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!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like you are having an amazing time! You are braver than Mark and I, as we didn't get to Varanasi, and in our four and a half years living in India we didn't even dare to take a train! Jamie did, so if you get the chance to chat with him you can swop stories!! Personally I couldn't face the ghats, but understood the importance of the Ganges to Hindus.