder if the skilful kids take pains to ensure their nylon strings don’t get entangled with the many souls escaping into the evening air and onward to Nirvana? (for my sins I only got smacked in the head once by one of them).
Elegance in Hardship - One of the Cow Crap Queens

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.

Taking a break from pat-stacking : one of the Cow Crap Queens of Varanasi
  Probably still the foundation stones of the micro-economies that sustain many of India’s communities, these are fuel cakes forged of cow shit.  Hand patted and shaped and thrown or pressed into the walls to dry.

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 trend for all times : Exterior wall decor, Varanasi stylee :)
  A collective of young girls, their mothers, aunties and grandmothers whose task it is, probably near every single day of their lives, to mulch their hands through steaming yellow-brown heaps of cow sh*te.  To pat-pat-pat this ever renewable energy source, so priceless for the poor, into shape and prop them upon the earth.

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.

'Rickshaw Boo!'
  The carefully arranged fuel cakes fan out in waves across the field to create a grand artistic pattern of yet more accidental beauty.  The row of cow stalls from where their raw materials are harvested can be seen back behind the field, cows tethered, chewing and lowing.  The Queens smile and laugh and request photo after photo, their arms covered in shit to the elbows waving in the air.

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.

Pujari taking part in the evening Ganga Arti ceremony to venerate the river goddess.
  'A minefield of human excrement' as Luce and I dub it.  Fishermen and children smile at us from their ablutions at the waters edge.  Believe me people, we smell so much worse than cows!
  
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.

Apprentice pujaris practice the moves for the Ganga Aarti ceremony. Here at Manikarnika Ghat away from the main performance
  It's so poorly lit in here and the work so fine and fiddly that I've no doubt a lad doing this until his forties would have his eyes ruined in the process.  But income for his family is a more pressing and immediate concern. 

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.

Street Faith

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.

Lemon Lady
  Price negotiable.  Undoubtedly going for a song.  Staring into another, larger room, six or seven looms sit upon the dusty floor.  Three in operation. The others stand idle for the time being.  This room is somewhat better lit.  Daylight streams through the windowless wall openings and sings beautifully along the thousand golden, azure blue and magenta threads that stretch across the wooden frames.  Rainbows under construction.

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.

'Pangsh Ruppe!!!' - this little girl making it quite clear what she wouldlike from me, Five Rupees :)
  Lucy and I decide we're keen for a handful of silk scarves each, it being Christmas back home soon and all, so have some fun advising each other on colours.  I amuse myself wrapping one after the other around my head for some 'idiot' portrait photos ( 'These make me look like a bearded Benazir Bhutto') and Shankar looks on incredulously whilst I advise him just to 'ignore the crazy Englishman.'  'Waaah, such a photographer I  never saw.  In all my years.'

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’.

'Bangle Rainbow'
  Harmless fun, worth indulging in for the friendly comedy and chai as much as actually for the act of purchasing.  I leave behind me yet another quietly frustrated wake of shopkeepers exasperated by my pretty strict 'zero souvenir' policy.  'Jus' looking is for free.  Jus' look my frien‘.'Well I'm lookin' buddy.'  'Just you come inside one minute, jus' to look.'  'I can assure you this will be a waste of both your and my time.'  'Jus' looking is never a waste of time sir.  Just one minute.'  Well, alrighty then, but don't say I didn't warn ya, 'Yes, sugar in the chai would be just fine, thanks pal' .
The Jelebi Brothers - making some of India's delicious sugary sweets.
..

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.

The Drummer Lady

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.

Little Yin and Little Yang
  He's most pleased to meet me and vigorously shake the hand of an Englishman.  We chat as I note his chalk-dust stubble, glittering eyes and large, veined hands.  I purchase a little 54 page booklet Achievements of the Congress Led UPA Government from him for 10 Rupees which amongst its page after page of mind-numbing statistical well-meaning also has Sonia Gee trumpeting the UN Resolution circa July 15th 2007 declaring Mahatma Gandhi's birthday (2nd October) the 'International Day of Non-Violence.'  I take a photo of Ashka and he writes in my notebook with unsteady hand the address of his doctor for me to send a copy on to him.   

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.

Proud Father
  Walking along the river you can watch as the people wash their saris, clothes and selves in the Ganga's murky waters.  Lathering themselves from top to toe, women doing so fully clothed, and then plunging themselves beneath the rivers waters.  The daily beauty of the myriad coloured and patterned saris stretched up, down and along the ghat steps to dry.  Just before reaching the bridge clamber up the Raj Ghat steps, grab a 2 Rupee puruwa clay cup of chai besides the sprawl of intricately decorated and brightly upholstered cycle rickshaws and then make your way back along the small street network that snakes parallel to the river.

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'.

Caught in the street light
  'Ben!  Ben!  School Ben!' they call out to you as you pass.  'Ben?  Who is this Ben?  I don't know anyone of such name.  My name is Steve.'  'Ben ben!  School Ben!'  Oh waaaait a sec.  Right.  Pen!  School Pen.  I getcha.  Well tutored (usually) in not begging for Roops, kids in Varanasi (and indeed throughout India) will more often than not ask if you have school 'Bens' to give to them.  Sweets and chocolates or just ‘One photo! One Photo!‘  are also acceptable currency in these situations in the absence of 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.

Beautifully aged Varanasi vegetable seller. India makes many forms of poetry (ugly, beautiful, all effecting) of the human form.
  But I went back to them on another day, my pockets and bag stuffed with bags of 1 Rupee chews, little 5 Rupee notebooks and 'school Bens', one of which leaked permanently tattooing my trusted (now test-proven to be dog-proof) travel trousers in blue.  Handing these treasures out equitably though was like trying to tutor a tornado to snatch but one blade of grass from a tuft in your open palm whilst leaving the others unmoved.  The scene and my passage along the alleyway descended into complete cacophonic bedlam.  A hand grabbing and snatching frenzy that actually was not such a pleasant scene as I had anticipated.  Good intentions not wasted, but misdirected maybe.

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.

Candlelight trade - a child helps its parents to sell beads by candlelight as the power goes down on the ghats.
  Some permanent residents.  Others part of the vast nomadic population of such spiritualist oddities whom India’s ineluctable cycle of festivals and holy pilgrimages permit these chaps (and occasionally ladies) to circumambulate the country without cease offering darshan, smoking chillums and bumming Roops for weirdly wise words and photo ops.  And gods bless ‘em one and all because what would travel in India be without this constant tinge of the colourful and carnivalesque!

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.

'Looming Extinction' - the hard conditions, and tyhreatened trade of Varanasi's famous Muslim weavers.
  Some taking time to paint far more elaborate (camera pleasing) patterns of gold, red and white upon their faces.  They sit cross-legged in the shadows or hobble sagely along the stone flag ghats, propped on their walking staffs sometimes in the most outrageous glamour-kitsch costumes of shiny gold foil, sequins and saffron-red robing with cascades of chains, beads, baubles and shiny ’Om’ medallions about their necks to make Mr T go green with envy.  Often you’ll just catch ‘em having a noonday nap on the steps.  Their white whiskers bristling as they inhale and exhale the sun.  Dozing babas.  ‘Yey! Free photo time!’

The only holy population that outnumber the saddhus in Varanasi is that of the cows.  True owners of the streets of this ancient city.

Azure and Gold - Varanasi silk loom (detail)
  Cow Mata, or ‘Mother Cow’.  Their numbers are untold and continue to unfold and many’s the time you will turn a corner to suddenly find yourself face to face (or face to arse if you’re less fortunate) with one of many of these holy cloven-hoofed strollers.  They’re little interested in making way for you, and being as there’s rarely comfortable room for the two of you, get nimble footed and wise to popping up and down whatever foot holds Varanasi’s structures permit.  The cows evacuate with great profusion.  Varanasi’s cracked paving slab alleyways hourly anointed by a sacred slew of bovine puja materials.  Slippery under foot.  I trod in a good three or four in my wanderings within Shiva’s Labyrinth.  Some of those dried cow shits mentioned earlier are actually broken up and burnt along with sandalwood and incense in the Gugulati pots waved by pujaris during the evening Arti river ceremony.
A Street Litter in Varanasi #1 :)

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.

'The prettiest gal in Varanasi' (perhaps)
  Beneath each of these a young male pujari in salmon pink or saffron shirt-robe and faun-gold over-shoulder sash tied about the waist will spend the next forty five minutes sombrely going through the various ceremonial motions.  This first involves the washing and blowing through of a conch shell and then rhythmic waving of first incense sticks and then several larger metal-sculpted receptacles incorporating flames and smoking incense piles.  First the Naga-headed Kapurati, then the impressive many flame spangled Harati ‘candelabras’ and then the aforementioned Gugulati pots.  All of this accompanied by live harmonium and tabla music and the wild jangling of many bells, their strings pulled repeatedly by members of the audience and concluded with three more blasts of the conch.
Taking a break

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.

Thank heavens for good optical zooms! :O
  Happy just to continue to soak up the atmosphere and to see which other doorways of the mind this incredible destination will nudge open if I hang around long enough to let it.  My friend Lucy, a constant and calm companion perfectly offsetting with her quiet grace the insanity of the city we found ourselves in, stays for another three weeks at least (amoebic dysentery I‘m sure only playing a small part in this decision - I‘m so glad I declined her invitation to that particular breakfast nibble!).  She would later mail me that Varanasi retained ‘a special place’ in her heart.  And the same is true for me.  And as one guy over chai observed ’Varanasi is a city that tells you when it’s time to go’, not the other way around.
Fire performer on the night ghats of Varanasi
  And I don’t want to leave.  But the river of my journey must flow on...

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.

A street litter in Varanasi #2 :)
 

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.

One man and his river
 

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.

baba takes a break :)
  To make them richer.  So whenever you read this (or other great books on India) as a first time visitor, I'm tempted to retract my earlier invitation to read ahead of arrival, and instead say, maybe find India in your own ways first, but follow through on the myriad mysteries it imparts to you and return better armed with education to see deeper into those infinite layers of the nation and its customs, peoples, stories and cities such as Varanasi next time.  ]

Stevie_Wes says:
Step through my friend, see what's on the other side... ;)
Posted on: Jun 18, 2011
groovybob says:
You just opened the first door for me,thanks for that Stevie...
Posted on: Jun 17, 2011
TravellingAuntie says:
Great storytelling - thanks for sharing
Posted on: Mar 05, 2010
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Looming Extinction - the hard co…
'Looming Extinction' - the hard c…
Azure and Gold - Varanasi silk loo…
Azure and Gold - Varanasi silk lo…
A Street Litter in Varanasi #1 :)
A Street Litter in Varanasi #1 :)
The prettiest gal in Varanasi (p…
'The prettiest gal in Varanasi' (…
Taking a break
Taking a break
Thank heavens for good optical zoo…
Thank heavens for good optical zo…
Fire performer on the night ghats …
Fire performer on the night ghats…
A street litter in Varanasi #2 :)
A street litter in Varanasi #2 :)
One man and his river
One man and his river
baba takes a break :)
baba takes a break :)
The prettily decorated backs of Va…
The prettily decorated backs of V…
Beautiful bride - newly weds cross…
Beautiful bride - newly weds cros…
A classic Varanasi pose! :D
A classic Varanasi pose! :D
Ceremonial shaving - this must be …
Ceremonial shaving - this must be…
Parle G : The Glucose Bicuit Kid
'Parle G' : The Glucose Bicuit Kid
Bro & Sis
Bro & Sis
The Backstreet Boys
The Backstreet Boys
Also Ran
'Also Ran'
Build your love brick by brick by …
Build your love brick by brick by…
A photographer reflected : acciden…
A photographer reflected : accide…
Ganga Aarti
Ganga Aarti
The scarlet bead seller
The scarlet bead seller
Peacock Feathers (detail)
Peacock Feathers (detail)
Gugurati puja potrs to be used in …
Gugurati puja potrs to be used in…
Dung Labour - I dont think you or…
Dung Labour - I don't think you o…
The Cow Pat Queens and the strange…
The Cow Pat Queens and the strang…
Please ta-aike my flowers - the …
'Please ta-aike my flowers' - the…
Dolly : one of the Kumiko Guest Ho…
Dolly : one of the Kumiko Guest H…
Varanasi Hotels & Accommodations review
Incredible value and fabulous character at one of Varanasi's best placed Pensions.
Okay, one for those of you like me who like your budget as low as you can go, but if it's at all possible at cost, the charm and character of your acc… read entire review
Varanasi
photo by: rotorhead85