Saraswasti Day 3

…and I pray it’s the last. Why, oh why, did Saraswasti never specify that the music offered to her should be beautiful, not amplified by a factor of 10,000, and not involve computer-generated thudding! All the Saraswasti images in Varanasi have as their guardians a small band of children and a very, very large amplifier. All of them! And they all play what passes for ‘popular music’ throughout the day and have done, day and night, for three days. I think I’m going round the bend. Not going, actually, gone… ARGHHH!

Today, I saw a crazed band of brothers escorting their Saraswasti somewhere—perhaps to the Ganga?—and rather than bringing what in the 80s and 90s we called ‘ghetto blasters’, they strapped a dozen speakers to a cycle rickshaw, followed by a generator on a second cycle rickshaw, so they could continue to offer their ‘music’ for as long as humanly possible. I suppose I should admire their devotion, but somehow…

I tried to take photos (see below) but it wasn’t easy because as soon as the boys saw the camera they all wanted their photo taken and grabbed my arms as they girated and posed like Bollywood superstars. Needless to say, I couldn’t keep the camera steady, or get a clear view of anything. Ach ja, another case of undiscriminating youthful exuberance toppling high artistic aspiration. What to do?

Indian Advertising

I ate lunch at the Mona Lisa and German Bakery Restaurant near the Main Ghat today, ‘dry vegetables’ and plain rice. But the veggies weren’t dry, they were very wet indeed, and when I asked the owner why they were wet he denied the fact vehemently, insisting that they were very dry indeed. I thought a great deal about what he said, and as far as I can tell, ‘dry’ actually means very little spice and the addition of a handful of grit. Then I noticed the advertising slogan used by the cafe opposite.

Saraswasti…

Around every corner, in every alley, an image of Saraswasti has been set up in her own little tent, and offerings made. I thought ‘the day’ was yesterday and that today they’d all be taken down, but no, Saraswasti is still omnipresent in Varanasi. I snapped a few versions of her image from those dotted around my neighbourhood, but there must be hundreds more in other parts of the city.

The big downside (sadly there always is one) is that the kids use her as an excuse to set up large amplifiers and blast out various kinds of ghastly electronic thudding, including a hybrid Bollywood-Techno mishmash that disturbs the very core of my fragile being. So I’m living in a pair of ear plugs. Please note, if you ever come to India don’t forget to pack ear plugs. 

Saraswasti Puja Day, continued…

Just after I posted Saraswasti Puja Day, Drubgyud Tenzin Rinpoche texted me to say he’d been invited to a Sawaswasti Puja by Bettina, a German woman who runs a library in the Benares Art and Culture building, and would I like to go along. And of course, I couldn’t resist.

It turns out that Bettina is a highly respected Indian Tantric scholar who taught the khenpos and monks as Dzongsar Institute last year. Indian scholarship is overflowing with proud and painfully chauvanistic Indian men, and for her to be held in such high regard here—the Indian government admires her so much they even granted her Indian citizenship—is quite an achievement.

The puja took place on the top floor of the building and adjoins the rooms that house the library. I found the whole place breathtakingly beautiful, and at the same time very simple and elegant—my favourite combination. And such a contrast to the streets of Varanasi that flow with the diarrhea of so many beings, mixed with copious other bodily fluids, the exact nature of which I prefer not to dwell on.

It was a short puja, I don’t think it took more than two and a half hours, and very cosy, just 16 or so participants. Rinpoche and I passed the camera between us, so I’m afraid I can’t remember exactly which pictures he took and which I took, but the monkey that spied on us on Shivala Ghat is Rinpoche’s, and the Saraswasti at the end, which is the one I showed with her head covered in my previous post, is mine.

Saraswasti Puja Day

Today’s Saraswasti’s day here in Varanasi. As I live next door to a music academy there’s an image of her in our alley, but for some reason she has a paper bag over her head. I hesitate to ask why… but I will, at some point. I tried to find a temple dedicated to Saraswasti online, but failed miserably. However I did bump into another image on my search for white flowers to offer (I had to settle for a golden garland of chrysanths… not bad, though), as well as a beautiful (but filthy) ancient pool.

     

Shivala Ghat

It was water buffalo bath-time on Shivala Ghat today. I’ve often wondered why the buffalos in Varanasi are so shiny and clean looking. All the other animals are covered in… well, substances too horrible to put names to. Idle imaginings conjured images of buffalo preening sessions, rather like the monkey knit-picking sessions I’ve often see, but I never came across any hard evidence to support my fantasies. I knew some kind of intervention must take place because even the horns of a the buffalo shine. Now I know why. They are bathed in the waters of the mother Ganga, then their horns are oiled. One of the less terrible Indian animal incarnations, don’t you think?

Filling in Forms

It’s National Day today here in India. I expected there to be a lot more noise and bustle, but it seems quieter than usual. Perhaps they’re saving it all up for tonight…

I was struck when I first arrived by the seriousness with which ordinary Indians approach the filling in of forms. My most recent experience of this was when I first arrived at the Groovy Ganges Guesthouse and had to register with the police. It’s the same in Germany, but here, instead of queuing up at the police station, your landlord submits the forms for you.

So, soon after my arrival, a young man appeared at my door requesting my presence downstairs to meet his father and deal with the formalities. Dutifully, I trotted down and smiled, pleasantly I hoped, at the old man sitting in a plastic picnic chair with what looked like a makeover of a toilet seat cover (the looped kind favoured in the 60s and 70s, it was red) on his head. I was offered a chair and Papa directed his son (who remained standing throughout) to give him his spectacles, then meticulously explained the legalities of the document I was to sign. I listened, fascinated.

Eventually, he opened a large folder and produced the form. It comprised of five questions. Each was discussed first by father and son, then solemnly explained to me. Name was relatively easy—I wrote it out for them and they both examined my entry carefully. My capital letters were a little shoddy in comparison to Papa’s, but they would have to do. Passport number, age and address in Germany were also fairly easy to accomplish and required minimal discussion. Then we came to nationality.

“And your nationality is…?” asked Papa.
“English,” I replied.
Papa looked disconcerted and consulted with his son. He then turned to me and smiled.
“But you live in Germany…” he said, not confused, but keen to be absolutely clear.
“Yes,” I replied. “I am English, but I live in Germany.”
“So you are British,” said Papa, slowly and deliberately.
“Well, I’m English, actually,” I replied, smiling.
Father and son exchanged glances, then a few words, then fell silent. Papa turned to me once more and returned my smile.
“You are British,” he stated, a steely glint appearing in his eye
“I’m English,” I insisted.

Father and son spoke urgently, one to another, and then, as if to offer me the opportunity of turning over a new leaf on a whole new and far more radiant life, Papa smiled and tried once more.
“British,” he declared
I smiled back. I liked him. And I loved his hat.
“English,” I said quietly, but firmly.

Papa and son looked at each other, not quite sure how to proceed. Papa adjusted his glasses, pulled the form a little closer, clutched the pen a little tighter and inscribed carefully, even painstakingly, ‘British” on the form. Then looked up and smiled benignly, as one would smile at an alcoholic who refuses to accept they have a problem. And I have been ‘British’ ever since.

Killer Goat

I dashed out early this morning with the intention of returning to Mr Bal Krishna’s silk factory on Lal Ghat, only to be roundly butted by a goat and instantly floored. No damage was done, fortunately. And there was no commotion around the incident at all. Indians went about their business entirely disinterested. Not even one smirk at the sight of a black-clad English woman flailing around in the dust. Bravely, I dusted myself down and continued on my way, but decided the goat—which was invisible by the way, I just felt it, I didn’t see it—was a sign that I shouldn’t venture too far from home. Or at least, the Groovy Ganges Guesthouse, where I’m staying.

So, instead of visiting the Mehrosta Silk Factory to order cushion covers (‘kushan’ in Indian English), I went to the Baba Black Sheep shop, which is only fifteen minutes walk, inland behind Kedar Ghat. The owner was nice, but he didn’t have such a great selection of silk and the experience felt a little flat after Mr Bal Krishna’s warm hospitality. But perhaps it was just that kind of day. A day when accidents happen, shit smells stinkier, rubbish on the streets is piled higher and more men than usual choose the moment I am passing to turn to the wall and piss while staring straight at me. India.

After I left Baba Black Sheep, I wandered in the backstreets of the Ghat and happened upon a temple with the most marvellous roof (below). Then made my way along mother Ganga to Assi Ghat, where I met a long line of Indian women wearing yellow cardboard visers and sashes, who were lining up to make some kind of political protest. They were so beautiful and light-hearted that they lifted my spirits before I made my way back to my concrete room. I wish English women—white women in general—didn’t look so silly in saris.

The Northern Ghats

Yesterday I walked all the way from Assi Ghat in the south (where I live) up to Lal Ghat in the north, which is virtually the opposite end of Varanasi and took the better part of an hour. It was a beautiful, clear day, too warm to wear a jacket, but fresh enough not to be exhausting, and perfect day for spending an hour in the company of Mother Ganga and her entire extended family.

And I saw my first ever live snake-charmer. Strangely, though, I had absolutely no desire to stop and watch to show. The cobra unnerved me, as did his handler, and all I wanted to do was record the experience  (see my hasty snap) and then put as much distance between them and me as I could. So, clearly, I am not a snake person.

Behind Lal Ghat I found the Mehrotra Silk Factory where I was entertained by Mr Bal Krishna, who rolled out his wares and served me tea and told me how much he likes people from Germany  (me too). I proceeded to finger every scarf in the shop and bought 6—I tell myself they’re presents—which are all lovely, and weren’t expensive, but nothing I can’t get at the Open Hand cafe and shop which is far closer and just as inexpensive. But somehow enjoying the hospitality of Mr Bal Krishna made an already most agreeable day a real delight, so I indulged myself. Or rather, my generous husband indulged me.

Varanasi: Sights and Smells

I feel moved to share a few tips for innocent first time visitors to Varanasi, especially those, like myself, who have been to India several times and operate under the misapprehension that they’ve got it taped.

Firstly, be constantly aware of your feet. In Varanasi, the roads are plastered with shit—not mud, shit. Mostly buffalo, cow, goat, dog and donkey shit, but also human shit. I am told that natives develop a kind of shit antennae that allows them to walk, talk and find their way without landing smack bang in the middle of a steaming pat, but it takes time. The best advice for first-timers is to stop before you look up or over the Ganga, or whatever.

Varanasi is a city of tiny alleys and walkways that, these days, Indians don’t hesitate to motorscooter down. So not only must you beware of the shit, the buffalos and the cows, the street beggars (heartbreaking, every one of them), the pilgrims and the sadhus, but also be alert  to the dangers of cyclists and motorbikes.

Some alleys are smellier than others. Here’s snap of the ‘smelly alley’ that leads from the main road to the lifesaving Aum Cafe on Assi Ghat. This one is relatively broad and spacious, giving the cows that extra bit of space to allows them to congregate (often small herds appear from nowhere) to do their business. The resultant aroma is unrivalled!

At the same time, there are so many things to see that are rare, if not unknown, to most of the civilized world. Yesterday, for example, as I fought my way down the main road, a corpse wrapped in yellow cloth and tinsel and suspended between bamboo poles appeared, carried by four men who were, obviously, taking it to the burning Ghat—a practice as old as Varanasi itself. I don’t think Health and Safety laws in the England or Germany would smile on such a tradition.

Not only do Hindus fling themselves into the Ganga in order to purify their sins, they also, rather less dramatically, sit quietly on her banks to say their prayers. Inspiring, no?

Memsahib

I think I must have been a memsahib in one of my previous lives—or maybe I’m here this time to rehearse for a future life in which India once more becomes part of an Empire? Can’t believe it would British this time, though… What awful thoughts! India and her people sit cozily in a corner of my heart (metaphorically speaking, for any sticklers who read this), but too often, mostly when I’m tired or sick, I find myself mentally rehearsing long and life-changing lectures about cleanliness and basic common sense.

Currently I’m staying in a guest house directly behind the Tulsi Ghat, which is five minutes from Assi Ghat the clean food of the Aum and the Open Hand Cafes (life-savers for fragile westerners as yet unused to Varanasi). The extended family who live here in a concrete warren of interconnected rooms, are charming, and the son and his wife, who runs the guest house (there’s room for four people… so it’s more like a home stay), are educated and sympathetic. The real boon for me is that the broadband is miraculously fast (I can even stream tv programmes) on top of which I have been able to rent a little apartment all to myself, so I don’t have to share toilet or bathroom, or kitchen without anyone else. It was a good move, and one I congratulate myself on every day, even though the mattress is a centimetre thick and my poor old bones are getting quite bruised.

However, today my landlady (I think her name is Bunty, but I may have misheard; she’s beautiful and kind and a really good cook) came to wash the floor of my bedroom and change my bedclothes (a good move, I think I have bedbugs, unless the red spots on my body are mosquito bites or some unknown lurgy my decrepit frame has fallen foul of). I tried not to watch as they washed the floor, averting my eyes from the colour of the water they used, or focus on the brown footprints their shoes made as they walk over the wet floor. I thanked them graciously (à la memsahib), then grabbed a toilet roll and mopped up a bit before it all dried (more disappointing behaviour for a true memsahib). The colour of the toilet paper left me breathless.

Upon reflection, were I truly a memsahib wouldn’t I have pointed out their transgressions and stood over them, stony-faced, arms crossed firmly under a sadly scrawny bossom, until they’d done the job ‘properly’? And isn’t being a suppressed memsahib infinitely worse than being an overt one? Did I mention that the didi scooped the dust she had swept up with her hands, then changed my bedsheets…

Anyway, enough of that. Here’s a snap of a flowerlady. The going rate these days is 10 rupees for a garland of marigolds and 20 rupees for a mixture of white flowers (perhaps jasmine and a miniature chrysanthemum?) and marigolds. Roses are more.

On my way shopping…

I took the scenic route to do my shopping this morning, this time for cushions to put on the hard concrete steps so we can work with a view of the river. The Ganga is everything to the people of Varanasi. A goddess, a means of transport and of earning a living, a charnal ground with the power to purify and enrich. So, it comes as no suprise to see that it’s also where the laundry gets done, then spread to dry on the steps. If you like a little buffalo or cow pooh on you bedsheets, this is the place to come. 

Alternatively, if you need a haircut or a shave…

But take care when you hire a guide. This poor pilgrimage group spent the day being lashed by their despotic leader, who barely allowed them to breathe without his say-so. I suppose it’s all part of the purification process…

This is Mr. Buddha Singh, astrologer (“I will tel you your future for a very small price”). In my case, I passed on the offer, but asked if instead I could photograph his mother. 

I think I had what might rank as an aupsicious meeting today with this rather charismatic beast. He/she (I didn’t get a chance to stare at its genitals, I was too mesmorized by his/her gentle eyes) walked up the steps to greet me and followed me so closely and for so long that the Indian boys noticed and started teasing me. “He likes you, Madam! He likes you!” Perhaps I should be grateful that I’m still attractive to someone…

Come to think of it, my landlord’s brother, who helped his father fill in my registration forms (that’s another story, but not for now) did the maths from my date of birth and exclaimed, I like to think with surprise in his voice, “Oh, you are 52!” I nodded my assent. “So,” he said, “You are my aunty.”

Life in the Ghats (1)

My guest house is quite well hidden. It’s off the main road that runs parallel to the river (the goddess Ganga), behind Tulsi Ghat, down the ally by the sign for Indian music school, then left after the music school’s logo. The image they use is quite conventional—some kind of stringed instrument, a sitar perhaps?—but at first glance I thought it was a fertility symbol, like those suspended from some Bhutanese houses. A second look persuaded me it couldn’t be, primarily because even the most radical variations in human physionomy don’t usually include pegs for tightening strings…

The man in the picture below has a patch near the corner of my alley.

This is the man whose patch is on the opposite side of the street from the man doing the ironing. He sells electrical goods and sensibly sticks to the lower end of the market.

I met this little beauty this morning on my way back from a stroll along the Ganga.

Varanasi: My First Traffic Jam

Less than 24 hours into my visit to Varanasi and our rickshaw took longer to crawl the last 2 kilometres back to Assi Ghat than it had to cover the first 8 kilometres from Saranath to Varanasi. (By the way, Rinpoche took the photo of the policeman (below) and the one with me in it in the Saranath piece.)

At one point, the policeman waded midstream (we’d been crammed into an unmoving huddle for at least ten minutes) and started beating the  rickshaws (auto and man-powered) to move them into the left lane. But as there wasn’t even an inch of leeway he gave up quite quickly, only to turn his attention to the cyclists and scooters. Not one of them appeared remotely indignant about being set upon, quite sternly at times, which I took as a tacit admission of guilt. And sure enough, once they had been thoroughly disciplined, traffic started moving again, albeit very slowed.

I was still so blissed out from our Saranath visit that I couldn’t have cared less. Neither could Jamyang and Jia-Ling, because they nodded off the moment we weren’t bouncing in and out of craters. Imagine, they could actually sleep in an auto-rickshaw! Ach ja, the luxuries of youth.  

Sarnath

My first ever visit to Sarnath and I pray it will not be my last. I’m still a bit blissed out by the whole experience and unable to string letters together, let alone words, so feel I have no choice but to resort to posting snaps.