Written About Three Thousand Years Ago…

… by the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. (Although scholars these days have their doubts, the King Solomon who lives in my imagination was definitely the author.) There is no particular connection between this text (the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, as you know) and the goddess I found on one of the main burning ghats, just that they both entered my mind at the same time.

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.
I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.
I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.
And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.
For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

Going Through the Motions

I found this Ganesh on the gates of Drubgyud Tenzin Rinpoche’s new neighbours’ house in Varanasi. It’s quite a rickshaw ride from the ghats. You have to go up through the centre of the city from Tulsi Ghat to the university, and the streets are narrow, full of potholes and packed tight with traffic. The police sometimes try to unjam vehicles once they’ve been stationary for half an hour or so. Their method of choice is to wave long sticks in the air, particularly at the more vulnerable cycle rickshaw drivers. But once a bottle-neck’s choked the flow, it’s a slow business unblocking it.

One time the guy driving me was threatened and I confess I froze. I’m hopeless in conflict situations at the best of times, and felt particularly vulnerable as the only white female in a sea of metal and Indian manhood. I had nothing at all to worry about though. My driver simply grabbed the stick before the blow landed, and did it without a spark of aggression in his face or manner. Which is why I was surprised when the policeman’s face stretched instantly into an approximation of abject terror. But neither man gave off a whiff of pugnacity. And there was none of the caveman posturing displayed by northern European drunks, nor the bitter defensiveness of middle eastern religious minorities, just a hand placed on the stick of witless official. Quite gentle, and not in the least alarming.

Of course, as a tourist I spent a fair amount of time arguing with rickshaw drivers before accepting their services. A heart-breaking business, I must say. In the restaurants I ate at that cater exclusively for tourists I would often overhear the tender-hearted  tell new friends about how they couldn’t face bartering with men who had few teeth, were so thin they almost weren’t there, and wore little more than a tea-towel.

I could sympathize, but also remembered what it was like living in London as a student in the early eighties. London wasn’t nearly as expensive then as it is now but the newly oil-rich Arabs had taken over a great deal of central London. As more and more obscenely rich people moved through the city, willing to pay anything they were asked for food, rent, etc, the lower my standard of living sank. So to this day, I continue to argue, for the sake of the locals left behind once I’ve returned to the land of the gods. And, it’s true, I also hate being cheated.

Minor Rant…

I’ve just been through all my Varanasi photos and there are a few left that I’ll post over the next week.

We saw part of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy yesterday and were so appalled we left after cringing for an excruciating hour. We knew it couldn’t be the BBC series because there’s no time in a feature film, even if there had been the acting/directing/scriptwriting talent—but we hadn’t anticipated the possibility that it wouldn’t have anything to recommend it at all. The script was a joke, the acting deplorable, and the director should probably be shot. It was a movie entirely devoid of atmosphere and packed with finicky changes to detail that hacked to pieces the shape and colour of characters that we, the audience of a certain age, know far too well not to wince painfully at their loss. George Smiley living with a modern painting? Presumably the piece Ann was supposed to have given him after her affair with Bill Hayden. Utterly absurd! Or George Smiley confiding, in that dreadful attempt at an upper middle class Oxford accent that someone really should have advised Gary to drop, “Ann and I weren’t getting on.” If they didn’t want to make a spy movie about the characters as written, why remake this book? Why not write a new script about characters who do like modern art and sharing details of their personal lives with subordinates?

Anyway, we couldn’t stand it and left before the end. I realized as we made our way home to a supper of mashed potatoes and peas, that I would have preferred to have spent the time with this goat, the one that has such an interesting collection of T-shirts and lives on the banks of the Ganga, than 2011’s George and Peter and Ricky.

“Life is disappointing? Forget it! Here, life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the goats are beautiful!”


I am the worst traveller in the world. My body hates moving town, let alone country, so moving continent brings down all manner of repercussions. Madness is one of them.

For donkey’s years I’ve bought into the Tibetan superstition of cutting your hair only on auspicious days. The Rigpa calendar has kindly provided lists of when those days fall, and generally I wouldn’t think of plucking an eyebrow without consulting it. Until last Thursday. I hadn’t lost track of time (not unusual) or anything like that. It was, after all, only the second day of the Tibetan new year, and amongst my circle of friends and acquaintances, it would be quite difficult not to notice the turn of the year. So I have no excuse.

At the time the madness struck, I was cleaning the bathroom. It’s one of my rituals after a trip, to clean everything I can lay my hands on, and it usually happens during the second week. (The first is devoted to sleep.) I wonder sometimes if I’m a little like the cat that pisses all over his territory (do she cats do it too?) but in reverse. I stake my claim by dusting and hoovering and polishing.

So, there I was, cleaning the sink in the bathroom, when I noticed my reflection in the mirror and for the fifty millionth time, cursed the appalling haircut I wrote about some time ago. However, instead of sighing and continuing to scrub the Kalk from the taps, I opened my side of the bathroom cabinet, found my hair-cutting scissors and hacked off a good three inches of badly judged layering. And it felt great.

Only then did I think about what day it was. Would I be lucky and have chosen a good day for my spontaneous shear? Of course not! Instead, I have sown the karmic seeds for being a victim of slander. And I’m telling you this because as a result you may well hear really bad things about me in the next few weeks. I thought I should warn you.

In the meantime, here are a couple of photos I took on my last day in Varanasi. It was the only time I saw an Indian woman who really couldn’t have cared less about baring her flesh. It’s a dream now, of course—the trip, I mean, not her bum—and one I hope I experience again this lifetime, although perhaps without the constantly runny tummy.

From the Southern Ghats

I’ll be leaving Varanasi soon—if Kingfisher doesn’t cancel my flight back to Delhi—and today I started making a list the things I’ve experienced here that are unlikely to be repeated anywhere else.

• The time I pulled up sharply because the man walking in front of me suddenly stopped in a very busy, street (busy as in cycle rickshaws, autorickshaws, SUVs, tasis, cyclists, school kids, beggars, sadus, street vendors, tourists, cows, goats, bogs, water buffalo and a general traffic jam), takes off his shoes and bows in respect, then replaces his shoes and walks on. Only then did I notice, through a door, a tiny courtyard holding a garlanded shrine.

• Corpses strung between bamboo poles, sometimes covered in flowers, sometimes a thin shroud, sometimes nothing at all.

• Gatherings of apparently unmoved relatives at the cremation sites, standing around staring, as all Indians seem to stare, with no sign of conscious thought in their eyes, distracted, yet tearless.

• Enormous piles of fire wood for the funeral pires, often four times as big as the cycle rickshaw transporting them.

• The aroma of burning flesh that accompanies every plume of smoke.

• Water buffalo being given a bath and having their horns oiled.

• Goats wearing cut-off sweatshirts.

• The Varansi ghetto-blasters (see the piece about Saraswasti being escorted to the Ganga).

• Constant diarrhea (it could happen anywhere in India, actually, but which until Varanasi, I had managed to escape. It’s much harder to keep healthy here.)

• The surprising peace to be experienced by the red shrine on Shivala Ghat.

I could go on, but I’m too lazy… and hungry for my daily ration of dry toast and hot water.
Varanasi: ancient, beautiful (well, photogentic), filthy, intensely sacred, vicious, fragile and unmissable.

The Small Red Shrine on Shivala Ghat

After nearly a month in Varanasi, Shivala Ghat remains my favourite place, especially a spot between an old tree and a red shrine next to a triangular hearth. I’m not sure who the main deity represented in the red shrine is, but suspect it must be some form of Shiva. Tucked into niches in the wall are six other deities, including the Lakshmi and Saraswasi you can see below. Today I met the priest who seems to live in a room next to the red temple (which isn’t more than five foot square) and he didn’t ask me for money. An encouraging sign, don’t you think?

Saraswasti Postscript

They were still taking Saraswastis to the Ganga last night as we drove back from Bodhgaya. It took 40 minutes to get drive 2 kilomtres through the centre of the old city because we kept meeting processions of drug-addled youths girating around their banks of amplifiers and speakers a little way behind the goddess. Frankly, she often seemed like an afterthought rather than a main point.

Why do Indians love to drown their gods and goddesses? They do it all the time. Small fortunes in time and money are spent on creating the perfect likeness, she’s worshiped and adored for three days, then dumped, albeit ceremoniously, into Mother Ganga’s capacious belly. Bonkers, if you ask me. And now countless Saraswasti skeletons line the west bank and mountains of straw limbs and tamburas are being swept up by an army of young kids. Varanasi isn’t a gentle city, even goddesses come to a sticky end, or at least extremely damp one…