varanasi at last

on arriving in varanasi, one can only sense that the noise and activity there are somehow different that what you find in other indian cities. when we got there, though it was early morning, the streets were humming and there was a massive and growing line of people right down the street, on both sides! it appeared to be two lines and neither side seemed to end anywhere: just one large caterpillar of people looping like an infinity symbol, waiting to get to the temple. which one, i am not sure, as there are several there. varanasi is known to be the holiest city in india – the city of temples.

my three companions and i made our way to a guesthouse papaji was familiar with, though it wasn’t on the ghats but just off the busy street with the line of devotees in front. i had actually managed to sleep in the car on the way, unlike everyone else in the group, so i regrouped and headed out to the ghats, recalling that the french boys i had traveled with when i was last here had found a nice guest house with a rooftop restaurant when they were there. i made up my mind to try to find a similar place, with good views of the city and the ganges. the first couple of places were fully booked and too expensive anyway – 20-50 dollars a night, which is a fortune in india!

then i lucked onto a third place called mishra guest house. this one was further from the main ghat, just past one of the burning ghats where wood is stacked high for purchase by those with funerals to conduct in this, also the sacred city for the dead, for it is said that to die by the ganga – especially in varanasi – is to be removed from the wheel of rebirth. funny how all western society seems concerned with not dying and the eastern ones are busy thinking about how not to come back here once they do die.

mishra had a rooftop restaurant and a decent rate on a double room (which was all they had available). i took it and set confidently off to find the guesthouse where guru and his companions were staying, and promptly got very lost. it was only after 20 minutes, when i realized i had just gone in at least one circle, that i forced myself to choose against my natural choice and found myself back on the ghats, from which it is much easier to find one’s way through the city, by avoiding its twisting streets, sticking to the river. i had actually walked backwards somehow and had to go for several minutes before coming to the burning ghat again. at least i didn’t have my bags. sigh.

i got to guru’s place and the other two had gone off to see the city, but he was feeling exhausted by the journey etc. and was starting to get a fever. i grabbed my things and said a quick goodbye with promises to meet up again at some point. having learned my lesson, i took my bags directly to the ghats, which attracted the attention of hotel barkers asking if i needed a place to stay, little boys offering me hashish, the meditating babas facing the rising sun over the ganga. some funeral pyres were already aflame as i walked up the stairs that snake between the wood piles just before some more stairs leading up to my guesthouse, more of a challenge with my things on my back and my escort of “manali” selling boys.

in india one always has to register at the hotel with one’s passport and visa numbers as well as places recently visited and the port of arrival to india, the intended date of departure, etc. they make copies of things, and copies of copies, seeming to take comfort in red tape rituals. as i was writing in the log book a tall blonde woman came to the desk to ask about a room. when she was told that only doubles were available, i offered her to share my room, since i had a spare bed anyway, and splitting the cost of the room would make it a very good deal for varanasi at around $5 a piece. her name was freddy – short for frederika – and she was from germany. in the end, she agreed and moved in.

we went together to the rooftop restaurant, where a german couple awaited her and i intended to try out the cuisine. after some chatting about indian travels – freddy has been here before, too – they germans went out and i ordered black coffee and a veggie stuffed paratha, which is flat bread, kind of like naan, but with more ghee and not made in a tandoor oven. it is a traditional breakfast food in the north, with spicy pickle and curd.

everything was delicious and the view was supreme: the windows faced south, affording a full view of the city and the river. i intended to go back into the city, but all the travel was catching up with me by that point and i used the internet lounge in the lobby and just puttered around the hotel, going back to the rooftop for tea. hanging out is one of the things that india is about: you meet other travelers, strike up conversations, write, think, be.

 

i shared a table with a studious german fellow who was soon joined by his friends, also german. they began to play a board game that was a fixture in the restaurant. it is not a game i have ever seen before: a square board with wood bumpers all around and a light coating of sand covering the board, which has lines on it not unlike the ones you see on a basketball court, though more complex. the playing pieces are like checkers pieces and slide on the sand like mini shufflepucks and, if aimed correctly, into one of the pockets at the four corners of the board.

after some time we started to talk and they told me of their adventures thus far on their short trip – they had only a couple of weeks before they had to head back to university. most of them left for a lassi at blue lassi, which is mentioned in the lonely planet and therefore legendary, so i read tarot for jan-michel, the one with whom i’d first sat down. it is always nice to read for a stranger, as not having any foreknowledge of their situation makes the accuracy of a ready all the more impressive. i ended up reading for another of the group as well – they were all in their early 20’s and facing turning points, which is always a good time for a reading. we spent the evening talking, smoking, drinking beer, playing guitar. they were lovely company. the next day jan-michel and i planned to take the hotel’s boat on the river to watch the sunrise. it required meeting in the lobby at 5:30 in the morning, which was painful, but doable.

and totally worth it. the moon was still high and full above us as we set out. there was a large group in the boat, but the single rower didn’t have a problem taking us along the banks.

the dark before the dawn

the dark before the dawn, one of the burning ghats

moon fading

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lightening sky

red sun rising over the ganges

red sun rising over the ganges

mughal palace

mughal palace

main ghat crowded with morning worshipers

main ghat crowded with morning worshipers

ghat bathers

ghat bathers

we crossed to the far side of the river and got a beautiful look at the city in the golden morning light before crossing back to our ghat and going – where else? – to the rooftop for a chai. it was still early, but it seemed a crime to go back to bed. i wandered around the ghats and spent time in the internet lounge trying to figure out the next leg of my journey. freddy and i went out together to use the wifi at a place called lotus lounge, which was rather posh in its pricing. as we sat there, enjoying the day, she got an email from the guy she is seeing in germany, one of those emails that makes your heart flutter and palms sweat, even if you knew how they felt because you felt the same way. freddy and i had some things in common as far as our zest for life and our love of intensity in relationships, which can be misinterpreted rather easily, but which comes from feeling free to express oneself, from not wanting to play games for the sake of games.

we walked back to the hotel and saw one of the naga saddhus (that’s the naked spiritual men who smear themselves with ash) wrapping his penis (!) around a sword (!!) and kind of doing some tricks, stepping over the sword, twisting it. we were close enough to take pictures but there was a crowd around him and there is something a bit frightening about a naked man with a sword, even if he’s the one at risk. we walked on, gawping all the same, and came to the main ghats where the evening aarati for the ganges was the main event: five priests facing the river and performing a kind of ritual blessing in synchronization with a singer and musicians accompanying them from the stands behind, which were full of people. there were also people in boats on the river, watching it all from her point of view.

aarati on the ganga

aarati on the ganga

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did you know the ganga is considered a she? where the 100 million people bathed in her waters at the sangam for kumbh mela is said to be where three sisters: the ganga, the yammuna, and the saraswati come together.

we went back to the hotel for dinner and called it a night.

i intended to sleep in, but when i awoke to see 12:35 on my phone, i thought it must be a mistake. unfortunately, i was wrong. this was good, since i must have needed the sleep after so many early mornings recently. bad, however, because i had been meaning to book a train reservation for the next day and now my window to make the booking was closed: in india, tatkal or last minute bookings can be made from 10 to 11 a.m. and quickly fill up. i knew if i wanted to leave varanasi anytime soon, i would have to get to the station and hope they could help. as i rushed through the streets, my way was crossed 3 times with funeral processions, always chanting something about rama, the bodies of their loved ones draped in glittering orange and gold cloths and they carried them through the streets to be cremated in the burning ghats. it is just like varanasi to bedeck the dead in bright sparkling colors, like the revered cows wandering the small streets with broken horns or hooves, like the marigold chains for offering to deities trampled in the gutter, like the ganga herself, taking trash, flowers,  bodies, and bathers alike. i have read that there are dolphins living in the ganga, but i don’t blame them for not making an appearance at varanasi.

i hoofed it to the chowk, where rickshaws await and hopped in with one who took me swiftly, singing, through the increasing melee of the city. luckily, varanasi is equipped to help tourists book tickets and there was a wonderful man with all the train times and names memorized who wrote down my potential trains before sending me off to a special room where i could make my booking without the craziness of the regular lines. i got a train for the following night, heading south to chennai. it would take 36 hours, but at least i had a sleeper berth.

the streets of varanasi city - decked out

the streets of varanasi city – decked out

i happily headed back to my awaiting driver and back to the old city. he mentioned going to sarnath the next day and this was one of the things i had been hoping to do while in varanasi, so i told him i would meet him in the morning to go. sarnath is the deer park where the buddha gave his first post-enlightenment sermon, not far outside of varanasi.

i went back to the hotel and decided to try my luck with the wifi at lotus lounge again. i found it not working, but there was a friendly german man (they are everywhere) with whom i spoke for a while. he took me to another place with wifi that kind of worked and in the process, i met a czech fellow who had been to bodhgaya (where the buddha became enlightened) and wanted to see sarnath, too. we made plans to meet the next morning on the main ghats to share the rickshaw ride.

the river was already buzzing when i found jonas on the steps and we went to the chowk to find a rickshaw. the ride to the deer park was about 15 kilometers of bumpy road, but it was nice and peaceful when we got there. buddhist communities and countries from all over the world have build monuments to the buddha in this place and there is also a museum and the remains of a monastery and large stupa that are thought to have been built to commemorate the buddha’s lecture.

buddha being tempted, resisting

buddha being tempted, resisting

big stupa, blue sky

big stupa, blue sky

the whole place had a peaceful, pastoral feeling that was a godsend after the craziness of varanasi. the murals in the main temple were amazing, painted by a japanese man in the 30’s, so expressive and with nuanced muted colors depicting the whole of the buddah’s life.

there was a festival procession outside the chowk and our rickshaw man had to drop us off up the street a ways. saddhus rode in horse drawn carriages – one rode on an elephant!

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the band played on

the band played on

elephant saddhu!

elephant saddhu!

by the time we made it back to the city we were starving and i thought to take jonas to my lovely rooftop, but freddy said the kitchen was down, so we went elsewhere and had a nice lunch before i headed back to my place for some relaxing, packing, and preparing to go. jonas came by for dinner and it was nice to have a little group to say farewell to when my rickshaw driver came to take me to the station for my 11:30 train.

view from the rooftop

view from the rooftop

i had failed to realize that this train had been re-routed to run to allahabad, so it was extra full of pilgrims without seat reservations, including my upper berth, which was occupied by two women. i joined them, the three of us perched like owls for hours until they finally got down at allahabad around 3 that morning and i could stretch out and get some sleep.

i arrived to chennai central, which was crazy just out of habit as far as i could tell, and quickly did my best to leave it, heading for the other station, egmore. i planned to go to vaitheeshwaran kovil and see a naadi palm leaf reader. supposedly, everyone’s destiny is written in ancient tamil on these palm leaves, which are organized by the thumbprint into 108 different types. then you go through the stack and the reader reads of names and facts to narrow down your leaf.

there were no direct trains and the buses were long so i opted to go to pondicherry, a place i have never been. it sounded pleasant to be in a touristy place to recover from the two day train ride in comfort before continuing on to see the other temples on my list. plus pondy is only a couple of hours away from vaitheeshwaran kovil.

the bus took nearly 4 hours and arrived after dark, so i didn’t see the city by day. a rickshaw man took me to a few places before i found one with wifi, though not in the rooms, unfortunately. then i went out to find food and explore the french quarter a bit. the windswept boulevard along the shore reminded me of nice and many people were out at night, though i was surprised to see fewer europeans than i had imagined: pondy is famous as a former french colony and it is still popular with french people and other westerners.

i had to get up early to get to vaitheeswaran kovil by 9 a.m. to meet the nadi palm leaf readers. once we arrived, we found the place easily and i thought perhaps it was a good sign, since i had come rather a long way to meet with them, after my friend mira mentioned the phenomenon to me. they took my thumb print and then went to find the appropriate book of leaves to read from. the morning passed and we looked at the first book. i was so relaxed and happy to be there, i realized i was too easy giving information and needed to make him give more than i did. as the morning turned to afternoon, i was no longer hopeful that anything would come from the outing. we went through the last book of palm leaves and then left. i thought only to eat and see the temple the town is named for, but this was impossible since the temple was now closed until 4 that afternoon and it was only 2.

by the time we found a doable veg restaurant in chidamburam, i was never so happy to see an uthappam (savory pancake with yummy chutneys) on a menu in my life. the waiter must have seen my look when he told me that they weren’t available at they time in the afternoon, for he quickly went to the kitchen and promised me one. oh how quickly one’s mood sours after enduring a morning of fraudulent destiny finders on an empty stomach!

i was all smiles s we returned to the city. now i must make plans to get out of here, the niceness of the architecture not withstanding, i don’t care for pondy – puducherry as it is now officially known. i’ll take a look at it in the daylight tomorrow before heading north to tirupathi and more temples!

love and miss,

kira

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