Friday, July 25, 2014

Rang de Banaras: A Weekend in Varanasi


It is becoming a trend that right before I'm off on another adventure I write about my previous adventure. This time I'm off to Delhi, and I will write about my short but memorable time in Varanasi and its surroundings.

We took the night train to Varanasi, which was an adventure and a nightmare, at least for someone with a phobia of rats. We arrived at the train station quite late, through a radio taxi service called 24/7 Taxi. I highly recommend them for anyone needing to take a cab in Lucknow! It's like the Uber of Lucknow, in that they constantly have taxis available by radio around the city, and once you've ordered one you get a text with the license plate, driver's name and phone number. They are pretty reliable from my experience so far! Their number is +915224343434.

The train platform was pretty busy for being the middle of the night, and its vermin seemed especially busy. There were rats in every corner, as big as cats, even coming up to people's feet as they waited by the stairs. My. Worst. Nightmare. And our train being an hour late didn't help the situation.

By the time we got on the train, in which we rode 3AC (the next to lowest class on the train, of which there are four classes from best to worst: 1AC, 2AC, 3AC, and Sleeper), it was 1 am so we went straight for our simple but at least rat free bunk beds. Two sheets in brown paper bags were provided, along with a thick blanket and a small thin pillow. I slept on the third and highest bunk. The ride was surprisingly bumpy so I could barely sleep at all, and spent my time trying not to go to the bathroom, which was, as many bathrooms in India are, just a hole. I also didn't see any other female passengers on this night train in our car except for the other females I was traveling with. I was happy I was surrounded by the guys in my program who were constantly looking out for me and the others.

I finally fell asleep right before we arrived in Varanasi and was woken up by the friend who would meet me at the station in the train car. I got out and got quite a wake up call - a 15-minute motocrycle ride through Saturday morning Varanasi. Fortunately there was little traffic and the friend who picked me up made sure I was safe.

At my host's house I finally took a shower, had breakfast, slept for an hour, and then set off on my first adventure: Sarnath, the place where Buddha first presented the Dharma. I had forgotten how important Varanasi was to Buddhism, and not just to Hinduism. It was fascinating to experience the Buddhist presence in India.

After that we went to the campus of Asia's largest university campus, Benaras Hindu University (locally referred to as BHU) where we had ice tea at the Nescafe stand with the son of a professor at the university.

We were then supposed to go to the Ghats but the rains changed our plans. So after delicious lunch and much needed rest at home, we went shopping in the Cantonment area and had a delicious dinner at a palace-turned-hotel, Hotel Surya.

The next day, after a mere four hours of sleep, I was full of energy again and ready to see the famous ghats of Varanasi. I woke up to see the sunrise, but my host and his friend and I didn't get going until a few hours later. At the ghats we ran into the girls from my program who were also in Varanasi that weekend and we had breakfast at a cute place called Mark's Cafe, in Assi Ghat. There my host's friend, a local music teacher, came by and played the flute for us. He would be my guide for the rest of the day while my host did some work.

Well, I spent minimal time in actual Varanasi because it turned out my guide had already planned a daytrip for today with a few of his friends. I was happy to come along though and have them show me the Varanasi that you don't see in the postcards. 

It was me, a blonde Western girl who spoke some Hindi, an Indian girl, and three Indian guys, going on an adventure to a nearby fort, singing bollywood songs the whole way there. What does this remind you of? Yeah, I immediately thought of the movie Rang Di Basanti (hence the name of this post), although my Deejay is in Germany right now. (If you see the movie, you'll understand. You should watch it!) 

We traveled through small villages and in and out of heaving monsoon clouds and sweltering sunshine through green countryside and past busy train tracks and traffic jams and over bridges and under bridges - until we finally arrived at Chunar fort.

Chunar Fort is a huge for in the Mazipur district of Uttar Pradesh, just southwest of Varanasi, with a history dating back to 56 BC. I didn't even know about it until I was there, and didn't even find out its name until we had left. It was fascinating to go to a site without expectations or background information, and just a handful of Hindi speakers to explain the place to me, and see what I could glean of its history and prominence. From the Fort you got a beautiful view of the Ganga river and its beaches and water looked quite inviting from that high up. We also went down to a well that used to be the Maharani's spa, and is now the home of a whole load of chattering bats.

After Chunar Fort the day's adventures were far from over. We went off into a tiny village, where there was a little path lined with salesmen selling offerings to the Hindu Gods, and down to a three-story temple complex/natural public swimming pool/cooking party/monkey habitat. It was so interesting to hear the shrieks and shrills of children playing in the water, the beat of the electronic music playing from some radio near the women's cooking fires, and then the sacred mumbling and whispers inside and around the temples - all these sounds blended together. We bought some sweets and fresh coconut to offer the Gods and then went off to give them - but the path was challenging as monkeys were ready to snatch our offerings at any time, possibly attacking our face in the process, so we walked carefully and attentively, hiding the sweets under our dupattas as best as we could. Monkeys are really scary in India!

There I had my first experience of praying in a Hindu temple which was really interesting. I simply copied what other people were doing, but I might have done it wrong. As an aspiring anthropologist who does not know much about Hinduism though it was infinitely fascinating. We kissed all the doorsteps and took our hands to our forehead and our heart as we entered into a dark small room where a man showed me to ring a large bell above my head. He then began to wave a small candle around an infant-sized idol, the idol coming alive in the light of the fire. There were a few more details to the ritual after that, all carried out in the small dark room, but the one that particularly interested me was when I felt a drop of something poured into my hand and was told it was a blessing from God and that I should drink it. It was a few drops of water. As my research interests are in the faith-based discourse surrounding water, this was intriguing to me.

After that visit we headed back to Varanasi but just as we were driving through BHU the monsoon storm that had been weighing heavily on dark-grey clouds our whole way back broke out and we were stranded. So Anand, my flute-playing guide, played his flute, this time with even more soul and spirit than at breakfast. 

Just as we decided to give up and just bear the rain, it stopped and we made our way to the ghats. A blue sky was breaking over the ganga as the sickly and slightly sweet smell of burning bodies and incense mingled on the shore. 

We walked along a few different ghats (stairs leading down to the river from a temple, all side by side and differently decorated). Along one ghat was a group of boys swimming. Along the next one a herd of water buffalo were lounging in the water. We eventually rested on the footsteps of a beautiful red temple with an echo, where there was also a goat with which I had a conversation of head nods. There, Anand played songs on his flute that he knew I could sing along to, although I grew increasingly shy as a group of orange-clad teenage pilgrims collected below us. It was such a beautiful moment - the flutes ancient South Asian sound echoing through the temple and down the ghat across the ganga, as boats floated by and pilgrims walked past, and birds flew up into the sky and the blue sky revealed itself magnificently behind the majestic monsoon clouds. That is when I felt the power of Varanasi, and what it means to millions upon millions of Hindus. Unfortunately both my phone and camera were dead by then so that moment is simply a snapshot in my mind - perhaps that makes it all the more special.

After that we had to rush back to my host's home where a sari-maker was waiting. Varanasi is famous for its silk saris so I was happy to get the opportunity to purchase some, at a much better price than I would ever get them abroad probably.

Then it was back on the train, where I spent my time taking "field notes" of my adventurous day. Yes, that is when you know you're meant to be an anthropologist. You turn any journey into a research opportunity, and any new experience needs to be recorded on pen and paper before the details of that cultural encounter slip away. In India I feel more than ever that anthropology is the discipline meant for me.

Now I'm off to Delhi! I will probably have more stories to tell you from there soon. 

Khuda hafiz!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Mumbai monsoon and more to come


I have so much to update you on, most importantly regarding my trip last weekend to Mumbai. In less than half an hour I leave for another weekend trip, this time to Varanasi. Time is passing so fast!!! 

I had an incredible time in Mumbai. Even though I had less than 48 hours in the city my trip was not wasted, as I was hosted by the most amazing family and learned so much about Mumbai's culture, history, cuisine, religion, and reality. 

This is the image I feel a lot of people have of Mumbai after movies like Slumdog Millionaire and books like "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity" by Katherine Boo. I was surprised to find out there are actually tours of the slums. I don't know how I feel about poverty tourism (check out this great piece on the morality of travel) but there is so much more to the city that it has right to be famous for. 

For example, the food was actually really good! I especially liked something called pani puri and I enjoyed trying Indian-style fish, since we never eat fish in Lucknow. 

My hosts had me try six different kinds of bread while I was there. As a bread lover, I was ecstatic. One of the breads, romali roti, was so thin it was see-through!

The moment I arrived in Mumbai the monsoon started. I had never seen it rain so hard. There would be breaks in between though, so all sightseeing relied on luck of timing.

I was excited to see quite a lot of Muslim presence in Mumbai, as it allowed me to practice my Urdu. Here is a well-known mosque located in the middle of the sea, connected to land by a small road with water on either side, full of people.

A favorite during the rainy season is sweet corn. They usually have it with salt and lemon.

I love all the banyan trees around India. This one was decorated, which I thought was really cool! I really liked learning more about Hinduism while I was in Mumbai, as I live with a Muslim family in Lucknow. My host family in Mumbai told me about Ganyapati, the god special to Maharashtra that is submerged in water every year as a special holiday. As someone interested in researching about the cultural value of water, I would love to return to see this festival!

One of Mumbai's most famous sites is the Gateway of India. A cool vantage point of this site is from the rooftop of the Strand Hotel, where there is a relaxed bar.

Across from the Gateway of India is the Taj Mahal hotel, a classic hotel with a tragic recent history since that is where bombs were set off in 2008 and killed countless of innocent people. It's a beautiful building though, facing the ocean. There is also a statue of a man who used to rule Maharashtra.

It was also interesting to see the British influence in the city, both in some of the buses and some of the architecture. This picture was taken across from Leopold Cafe, a popular hangout for foreigners that was also bombed in 2008.

Across from Leopold's I stopped to buy some shoes, as my plastic flip flops were no match for the rainy streets of Mumbai. For less than 3 dollars I got a gorgeous pair of white and gold sandals that had fantastic grip fitting for the rainy season. I love shoe shopping in Mumbai!

Below is a photo of Powai Lake, just outside of Mumbai. This was taken right before the rain started again. Two minutes later the buildings in the background were obscured by sheets of rain!

 I will post some more photos later, but now I need to get ready to leave for Varanasi, the holiest city for Hindus. I watched the beautiful and sad Deepa Mehta movie Water and read Rabindranath Tagore's short story about the ghats in order to prepare. Can't wait to tell you about it!

Khuda hafiz!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Mystics and Mangoes

Today, Friday July 11, I will be flying to Mumbai and before then I have my weekly Urdu test. So why am I awake writing this blog post? Because so much is happening and I have to share it with you blog readers! First of all, my Urdu. In the past week I have found myself both dreaming and thinking in Urdu - basic stuff but still, as exciting as language learning gets! I can already express myself (albeit grammatically incorrectly) about topics such as the relationship between language and culture or politics and society. Reading and writing is going faster now too. In an intensive program like this, the language overwhelms and frustrates you at first, and then before you know it, it has woven itself into the fabric of your mind and become a natural part of your daily thought process. However, I have a long LONG way to go before I am at the level of Urdu where I feel comfortable just striking up casual conversations with native speakers or writing formal letters or reading newspaper articles. But we are only halfway through the program so who knows how my Urdu skills will be at the end of all this!

Now on to the fun stuff that happened last weekend: our meeting with mangoes and mystics (oh how I love alliteration!). The program took us on a field trip to a sufi shrine in a nearby village/town called Kakori. Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that developed its own character in South Asia. Kakori is also famous for its kebabs and mangoes, so it certainly has many equally warranted claims for fame. 

First let me introduce you to the girls who I live close to and therefore with which I spend a lot of time in rickshaws, at meals, etc., although I would probably hang out with them even if we didn't live close to each other. The two girls to the right are my housemates and Tiana, in pink, lives just a 5-minute rickshaw ride away. They are so incredibly kind, funny, and amazing and totally contribute to why I have had such a great time in India so far!

After the approximately 2-hour car ride to Kakori, during which we listened to lots of upbeat bollywood songs, we arrived at beautiful kakori shareef. 

We all sat down in a room with the pir, a Sufi teacher or master, to hear him discuss everything from the history of Kakori to Sufi philosophy. 

At one point a little murid (disciple) of his came to sit on his lap, and the pir helped his young murid write a number of general life advice. Here they are (with my comments in brackets):
  • Soar your soul so high that evil cannot reach you (I like the imagery of the soul as a kite)
  • Meet a good and sweet girl who is clever (or boy, depending on your personal preference)
  • Dream noble dreams but don't dream them the whole day long
 You can also see the director of AIIS Lucknow, Ahtesham Sahab, giving a really sweet smile in the back of that previous photo.

After hearing the pir, we followed him to the shrines, where the Sufi saints who frequented Kakori were buried.

The buildings for the shrines all looked slightly different, and had different levels of ornamentation. The first one we entered had quite a few tombs, all for the Sufi Qalandar and his family. The walls were lined with framed pieces of Sufi poetry or Quranic script. 


At the shrines we were able to hear Qawwali, a special devotional music of Sufis that has its roots in South Asia. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was the man who made Qawwali popular internationally, and if you want to hear him sing one of my favorite qawwalis, click here. The Qawwali singer we heard  sang very well and the raw beauty and power of his voice just brought shivers down my spine, despite the sweaty heat.

After the shrines and the qawwali, we were put to the task of interviewing locals. I interviewed a man who is a musician. He told me that his favorite poet rests here. Although it was hard for me to communicate in Urdu to the extent that I wanted, I was excited to be doing the kind of thing I would be doing as an anthropologist conducting research in South Asia.

After that it was time for some kakori kebabs. These kebabs are unlike any kebabs I have had before. The meat is very nicely minced and cooked to the point that it's a silky smooth piece of meat. They say that this method was developed to please toothless nawabs who couldn't handle tougher meat. They were delicious but since my mouth was not on fire, I suspect that they toned down the spice for us Americans.

After the kebabs they set out crates of mangoes. CRATES! As a life-long mango lover, I was in heaven. However, it was the first time I was faced with a challenge of eating a mango without any knife to cut it with. Thank god for fingernails! One of the local men showed us how to eat the riper, more squishy mangoes, by punching a hole at the top with our finger and drinking it like very slushy mango juice. Most of us just peeled it though, which led to very sticky faces and hands. It was very worth it though!

After our meal we walked around the orchard to see what mango trees look like. We even spotted a jackfruit tree! Since I have come to India, I have had jackfruit as a main dish several times. It's an interesting fruit but I like it. I find the consistency to be somewhere between a banana and a potato, but the taste is quite plain so there is lots of opportunity for spicing it up.


Ok now I should really go to bed. I AM SO EXCITED FOR MUMBAI! But first, wish me luck on my exam. Oh and one more thing: if you want more frequent updates of my adventures in India, please follow me on instagram and tumblr. My instagram name is mariellzies and my tumblr is mindless meanderings (again with the alliteration, I know).

Shab bekhair aur khuda hafiz!