Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Checking Bodhgaya Off the List

One evening in Varanasi, after a bonding session over some paan with some guys in a café, I walked into a bookstore (the city has a couple of very good book shops, all along the same road from Dashaswamedha to Assi Ghat) and walked out with Diana Eck’s Banaras- The City of Light. I always tend to be a little wary of books written by foreign writers on a 3-6 month sojourn in a city, passing off as authoritative studies on a place. But Eck’s book is definitely one of the best researched books I have ever read, about any place. It is a sociological/historical/religious study of the ancient city and cites from dozens of books, mythologies and field visits.

Last night I was reading a section on the time when Lord Shiva had to leave Varanasi and live in Mount Mandara for a while. It quoted from Vedic literature on how much Shiva missed his beloved Kashi, how he longed and suffered, likening it to separation from a lover. All the Gods he sent back to earth to drive away Divodasa (who was appointed by Brahma to restore peace on earth and who had in turn asked that all Gods leave Kashi before he began his rule) try various means and fail to disrupt Divodasa’s rule. They fail in their mission but so enamoured is everyone with Kashi that none of them return to the heavens. Meanwhile, Shiva suffers and longs.

When the city had supposedly charmed even the Gods, what chance do mortals have? With a very heavy heart, we leave the city to board a train to Gaya, in Bihar. Neither of us can get Varanasi out of our head. Maybe it is the faith in the river. Maybe it is a manifestation of a lifetime of cultural, religious references to Kashi that lends the city a halo, an aura. Maybe we just unconsciously want it to be all that. We seem so determined to like it that nothing—filth, traffic, congestion—can stop us from feeling something for the city. It is too much of everything, an extreme form of all that you find in small doses elsewhere and still think is too much. Yet, there is an unexplainable something.

The train journey isn’t too long but we decide in an instant it isn’t going to be a nice phase of the trip. I am terribly sorry to be such a regionist/ racist here but the Bihari men are all that they are said to be. Almost every generalization is true from our limited interaction with them. All through the train journey, someone is constantly trying to take a picture of us with his camera phone, something that we see for the rest of the trip as well. It is incredibly irritating, to say the least. More so because they are too crass to want to get into an argument with.

We are deposited in a swanky hotel in Bodhgaya, about 17 kms from Gaya. Bharg’s friend has made all the arrangements. After the chaos of Ganpati Guest House, it is almost a culture shock to be in an air conditioned room with our own bathroom!!! We take a full half hour to adjust to these basic amenities and realize that not once had we missed any of them.

Every guide book warns you not to be out alone in the night in Bihar, all the more so if you are a girl. I am told the situation is much better after the current government came into being but we would rather not risk it. We order not too great hotel food and I finish Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, an unusual book. It felt like Dyer was mighty off it when he took notes for the book. Maybe you ought to have been equally off it too for it to make any sense. It is the evening of September 12, 2011.

Next morning we hope it is a better day and hire an incredibly cheap cycle rickshaw to take us around. It is hot, not quite as humid as Varanasi, which is a huge relief to spoilt-by-Bangalore-weather us. First up is the Buddha Temple, quite a nice structure housing a small room with a golden status of the Buddha. All around are stones and structures where monks meditate in the mornings and evenings. The gardens are very well maintained and though the causeway leading to the temple is bustling with people selling cheap jewelry, hats and such like, the temple itself is quiet. The few monks inside move their lips silently in chants. After the chaos in Varanasi, this is our other re-adjustment phase.

Behind this structure is the famous Bodhi tree where Buddha got enlightenment. This present tree is said to have grown from a branch from the original Bodhi tree. There are monks meditating, their gowns and clothes a beautiful contrast against the mono-colour temple. There are many other temples we hop in and out of. All the temples here are closed between 12 noon and 2 pm and stay on till 6 pm then on. It is a good thing, because the afternoons are too hot for us to try walking out.

Every country that practices Buddhism has a temple here at Bodhgaya, maintained or patronized by the respective governments. When you see all the temples at one go, you appreciate the changes in architecture and in the arts on the inside walls. So also the different colours and clothes of the monks and pilgrims from the different countries. There are monasteries as well from different countries, we don’t go to any. Most of them have rooms that they let out to pilgrims and organize short and long term courses in meditation, Buddhism, etc at very nominal rates.

The Tibetan temple is nice, but then after seeing the ones in Bylakuppe and Dharamsala, there are no surprises there. The Thai temple is the one that most impresses me with its fantastic architecture and gorgeous interiors. There is an evening prayer and soothing chants by monks when we are inside. I love that place. The Bhutanese temple, at first glance, looks similar to the Tibetan style, but the paintings on the walls are raised structures and there are many other subtle differences. The Chinese temple isn’t too great, or we don’t notice much in the heat. The Japanese temple is bare and cool and quite beautiful with nice lawns and welcoming interiors.

Bodhgaya, to be honest, doesn’t impress either of us much. It feels like being in a bigger version of Bylakuppe closer home. We stop saying so and not be miserable, but both us feel we should have stayed back in Varanasi instead. I tell myself I am checking these places off the list. We get some souvenir shopping done and are happy when two days are up. Another day is a visit to Vishnu Gaya, a place where Hindus come to offer food and pray to their ancestors. It is the Pitr-paksha month, a time when it is most favourable to pray to the ancestors, so there are throngs of pilgrims everywhere, along with the mucky smell of rotting flowers and stale food.

The temples are again many, small and crowded. At Sita Kund, across the Falgu River, is a shrine where there is a stone hand protruding from the earth. It is said that when Rama was away in his 14-year exile and heard the news that his father had died, he came to this place to offer pinda, food and prayers. His father’s hand rose from the earth to take the offerings, the local story goes. Too many shrines, too much of a pilgrimage this has become!

There isn’t much of a public transport system in Bihar. So we are forced to hire a taxi to most places. At least the taxi driver, the young chap Kush, plays old Bollywood songs from the 1990s, songs that we hadn’t heard for two decades since. It is sad that this was the only thing nice about our Bihar trip.

We get to Patna, stopping at the ruins of the world famous Nalanda University on the way. They are just that, ruins, but again the gardens are well maintained and there are many cool corners. We are not in the mood to be bored by a guide in a monotonous voice and skip the history. There is a light shower and we pose for pictures pretending to teach students, perched up on one of the collapsed walls.

There is a terrible traffic jam near Patna and we reach a government guest house much later than we were supposed to. At least the staff is very friendly and the room big, air conditioned and nice. The next day we struggle to make ourselves understood, most people can speak only Bhojpuri here and Hindi doesn’t get us by. 

But my mission in Patna is to see the Didarganj Yakshi, a prize possession at the Patna Musuem. The tall statue, bearing a fan, is said to be the finest example of Mauryan art and is at least 2000 years old. We see her and find her charming, a perfect woman, very pretty, almost stately, though she was probably just a lowly servant. A gigantic granary nearby has a winding staircase that offers a view of the entire city, crammed like all others with concrete and too many cars.

We are glad to be flying out that evening from Bihar. When we land in Bangalore four hours later, there is a cool breeze, a miniscule nip in the air, all that you would demand from the weather here. I allow myself a smile for the weather, but that apart, there is little else that makes me feel like I am coming back home.

And here are the pictures. Again, very low resolution ones.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Loving Varanasi: Part 3 (and last!!)

(I have been blowing off steam lately, so sorry about the delay)

My Korean-American friend Jayoung has heard from a friend that The Blue Lassi is a fantastic place. The name sounds to me like a shady bar with dull lights, but alcohol isn’t too freely sold in the holy city of Varanasi, so I know it’s just my wild imagination. Like I mention, all the local people are incredibly helpful with directions, so we have no problems getting to a tiny little shop that has a single blue door and a lot of pictures.

Turns out The Blue Lassi is a very popular place with Korean tourists; the walls are covered with touristy shots, messages in Korean and a lot of little masks, stickers and knick knacks left behind by visitors. Wait till you drink the freshly made, very thick lassis served in small or large mud pots! There come in flavours I didn’t even imagine could be made!! There is chocolate, banana, apple, pineapple, many more and something unpronounceable that we don’t try. What we have is the banana flavour and it is beyond incredible. I don’t think Lonely Planet lists this place, so you won’t find many foreigners there. Keep it quiet now, The Blue Lassi might be one of the last places you can hang out and not be elbowed out by the firangs.

Jayoung wants to get lost in the lanes, but I am not sure we can let her do that. I tend to get protective about people I like, so we walk with her to the burning ghats again. Manikarnika is where the ghats are open to burn bodies all year around, I hear for 24 hours a day. There is a queue of bodies waiting for their turn. A smaller burning ghat on the other side of town has an electric crematorium, but I can understand why there is a beeline here instead. It is believed that Lord Shiva himself, who lives in graveyards with as much ease as he does in palaces, stands guard over the burning body and keeps himself warm in the winter nights by smearing ashes on his body. You cannot shake off such an old belief system that easily, now matter how shiny the electric machine looks.

The monsoons have swallowed the ghats here too and there is only a platform where the bodies are prodded and burnt. There is a business like atmosphere around there. The tiny lanes leading up to the ghat are filled with shops and tea stalls. While relatives wait for their turn to do the last rites, they catch up on small talk, drink a cup of chai or just look around. There is no place here in the business of death for the drama of emotions. No one is crying, though they all adopt a solemn look to fit the occasion. Like elsewhere, women do not participate in the last rites. Stupid, if you ask me, when it is a woman responsible for bring a man into the world.

The place is too crowded and congested to ponder over any thoughts about death. But death, when you watch it from a vantage point, feels like another incident, nothing to fear, nothing to dread. Perhaps this is where religion helps, by giving you an answer as to what does or doesn’t happen when you die in Varanasi. There are several tons of wood and someone constantly chopping them down. A run down building gives you a vantage point view of the burning platform. On the way to the top you pass by people resting in corners, eating, sleeping. There is an old woman on a charpoy, her clothes bundled near her feet, her world possessions of a steel box and a plastic bottle under the cot. No doubt waiting to die.

It is easy to find your way to the burning ghat, a man chewing paan tells us. We are to follow a particular type of tile laid out on the lane. “As long as you are walking on the lane with these tiles, you won’t lose your way,” he assures us. Turns out he is right, but of course.

Somewhere in between these walks and sweating it out on the guest house balcony, we visit the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, almost the epicenter of Hindu faith in India. This is the place we have grown up listening to stories of. This is the holiest of all places, irrespective of whether families worship Rama or any of the other avatars. We go early in the morning, the temple is just a five minute walk away from the guest house. Security is super tight and we are allowed only a purse/wallet inside. There is a small crowd already and some jostling. But it’s what I would call a very democratic temple. There are no special darshans for those who can spare the money and everyone gets to touch the Shiva linga, offer flowers, milk or holy Ganga water. That’s what I most appreciated; there aren’t any visible moneybags hovering around to bribe their way into a shorter queue.

The next morning, we are up even earlier to go perform a puja at the temple. We figure we might as well, now that we are there. We opt for a small ritual and the priest mutters many mantras in a hurry (they all are always in a hurry). Then we are made to sit in front of the Shiva linga for at least a good ten minutes and made to perform various rituals, pouring milk, smearing ghee and kum-kum, etc. To me, it is a very overwhelming experience, being so close to a place that is almost at the very root of faith. Kashi is where most of Hindu religion springs from, and this temple is from where millions of the pious derive their strength from and dream of going to one day. I am not particularly religious on the best of days, but even to me, years of those stories and the remnants of faith and belief adds to bring up something that is very overwhelming.

We go the whole mile and even take a full dip in the Ganga, to ‘wash off all our sins’!! I know for sure that for both of us, something changed that day. We did not magically get unshakable faith, at least I didn’t. But there was something about doing these things that strikes a chord even in the coldest, most cynical of hearts. Perhaps it is the collective faith that rubs off you a little. I would prefer not to speculate and instead marvel at the sheer miracle of that city. I spot a full rainbow one evening, I haven’t seen one in years. It adds to the magic.

The rest of our time is alternated between the German Bakery, the guest house, walking the lanes, trying to take in as much of the atmosphere as possible and marveling at how affecting the city is. We meet a Couch Surfer friend who learns the violin there, a super funny woman who becomes an instant favourite by taking us to a fantastic eating joint. I make friends with Ashutosh, a shop owner who aspired to be a journalist too. We have long conversations about politics, my disdain for it. He tells me he is a descendent of Ravana, from the Ramayana (Ravana was a very pious Shiva devotee and not all that bad). I now flaunt him as my friend with the Ravana genes!!! I catch up with an old friend who also happens to be there and we find we have a lot in common. We chat with a Spanish couple who tell us the funniest stories of trying to ship a bike to Seville. The guy invites us to stay in his place if we ever are in Spain.
It is time to go ahead with the second part of our trip, but we already miss Varanasi. 

Everyone we meet is surprised that we speak such good Hindi. No, there is no hint of arrogance when they say so; it is just plain surprise.

On one of the evenings sitting on the balcony, I realize that there are two Varanasis and two kinds of Varanasians. One that is timeless, where life is conducted as it must have been thousands of years ago. The other that is hurrying into urbanity with branded stores that have glass doors, call centres and English learning centres.
Then there are the pilgrims, some that walk hundreds of miles, just like their ancestors centuries ago, stand in line for hours, all for a glimpse of the Shiva linga for a few seconds! That to me is unshakeable faith, that they believe these few seconds will redeem their lives, this a journey for which they would save for years before they can scrap through enough for a second class train ticket. Then there are the hippies, rechristened backpackers, in search of quick nirvana, yoga in 3 days and cheap ganja; those ‘doing’ Varanasi before going on to get a tan in Goa or pose before the Taj Mahal.

Somewhere in the lanes, these two Varanasis, these two kinds of Varanasians meet and pass by each other, not always acknowledging, but accepting the presence of the other. They are each part of the tourist attraction for the other. There is place for both, without each infringing on the space and sentiments of the other. Varanasi is also a tourist destination. Note the ‘also’. But yet it retains its aura of faith, of piety, of sentiments nurtured and fed since time started. Or so they say.

This has been a very long account of just one city. But then I realize I can’t stop writing about Varanasi. Everyone who has been there will know what I mean when I say that there is something mystical, magical about that city. It overwhelms you, changes you, moves you, and affects you. May not all be in a nice way. There is something there that makes you, urges you to go back, like you have left something behind, and you have to go retrieve it. Or leave more of you behind.

There isn’t an iota of doubt that Varanasi is one place I will keep going back to, again and again and again.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Loving Varanasi: The Photos

Here is a link to the Varanasi Picasa album. I am not sure how long I will keep it public, so in case you come here after the link stops working, please leave a comment or mail me and I will send you the link. I do not claim these to be great pictures, but if you want, for whatever purpose, a high res copy (these are frighteningly low res ones), mail me again and I will be happy to send them to you.
As for the rest of the travel story, please do come back tomorrow.
And thank you for all the love!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Loving Varanasi: Part 2

Varanasi, the city that BK and I were texting early this morning about missing, is defined by its Ghats, there are several dozens of them. But we have chosen the off-season to go there; it is the monsoon, and all the steps that lead down to the Ganga are under water. Every day, we see an increase in the water level, every afternoon, there is rain, every evening, it is the most utter joy to sit on a chair in the balcony sipping mint tea, the only thing I quite liked in the Ganpati Guest House menu.

Every touristy place you go to, there are certain things you are expected to check off your list. As per the tourist laws, we took a sunrise boat ride the next morning. I realized that sometimes, with these boatmen, you have to put your foot down and demand that they move, because by the time our man was ready to sail off, the sun was already up. I chose not to be too disappointed though and got some excellent pictures, two that look incredibly unreal. The boatman’s daughter Preethi, a very pretty little thing, hops on and makes us float away small lit wicks kept between flowers on a paper plate. A clear ploy, for, at the end of the half hour trip, she gets Rs 100 from Bilal.

Bilal is a Kurdish doctor we have met the previous day. He is staying at the guest house too. That’s the thing about travelling in Varanasi, I realize later. You meet dozens of people and strike up conversations. Many interesting tales are traded in, some bond over a joint, some become friends you keep in touch with, others are good company for an evening. Of course, most often you would be expected to explain the Indian caste system and talk a bit about the various Gods (a tiring exercise, more so when you realize how difficult it is to simplify our complex religion and explain to someone who hasn’t grown up in its intricacies).

Bilal accompanies us for the Ganga Aarti the previous evening, another absolute must do when you are in the city. The rains have covered the steps, hence the theatre happens in two places, one on a high platform and a smaller one closer by. These prayers, I am told, are done at sunrise too, but it is the evening one that draws in the crowds.

I call it a theatre performance because that is pretty much what it is. The hour long prayer to River Ganga is beautifully choreographed and is performed by young priests dressed in silk, some rather good looking men (ahem!). The Ganga is worshipped with incense, flowers, fans, conchs, the famous tiered-lamps, etc. This whole process is said to have been going on without a break for over 1000 years now! When you think about it, it is actually mighty impressive. So is the city, though no building is over 300-400 years old, the lanes and the buildings look like they have stood forever.

You get carried away by the aarti at the main Ghat, the Dasaswamedh Ghat. I go back twice more, the third time, I have a balcony seat view from a boat (for which I pay Rs 50), just about 10 feet from the aarti. That is most impressive. The smells, sounds and the sights add to the sentiments you have about Varanasi. The cynical me of the shaky faith wonders whether loving the city is an idea you are fed with from childhood, some good religious marketing. Kashi, Varanasi is to Hindus what Mecca is to Muslims. So perhaps, from the constant cultural references, from the halo that is given to the place, from the awe that accompanies the mention of it, you are culturally conditioned to like the city. Perhaps it is the vibe of faith of millions of people that rubs off you. Either which ways, there is something magical, something that gets under your skin, something that changes you and your perceptions. I choose my non-cynical side and prefer to soak in that feeling.

We take it easy, being lazy and blaming it on the weather. It is too hot to be out in the afternoons, though the narrow lanes shade you from the worst of it. Day breaks early. I am high on adrenaline perhaps and survive on less than 5 hours of sleep every day, so much that I fear I would collapse. Slowly, the lanes and the way they are laid out start to make sense. You can walk the length on the city by skipping along its Ghats. But because of the rains, we have to navigate to the main road and then to the next Ghat again. If you know the way or the language to ask for the way, you need not see the main road at all, the lanes would take you to every next Ghat.

We check more things off the list, the Nepali temple with erotic sculptures, many other Ghats, Benaras Hindu University (BHU) and paan chewing. The Nepali temple is five minutes from where we stay, again accessible only on foot. There are several Nepal-government sponsored boys studying Sankrit and the Vedas. Kashi, for centuries, has been a great learning centre for traditional sciences and the Holy Scriptures.

BHU is nice too, though the ride proves expensive. The Bharat Kala Bhavan is a huge museum. I was never a very museum person, but these days, I quite like them (don’t tell me that’s age and wisdom speaking! Ugh!). We don’t ponder before each exhibit, but I am super excited to see an Indus Valley storage jar dating 2700-2000 BC! I also love the Alice Boner gallery where her lithe figurines of the dancer Uday Shankar are almost poetry. The New Kashi Vishwanath Temple is a modern structure, marble tiled and spacious. Reminds me of the Krishna temple in Bangalore. We visit dozens more temples. A bright red Durga temple, another where you are assured of being rid of all obstacles, many more.

Lunch one afternoon is at the Sami Café, near Gowdolia, housed in an old building owned by the royal family of Kashi. Known for its Meditarrean cuisine (I try hummus, pita bread and falafel, extremely good), the garden café overlooks a lovely old Kali temple. Please, please go for the fantastic Turkish coffee there.

BK goes back to the guest house. I get talking to the café guys and ask where we could get some good Benaras paan, the betel leaf concoction that is part of the local culture. I pass the bonding test then and they buy me a paan (rather good) and get talking, mostly off the record stuff. It is a good, good conversation.

We take in Sarnath too, with Jayoung Nam, an incredibly sweet Korean-America I get along fantastically well with. Sarnath is beautifully quiet after the chaos of Varanasi’s streets. The museum there has the original Ashoka pillar from which we get the national emblem and an incredibly beautiful statue of Buddha. Sarnath is a 3-4 hour trip.

We come back and head to a little known place. More on that, on learning to identify the path to the burning Ghats, and on the intense, deeply moving experience of visiting the main temple, on meeting a descendent of Ravana, do read tomorrow. I promise it will be the last part of loving Varanasi! Plus pictures tomorrow as well.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Loving Varanasi: Part 1

It is nothing new that I loathe cities, of all sizes, geographies and shapes. I know I live in one, though I most earnestly wish I didn’t. There is something about the quality of them that I cannot associate and make peace with, the people, their sentiments, the congestion and the cacophony of noises. By those standards, I ought to have hated Varanasi too, because that city of over 40 lakh people is a textbook case. It is dirty, it is extremely crowded, noisy and so congested often not two people can walk besides each other on a lane.

Yet, I loved Varanasi to bits and still cannot get over having been there. I loved the people, I loved the narrow and narrower lanes, I loved the sounds, some of the smells and all of the sights, I loved the vibes, I loved everything about Varanasi. So much that I hope to go back for a few weeks every year.

I dislike it too, for the very same reasons. I dislike that it created a hold such as this. But then Varanasi is a city of contradictions.

So it happened last month that I got all fidgety and claustrophobic about being in namma Bengaluru and decided a trip to Varanasi would be cool. My old friend BK, we were in the defence course together for a month, seemed to agree. Without intending it to be so, it would soon spiral into a pilgrimage, we would realize later.

A 44-hour long train journey on the Sangamitra Express took us all over the country, to the east before heading slightly west and up north. Much to my relief, there were no screaming kids, lecherous uncles or loud mouthed gossiping women in our compartment. Save for one young girl travelling with her mother-in-law who claimed she was an expert in face-reading and read our faces! Yes, well! Trains bring in all the weirdos. The journey was otherwise uneventful.

At Mughal Sarai where we got down early in the morning, the ‘tourists prices’ began and a very dusty ride later, we reached Gowdolia, the heart of old Varanasi, close to the main ghat. At the railway station, I was mighty excited to see small bundles of ‘meswak’, the root that was traditionally chewed instead of using tooth brush and paste in India. I had assumed no one did that anymore, but I suppose I was wrong, given how many people were buying them. I would pick up two bundles for Rs 5 towards the end of the trip in Gaya, Bihar.

From Mughal Sarai, you cross a bridge across river Ganga get to the west bank to Varanasi. The thing with the city is that most places can be accessed only on foot and a select few by cycle rickshaws. Very few roads are wide enough for an auto rickshaw. To get to the main gate of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, the police take bribes from the drivers, so you would be asked to pay extra. I think the newer areas are better, but if you are staying in the older part of the city, be prepared to walk everywhere. With heavy backpacks and weary bones, we navigate the lanes, ask two dozen people for directions (everyone is so helpful!) and finally end up in Ganpati Guest House.

A note on this guest house: Ganpati is amongst the most widely recommended places to stay in Varanasi. Rooms are cheap and its USP is that it is right on the banks of the Ganga, so from most rooms you have fantastic views. There are AC rooms with private balconies and bathrooms. We opted for a much cheaper shared bathroom, non-AC room. The one we were allotted was very spacious and THREE doors and a window opened out to the river!! Super thrilled us couldn’t stop grinning. But we did end up passive smoking the sweet smell of joints almost every evening too! The food is only so-so though, the staff ok too. The crowd is mainly foreign, almost always backpackers.

It was while we were waiting for our room that we had the first proper glimpse of the river. And what a sight!! The sun had risen a few minutes ago and between a column of rays was a boat bobbing by with its passengers. (Picture proof soon!) As if by agreement, more boats began to appear. I couldn’t look away and I knew that she, mighty Ganga, would make me return again and again.

Ganga. Swollen in the cleansing monsoon. The purest of all rivers. Carrying the ghoulish grey of the sins of the millions who wash off her. Some flowers, some leaves, remnants of someone’s last memory wash by. She is swollen, yet like a lady, does not threaten.

Before long, the humidity hits. We have not expected it to be this humid. Varanasi is one place where you are warned to expect an excess of everything, from its people to its noises to its traditions. Everything and more you hear about the city is true. The humidity was a blow though. In the sweltering heat, we venture out, trying to navigate the lanes, hoping we manage to find our way back.

There are several things that strike you. Firstly, it is a sense of being in a sensitive area, for at every corner, there are at least four policemen, round the clock. They look over you lazily, between chewing paan, a local culture, but their presence makes you feel very safe, especially in the lesser lit lanes. Second, the men in Varanasi are not the ‘accidentally bumping into/brushing against you kinds’. On a list of reasons to love this city, I could almost start with this on the top! Having traveled elsewhere, I have never before been to a place where such ‘accidents’ don’t happen. But here, the lanes are very narrow and there are many men walking about, yet never once did anything untoward happen. It wasn’t just us, many women backpackers I was talking to at the guest house vouched for this too.

Thirdly, people are super friendly and uber helpful (yes, yes, I am gushing here!), something I wouldn’t have expected in a city that gets such large number of tourists. Fourth, there are touts, many, many of them, wanting to take you on boat rides and hire taxis for you, the usual tourist traps. It helps a lot if you speak Hindi and ignore their poor attempts at English. Just say ‘no’ an awful lot before agreeing to anything and haggle till you are both short of breathe and you should be fine!!

(This will turn out to be a way too long travelogue, me thinks! Bear with me, dear people, I loved this place so!)

Then there was the sun rise boat ride, the Kurdish doctor with a Ganesha tattoo, cows, the theatre of evening aarti by the river and much else. Why don’t you come back here tomorrow and read about them all?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Being (Sadly) Back from Varanasi

And so I am back, after a very intense, very, dare I say, emotional trip to Varanasi and then to Bodhgaya, stopping by at Sarnath in between and at Patna towards the end. What is Varanasi? What was Varanasi? It was intense, to say the least. It changed several perceptions about several things, many too personal to write here. Perhaps it is the energy there; perhaps it is the years of religious marketing that gives it an aura. The city reads like a textbook in Hinduism.

Praying there was a very, I use that word again, intense. Anyone who has been there will tell you, Varanasi is life changing, it sort of unhinges you, in many ways. The city is everything you have heard of, crowded, congested, dirty and utterly chaotic. It is a city where everything is crunched into its narrow and narrower lanes. Yet there is something there…and I can’t wait to go back.

For the first time in my travels, I took nearly a thousand pictures! I am still sorting them out. They tell me that you have to come back ‘home’ sometime, but I would rather have not. It is tragic that it has been over five years living in this city, yet I find nothing that makes me want to come back. Sigh!

Anyways, come back here tomorrow for the first of the Varanasi Diaries. I plan to do a photo story too towards the end of the writing and put up the Picasa link here because there are just too many pictures and I can’t choose!

Meanwhile, here is one of a view I simply couldn’t get enough of. The ghats from Ganpati Guest House where we were staying.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Eat, Pray, Love (in the literal sense here!)

Festivals have always meant a good feast. Last week was all that I madly love under one roof - family, home, Madikeri, rains, cold weather and lots and lots of love. It started with Ganesha festival with fantastic food. I slogged over decorating the tray, the ‘naivaidhya’ that is offered to God and later struggled after over eating, as is the norn during festivals! Was super proud of the tray!

The next day was braving the rains and setting off on a picnic with the three people I most love in the world. After posing before the Soorlabbi waterfalls, it was looking-for-the-leeches time, a mandatory exercise after even the shortest walk in the rain. Those crawlies have the knack for reaching up to unspeakable places! Ugh! Though I love the way they crawl about.

This is not a leech!

Next up was Honnammana Kere, a place near Somwarpet that is at the centre of a very famous Kannada folk song. Honnamma had sacrificed her life to ensure that the lake that is named after her always remains full. It is a beautiful story called ‘Kerege Haara’, one that I will edit and write here when I know the names of all the characters. Most of us in Karnataka would have learnt it in school.

There was this colourful painting of Goddess Lakshmi. I love the colour and near-kitschy look of our Gods.

Along the way, at a tea-shop owned by a Kargil war hero. My interest was piqued at the fancy name of Down Town Bakery.

This house! Going here was a dream of many, many years. It belongs to a part of my family and its story is one that is begging to be told. There is intrigue, history, drama, betrayal, all the classic ingredients. This was where the Kannada writer Shivarama Karanth used to come and write a lot of his novels. There is a picture of Mahatma Gandhi standing on the terrace. I am still saying ‘this house!’ Ok, now before I say any more…

The first day when I tried baking a chocolate cake, I had to throw away the rest of the batter. I made ma and my friend of some 25 years eat it. Ma being ma ate it. So did my friend, and he was too good a friend to laugh at the disaster of the day! The next day, a determined me made it again and whoopee! The chocolate cake was exactly the way a chocolate cake is supposed to taste like, moist and gooey and chocolaty. Ok, so I couldn't cut it in exact square pieces but hey, it tasted great. I was/still am maha super thrilled and served it with cinnamon, just because I could like cinnamon with everything. I can’t wait to bake more!

(How on earth did I get to be this happy about cooking, I cannot help ask myself all the time.)

A lovely week it was and I am miserable at the moment to be sitting in a house no much bigger than a big hole in the wall. I miss home and I miss the love. Monday onward is the Varanasi trip, ten plus days without a computer screen and typing. I am telling myself the excitement is more than my homesickness. But then, on Facebook, my status is a quote from George Washington, “I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world.