15 drizzly minutes into Varanasi and we found ourselves sandwiched between its two icons: a cow and a corpse. Miss milk-monger was in a foul mood and barged down the side of the main street characteristically against the traffic flow. At 9.30pm you can’t really see a cow coming but when the Japanese backpacker in front of you suddenly hops to the side, it would be wise to follow. At about that instance, a corpse who was also in a hurry overtook us, bobbing on a bamboo stretcher to the riotous chanting of its 4 pall-bearers. Being all wrapped up in gold and silver, we couldn’t see whether if it was a he or she but it was definitely some body. It is indeed a coincidence of ironies to be caught in the middle between the King of the Road and someone who was at the end of it. Varanasi certainly wasn’t going to be your average tourist attraction.
Strength in Numbers
Back in Bodhgaya, we hooked up with 5 other Japanese backpackers to split the cost of a jeep that would bring us safely into Varanasi. The extremists were targeting train stations so we figured our chances were better in a Tata Sumo. In the end, things simmered down and we all took the train instead, saving tons of rupees.
The Japs included Yumi, who has been travelling alone for the past 15 months and has 6 more to go. So far she has spent US$10,000 after having gone through Europe and her favourite region is the Middle East. One cheek in Varanasi pointed a super-soaker at her during Holi, threatening to spray her with dye. He had the weapon of mess destruction deftly wrenched away by the petite lass, soon found himself to be the coloured victim and his gun donated to the depths of Mother Ganga. Yumi is also the kind of traveller who finds a 100 rupee(S$4) room ‘too expensive’. Karen says I finally found the girl of my travelling dreams…it’s a pity she smokes.
Tomo and Hayato are probably the only two medical students in the world crazy enough to take a dip in the septic Ganga. ‘dip’ here actually means up to neck level, not just tipping your toe into the greenish slimy water. According to the LP, the Ganga (Ganges River) contains 1.5 million faecal coliform bacteria per 100mL of water. Water that is safe for bathing should contain less than 500! The 30 large sewers that continuously discharge into it could have something to do with this. A steady stream of stale urine also flows irrevently from the back of the public toilet, across the wide puja area and down the steps into Ganga. Besides the Ganga dip, the doc duo also shorten their lives by smoking quite a bit. In Japan, it takes 7 years to attain doctor-hood. Tomo is going to Myanmar. I was about to blurt into a long list of recommendations but he told me that he had only 4 days! The Japanese style of travelling is quite unusual, time it seems is immaterial, just Go! There are more Japanese than any other tourists in Varanasi now, thanks partly to the holiday season.
Attsuko and Moto are the ones we got to know best. This enterprising couple run their own massage and acupuncture clinic in Kobe and employ an army of 11 staff. Animated Attsuko has been to India four times before and this time she has her newly backpacker-convert boyfriend in tow. Moto who has lost 20 kilos since he became vegetarian 2 years ago is the probably the most composed traveller we have met in India so far. Having survived the 1995 Kobe earthquake and rescued some people in the process, few things seem to startle the Zen-master who is in India to meditate and brush up his tabla skills. Attsuko’s English is way above the Japanese average and busies herself with yoga while Moto exercises his fingers. Over our many meals together at Spicy Bites, we discover we have much in common. Moto like me hasn’t touched a cigarette in his life. Primarily nature lovers, they get all excited when I tell them about the Overland Trek in Tasmania. Attsuko learnt Indian classical dance and laughed aloud when I told them I dabbled in traditional Japanese dance for a year in my university days. Moto like Karen plays the drums and we all know the great music of Jimi Hendrix and Queen. Attsuko tells us that there are Japanese TV programmes that shows people how to backpack hence the rise in number of Jap backpackers! Maybe TCS could cover us?
*Attsuko and Moto, if you are reading this, thanks for all the good cultural exchanges, thoughtful notes (and the doodlings on them) and the useful information. The box of Indian sweets was marvellous and saved our lives on the train to Satna. We will definitely come to Kobe in 2007 to disturb you!
Friend’s Guesthouse vs Maa Paying Guesthouse
The Jap version of the LP is the Globetrotter. There are an average of 2 coloured photos on each page including several on food, modes of transport (rickshaw, auto-rickshaw, Ambassador taxi, tempos), Indian sweets, post boxes and other interesting and thoughtful trivia that the LP (and perhaps most other people) won’t bother with. Maps ‘kawaii-fied’ with cartoons and colours complete the visual appeal of the guidebook which is cheaper, thinner and printed on better quality paper than the LP. It recommends Friend’s Guesthouse and as a result, the Jap-Indian joint was brimming with Jap backpackers leaving no room for the 7 of us.
Fortunately, there was Maa Paying Guesthouse just lurking around the corner. At 150 years, this blue 4 storey house looks more like a haunted Hindu temple with its ancient wooden door, concrete shelves, array of altars, old family photos, hay bed, central air-well, wooden rafters and assortment of dank and dim blue rooms. The Japanese obviously found it repulsive but chose to rough it out for one night and migrate to Friend’s the next morning. Karen and I who had a higher tolerance for hygiene stayed an extra night to relish the antiquities of the place. It was the cheapest room so far at 100Rs for two though hot water came in a form of a hand-held heating coil.
Tomo and Hayato shared a large room with us and interestingly they lay breath-wise on the bed, legs bent at the knee over the edge with their feet on the floor so that one need not clamber over the other during the loo visits in the middle of the night. Crazily considerate these Japs are! We left for a more expensive guesthouse after two nights because the idiotic owner said some unpleasant things to Yumi. The family who stayed in the house was really nice and helpful and if not for this EQ-less man, we might have gotten a chance to experience a home-stay of sorts and celebrate Holi together. The family had just lost someone a month back so the men had their heads shaven save a small ribbon of hair at the back. The friendliest man here was probably in his early 70s. He was also mute, deaf and constantly adjusting his huge orange plastic glasses, not that it mattered.
When we checked out, Mr Negative EQ asked,
‘Why you leaving?’
‘Oh we are meeting up with some friends and they decided to stay somewhere else’, we lied.
‘Oh? My guesthouse no good? You don’t like?’
‘No it is very nice (except for one twit) but we have to meet our friends and they haven’t decided where to stay.’
‘Did you hear any stories about my guesthouse? Did anyone say anything bad about my guesthouse?’
‘No nothing…(do you really expect us to say yes??)’
This guy is unbelievable and intolerable! Many Indians still believe in hard-selling and have massive reception problems with their EQ radar…some don’t even have one. Ghandi was wise to preach that the customer is the most important person, not the boss.
Thanks to Karen’s scouting, Shiva Kashi took us in for 150 Rs in a spanking room with an attached bath, hot water (though only from a tap), white light, clean sheets, tiled flooring and most importantly good service. Shushan, the boss regularly sends his boys up to the four floors to ensure that all possible switches are turned off especially the ones powering the heaters. He claims they could cost him 15,000 Rs a month!
Faith and Filth
As we wandered aimlessly through the tangle of nameless narrow streets near the Ganga, we wondered why Varanasi wasn’t declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Her buildings are old and possess their unique character and design. There are little nooks of worship all over the place. Some of them contain unique orange creatures with oversized craniums! Street-life is always surprising. Goats, dogs, buffalos, cows and humans live harmoniously on the ground-level while the monkeys rule the rooftops. Birds fly above the monkeys and hundreds of paper kites flutter and spiral even higher above them. The 100-over ghats are a 7km people-watching paradise especially the 2 ‘burning ghats’ where the dead clear the final Earthly customs campfire-style, no need to bring passport. It doesn’t make sense that the mafia-run Bodhgaya can sucker UNESCO for the Heritage title while 7kms worth of living Hindu spirituality cannot. Why?
The answer came to me 2 days later from within, in liquid form and out from both ends. Yup, its that chutney thing reloaded in a novel dish call ‘Veg Cho-Cho Rice’ at Chandan Restaurant. It turned out to be a ‘mui fan’ which obliterated all hope of me becoming vegetarian. It was 2 days of tension at both ends where a burp could become a ‘merlion’ and a fart a chutney geyser. Somewhere in the middle was a traffic jam of chapatti, rice, charcoal pills, coke and water. In our darkest days in India, our sensitivities to the Varanasi filth were sharpened to the point where we could detect the changes in air quality between the ground floor and the fourth (where our room was conveniently located), between the cremation areas and the other ghats, between the narrow alleys and the main streets and between the riverside and the train station. You feel queasy easily walking the streets when you are ill, especially along the narrow lanes where the foul air is trapped between 4 to 5 storey buildings housing 1.2 million Varanasians and a daily influx of 400 tourists.
In Varanasi, dustbins do not exist. Why throw your trash in a bin when you have the whole street to dump it on? Boys ply these alleyways in the early morning, scooping the trash with wooden boards into a cart but by noon, the situation is back to ‘normal’. Even I have upgraded my dress-code and have taken to wearing shoes all the time in Varanasi. You wouldn’t want to flip-flop into a nice warm moist green pile of cow dung while you keep a lookout for the monkeys overhead in the early morning. The occasional rain also does a mean mud-sewerage-trash-rotting-food tarik and spreads it evenly over the alleys. Despite this, most locals and some tourists brave the streets with slippers. Some even go barefooted.
As much as it is a health hazard (almost all the travellers that we have met have fallen sick here), Varanasi(Benares) is still a Hindu culture and people-watching haven. It is currently the most interesting place in India for me and we spent 9 days here altogether.
Only Takes A Spark to Get the Spirit Going
For the Hindus, Varanasi being the gateway to the spiritual world is THE place to die. And THE way to go is up in flames by the Ganga (Great Mother). On the second day, we saw 7 bodies at Lali Ghat. They were all stretchered in from the streets, given a quick dip in the river and then quite unceremoniously left by the bank while the sandalwood logs were arranged. Besides the mourners, those present included cows, dogs, goats and tourists trying to keep their meals in their tummies. The animals had no problems and were having a go at the bundles of hay and flower garlands on the bodies. One bull was trying to hump a cow and chased her through the cremation site. The men and boys running the funeral business are the doms, supposedly outcasts of society, but are making a killing in the burning business. Each log is weighed on gigantic balance scales to calculate the total cost of the wood. The most expensive wood is sandalwood which makes the going smell good. While we were in Varanasi, the head of the dom empire was shot and in protest, wood was not supplied for the cremations…for a while. There are cremations everyday and waiting isn't too good for a dead body.
We saw one family unveil the head of the deceased for a group photo before the body is transferred onto the log bed. More logs are then placed across the body while a priest comes down with a clump of hay burning with holy fire. He walks around the body about 5 times and blesses it with holy smoke before plunging it into the kindling at the bottom of the logs just beneath the head. Bags of sandalwood shavings are scattered over the body and the mourners take a seat on the banks to wait for the bonfire to grow. Some cremations get on the way pretty smoothly while others are not so successful in getting the fire started. Meanwhile we watch on from a platform like audiences in a magic show. In a skilful cremation, the supply of wood would be just enough to incinerate the body. The wind gets the smoke in our eyes and a bit of the dead in our hair and lungs. Still we watch the spectacle of the corpse gradually losing its physical existence.
‘Hey! Is that what I think it is??’
‘Holy cow, it’s a foot!!’
‘I hope it catches fire, I don’t think the family would like any left-overs…’
(after a while)
‘It’s turning red.’
‘It’s blood oooozing out…’
(after a while)
‘What are those white patches??’
‘I think it is the fat beneath the skin!! Holy cow!’
‘Varanasi is so cool!’
‘No you sick idiot, it’s so creepy! Let’s go grab a bite.’
We really did see a foot go from rare to medium-well to… Later at Manikarnika, the main burning ghat, it wasn’t the foot that was sticking out but a head and we could see that guy’s teeth behind the charred lips. Equally impressive are the stacks of logs that go up two and a half storeys! Karen keeps asking me to estimate how many trees have fallen to this cause.
There is an electric furnace, but a boatman told us it was only for ‘poor people like policeman’. The ashes he says are not collected in an urn but left by the banks to be swept into the Ganga by the wind. The cremation fees range from 2000 to 5000. How much back home at Mount Vernon or Guang Ming Shan?
Photography is not advisable, unless you intend to have a premature cremation of your own by the Ganga.
‘Everyday is a winding road…’ Sheryl Crow
It certainly is in labyrinthine Varanasi. People-watching pleasure:
Old aunties using coal-irons. I never thought I would see anyone using it ever.
Tourists in tabla and sitar lessons. If you want to learn tabla, go to Jolly Music School. Did you know that some sitars have 20 strings? Indian songs and compositions are really very very very long. ‘Improvisation’ can go on for 15 minutes without a change in chord! One night, A sitar god was in town and droned a 30 minute solo. Things got much better when the tabla god started thumping his stuff. It was an interesting concert where tokens of appreciation and garlands were given to the musicians before the concert instead of after.
Sadhus smoking their fat hashish. These men who have supposedly renounced everything look more like marijuana bums with their religious paraphernalia, afros and dreadlocks. Most of the time, I see them lulling around, asking people for money and watching life go by. Some spring to life only during the morning and evening pujas, others are just permanantly stoned out. I asked one guy with the biggest red turban I have ever seen in my life if I could take a photo of him and he immediately asked for 20 rupees! I retreated and settled for a sneaky longshot. Sadhus usually carry a trident to represent the Trimurti, a begging bowl, a sleeping mat, a tiffin carrier and a small sling bag. Robed in white or saffron with arms and foreheads smeared with ash and all thickly bearded, they are integral to the whole atmosphere. They are supposed to abstain from alcohol, meat and sex. To prove that they are committed, some are said to have pierced their genitals with metal rods to compound their chastity!
Elderly crowds gather around Dasawamedh Ghat to listen to the preachings of charismatic holy men who sit on small daises. Like teachers in an outdoor classroom, they expound, gesticulate, debate and end the lesson by leading the closing prayers. Most of these religious leaders seem to be in their 60s though we did see one who was probably in his 40s and all of them had a commanding swab of ash on their foreheads. We did see one who had a whole line of ladies waiting to kneel before him and bow their heads to his feet! Another one had his audience looking so distraught I thought it might have been the ‘Life in Hell 1101’ module. No doubt we had no inkling of what they were teaching but it was fun watching these ‘teacher-student’ manifestations of Hindu spirituality.
The official evening puja is the main tourist magnet. 7 young men perform the half-hour ritual to live singing and accompanying harmonium tunes. Other musicians play the tabla and a cylindrical drum which is spun like a rattle. To the continuous singing, these men on their individual platforms start the puja by blowing a conch shell which emits a deep resonating saxophone-like crescendo much alike a ship’s horn. Next they circle a joss stick in the air with the right hand and ring a bell with the left. This action is repeated as they turn to face the four cardinal points. The main changes are with type of religious apparatuses used ranging from a smoking pot of coals, a chirstmas tree of flames, a big naga torch, a short broom and finally (and logically) a fan to clear the air. Meanwhile, locals go down the steps, light float offerings of flowers and push them out on the river. This goes on every night. Another puja of a more charismatic nature takes place concurrently just a few metres away. It is a similar set up but with only 3 men doing the rites. As if to make up for the numbers, a golden statue in an equally elaborate display box takes centre-stage and there is a mass clapping and singing segment to kick things off. Next to the singer-cum-harmonium player is Varanasi’s most ash-smeared bespectacled Sadhu. This big frightening man decked in orange and gold and crowned with marigold arrives with his holy weapons certainly making his presence seen. Varanasi Idol grabs another mic and helps out with the hearty deep-throated singing so that the blind who can’t see his presence can hear it. The session ends with a long repetitive song beseeching each of the major Gods and Goddesses for their blessings. It could have been much longer since the Hindu pantheon includes some 300 million deities!
In India, dung is an important affordable bio-fuel. Herds of buffalos are reared in certain parts along the Ganga form the living dung-factories. Surprisingly docile and fearful of their stick-wielding wallahs, these big black beasts would scram at the sight of the stick figure with the stick. White gooey froth seems to be constantly coming out of their mouths and some of their horns are bent till they almost form a complete circle. I wonder if this is done on purpose to protect the wallah from being impaled by an errant bull. One French lady we met got a ‘gentle nudge’ from a cow and her thigh was bruised for a week! Imagine what a horny head-butt would do! Still the mountains of dung are testimony to the buffalo’s productivity. I wonder who gets to do the QC. What if the herd came down with diarrhoea? The dung is mixed with hay, hand-patted into fat dung chapattis and dried in the sun. They will eventually make their way into the kitchens and could well be the secret behind authentic Indian food!
Row Row Row Your Boat
I would highly recommend an early morning boat-ride along the Ganga. The spectacular sunrise casts a magical glow on the ghats and you get an excellent panoramic view of the morning riverside activities on a calm Ganga. There are probably a hundred boats on the river in the morning but thankfully very few use motors. Bathing and praying seem to go together and scanty Indian underwear (and at times the absence of it) is openly displayed. Boys and men take a swim and one old guy even swims out to mid-channel. The boatman says he swims every morning even on cold days. Neem twigs are still used by most people here to brush their teeth. No Colgate on the twig though. I have seen people drink the Ganga water and dab their eyes with it. Just a little upstream, a whole line of laundrymen stand in the muddy shallows smacking clothes against partially submerged stone slabs. No wonder, signs at guesthouses assures tourists that their laundry will be machine washed. At several portions, sewerage seeps out from the banks and steps into the river. All in all, it is an excellent display of Indian tenacity. A dramatic sighting of a dead body floating between two moored boats left us a little dazed for the last minutes of the 90 minute ride. This guy certainly wasn’t headed for a cremation. With blacken arms wide open and frozen by rigor mortis, he floats like a teddy bear with his head bumping gently against the hull of a rowboat. At least he wouldn’t end up as fish food. Fish cannot survive in the deoxygenated Ganga.
Holi in a Hole
What was once a festival to celebrate the ripening of crops has naturally evolved into a drink and drug rave which results in spates of violence and a small jump in dom business. Holi was celebrated on the 14th evening to mid-day on the 15th. During this hours, we were imprisoned by Shushan who threw a lunch party for his guest to keep all of us safe from the street mayhem. There was mutton curry and fried fish but unfortunately my stomach wasn’t ready to accept them yet and I had to settle for 4 slices of bread. We didn’t see much of Varanasi’s Holi but heard the thumping bhangra music and the screams from those who were splash-blessed with coloured water. From the next day’s papers, we learnt that in Varanasi 4 people were killed and around 70 injured in the ‘celebrations’. Apparently silly men getting high on Bhang and beer are the main culprits. One guy got too high and molested a woman. Representatives of her caste took revenge in a most un-holi manner. There is a drug problem in Varanasi. I lost count of the number of times marijuana was offered to me by street pushers. Thankfully, they are not that pushy and buzz-off when you say ‘no thanks’. Sometimes in restaurants and by the ghats, you could smell the weed. So Holi was an anti-climax. We were still recovering from our stomach problems and there was some speculation that the terrorists were targeting the festival to inflict maximum damage. At 1pm on the 15th, a long police siren signalled the end of Holi. Anyone caught colouring a tourists or anyone who did not wished to be ‘blessed’ would be arrested. Surprisingly, the enforcement was actually obeyed by the vast majority, the locks of countless guesthouses clicked open and hordes of tourists roamed the streets again. We gave it a couple more hours and tried to imagine what it was like on the street. There were people with green faces and red hair in clothes that would be next worn a year later. ‘Happy Holi!’, they wish each other and hug each other three times. The shuttered shops that were splashed with paint were only missing a pig’s head. Being colour-blind was no excuse for the poor dogs. Even the holy cow got blasted, though to a lesser degree. A flock of pink geese were chased by three boys threatening to turn them blue. The buildings seem to bleed rivulets of red down the streets and gutters. As I was inches away from the guesthouse, a green packet sailed over my head and exploded in front of me. Lucky for the kid who missed or I’ll dunk him in the Ganga Yumi-style. The post-Holi hangover didn’t last very long and young men were dancing to loud music in the narrow streets that very night. This time I didn’t escape a handful of red powder on my head. When I reached the room, all Karen could say was, ‘Oh you kena ah? Let me take a photo before you bathe.’
Madhur Milan Café
Singapore has made her little mark in India. Everyone we meet will say, ‘Oh Singupurr…I noee Welly nize place!’ Those who really know us will compliment ‘Oh I noee Singupurr! Welly kleen place!’ The friendly staff at Madhur Milan stupefied us by going ‘Oh Singuprrr bananas welly waymous in India!’ Which bloody country has been misusing our good name! Madhur Milan incidentally is probably the only place in Varanasi with waiters who are genuinely happy to be waiting on the customers. They are also happy to serve your chick pea curry with a more personal touch - having their thumbnail in it. The fabulous 30 Rs thali, 10Rs masala dosa, 4Rs samosas and 2Rs chai (milk tea) makes this place a real winner with the locals and tourists who want to be a little more local. On the wall is a cherubic Brahma getting a direct shot of calcium from a cow.
The Richest Man
I spoke to Shushan one morning and he tells me about his guesthouse business. Besides Shiva Kashi, he runs another place and also a restaurant. When things go into autopilot, he plans to ride to Turkey on a bike through Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and the other Middle Eastern Nations.
'You are a rich man!'
'No I am not rich. But I can show you a rich man.'
'Oh who is he?'
'He is sitting over there.' and points to Brahma at the altar.
'What is being rich? When we die, we are nothing...'
Another conversation with a cook gave me this gem:
'India, everything possible, everything not possible.'
Good News is Bad News
And I thought the Straits Times was bad…Indian newspapers are apocalyptic. Kidnappings, murders, rapes, suicides, frauds, corruption, accidents, drownings, scandals and crop failures get the most space in the papers. The most horrifying stories almost always involve women or girls. A 52 year old woman was raped by a young man. Married school teachers molesting and raping female students. Women being beaten, stripped and paraded naked in their villages. A woman being blinded by acid thrown in her face. Daughters being sold for 800Rs to pay off their parent’s debt. Women being married off to terrorists. A girl being gang raped on her birthday. It’s tough to be a woman in India especially in rural India it seems. While international news coverage is pathetic, cricket frequently takes up front page and the bulk of the sports section. Despite all this, there are some interesting and insightful reads now and then and here’s something to share:
‘If God is willing but not able to prevent evil, then he is not omnipotent; if he is able but not willing, he is not benevolent; if he is both able and willing, whence come evil?’ – Epicurus
Why is India embracing nuclear power when the US is decommissioning it nuclear plants and relying more on gas and coal?
The world’s oldest animal just died of liver failure at 255 years old. He’s name is Addwaita.
‘Each one – teach two’ is a programme aimed at raising the literacy rate of poor farmers. Their children assume the role of teachers after school and even assign their parents homework!
Reminder: Roads are important! One village lost many of its people because they couldn’t get to the hospital on time. Their one and only bull-lock cart was too slow on the bad connecting road!
India is 80% Hindu and Varanasi is their religious nucleus. I would say that a visit to India would be quite un-Indian without exploring this 7km stretch of ghats.