Varanasi (24 – 25 December 2013)

All the hotels that I had stayed at in India required all bags to be scanned and persons walk through a metal detector before entering. It speaks a lot about the situation in the country but then again we are living in difficult times. It was an inconvenience that I was willing to bear with. But I do still blame certain people for all the inconveniences that I have to endure when travelling.

My hotel in Varanasi however did more than just check my bags. Guests are welcomed by dotting their foreheads with a golden-yellow paste that looked like it was made of sandalwood. Although the bindi is not new to me no one had ever tried to give one to me before I went to India. The application of the bindi seems to have some religious philosophical significance.

At the Laxminarayan Temple in Delhi, a priest there dotted my forehead with a red powder. I just could not refuse him out of courtesy although I am Catholic and therefore not supposed to take part in any form of activity or ritual that bears any sort of religious significance that is not Christian. I was troubled for a while after that. On the other hand I am not sure that I could have refused the priest without offending him. On the other hand I had a feeling that the priest would insist on giving me the bindi anyway because he wanted baksheesh (which my guide happily gave for the both of us). I did not get the feeling that this particular priest cared much for people’s souls. And he did not so much as ‘offer’ me the bindi as ‘order’ me to accept it.

As for the dotting at the Varanasi hotel, I would say that it was more a friendly gesture than anything else and so I felt that I could accept it wholeheartedly.

Being on a trip planned by a tour company usually means that just about every day is packed with activities. I was given a short rest at the hotel after check in and then D, my guide in Varanasi, took me on my tour of the city.

Legend has it that Varanasi was founded by Lord Shiva himself. It is the holiest city in Hinduism. D said more than once that Varanasi was holy to the Hindus like Mecca to the Muslims and Rome to the Catholics. I am not sure where he got the information about Rome and Catholics from because this cradle Catholic never knew that Rome was that holy to him. But I felt that it was not my place to correct him so I did not.

My tour however did not start with a conventional Hindu temple. I started at the Bharat Mata Temple which is dedicated to Mother India. The focus of the temple must be on the marvellous marble relief map of the Indian subcontinent. If I remember correctly D told me that it took six years to finish this map. The contours of the land are clearly shown and the map was drawn to scale. It was just so fascinating to look at that I could hardly hear what D was saying about it. I have always loved maps, especially one as skilfully executed as this.

Map of India at the Bharat Mata Museum

After learning about Mother India I was taken on a driving tour in one of the places where her children are educated. The Banaras Hindu University was established in 1916 and is spread over a compound with an area of about 5 km². It was like a separate township on its own and it took quite a while to drive from one end to the other. I really liked the architecture of the campus buildings which was a lovely mix of Western and Indian styles.

One of the buildings of the Banaras Hindu University

New Viswanath Temple at the university

I was later taken to the Durga Temple. This was a distinctive red building where I was given my first introductory lesson on Hinduism. We stood outside the door as worshippers streamed in and out of the temple and D described to me how Hindus worshipped. A devotee will touch the floor before entering, to symbolically leave his secular mind at the door, then ring the bell above the door to both inform the god inside that he is coming in and to start his prayer since the ring sounds like an “Om”. All prayers start with an “Om”. After he has completed his worship, he rings the bell as he leaves the door and then touches the floor to pick up his secular mind.

Durga Temple

Although I had visited a Hindu temple in Delhi, it somehow did not feel very much like a religious place. It was a little too empty, too orderly and too clean, as if it were expecting tourists. The Durga Temple however was shrouded in this cloud of faith emanating from all the people worshipping in it. It was a temple strictly for real worshippers and I was but an intruder merely tolerated by the peaceful Hindus. I finally felt like I was really in Varanasi.

The highlight of the day would happen at night but first I had to get through the chaotic traffic in Varanasi. The roads were narrow but the cars were many. The traffic situation is further exacerbated by the extensive works carried out all over the city to I think widen the roads plus put in a new sewage system. After centuries of allowing waste to flow into the Ganges, they were finally going to take the waste somewhere else.

By the time we reached downtown Varanasi, it was already dark. D and I alighted in downtown Varanasi and we walked down this street full of sari shops to get to the Ganges. The street was as expected full of people. But as I satisfied my curious eye by peering into the shops, I was mindful to watch where I placed each of my foot with each step too. I learnt within less than a day that there was no need to worry about dung that was still whole. The ones that had been run over by cars and splattered all over were scarier since the boundaries of the dung became wider and much less distinct. I was never sure where I should place my foot whenever I came across splattered dung.

I should also point out that the animals were not the only beings leaving their crap all over the streets. Just that afternoon while being driven around I had seen so many men urinating by the streets that the sight of it stopped surprising me after a while. I was however not able to get used to catching unintentional glimpses of family jewels.

Downtown Varanasi

We got to the river with plenty of time to spare before the Ganga aarti. The platforms were already prepared and it was full of people all around waiting to watch the aarti being performed. There were even people sitting in boats on the river hoping for a good view. D took me to the open air terrace of a building away from the crazy crowd where for a donation of I think 50 rupees I could get a good view of the whole ritual.

Seven priests performed the aarti and D told me that younger men were preferred since some rather heavy equipment had to be used. The ritual started with the blowing of conch shells. This apparently serves the same function as ringing the bell at the temple since the sound of the conch when blown is considered to be like “Om”. After that the men, all always doing the same things, would carry out certain actions with different items like incense, bells and elaborate lamps in honour of different deities. Each set of actions was carried out in each of the four cardinal directions. Hymns were sung to accompany the aarti.

Evening aarti

Evening aarti

Evening aarti

The whole ritual was truly magical. It was a cultural phenomenon of a level of fascination which I had rarely encountered. D wondered if I wanted to leave after a while but I chose to stay till the end. I was even a little disappointed when the priests blew the conch a second time to mark the end of the aarti.

After all of that cultural stimulation, it was time to celebrate Christmas. Not that I would have bothered in different circumstances since I was alone, but I was given a free Christmas Eve dinner at the hotel by my travel agent. So I joined the party at the hotel that evening, which consisted of a buffet and a live band. It was a bit odd celebrating Christmas in a city as Hindu as Varanasi but I suppose the hotel’s Western customers had to be taken care of too.

Then Christmas Day arrived. However, instead of celebrating Christianity, I went on an encounter programme about Hinduism. I started Christmas day even before the sun was up to take a cruise down the Ganges.

Getting ready for their morning puja

Ready for tourists

On the boat starting my cruise

Washing in holy water

It was still rather early and so the riverside was relatively uncrowded. Nevertheless, there were already devotees taking their morning dip in the waters of the Ganges. Some had even finished already. I have to point out that it was early morning in winter. Although India is mainly subtropical in climate, it can get pretty chilly too in winter. Temperatures can go down to the low teens on a normal day. Needless to say the waters of the river will be even colder. That however does not seem to stop people from bathing in the river in the morning at all. As D said, faith is the strongest antibiotic.

I was hesitant about taking photographs of the devotees in their various levels of undress, but D told me that they were not supposed to notice other people since their minds had to be focused on their god. I could not help but take one or two photographs although I knew that I probably should not have.

The Ganges did not look or smell all that differently from any other river that I had seen. However, I had read many stories of how polluted the river was. Some crazy guy while hosting a TV show took a swim in the river at Varanasi and even had a small taste of the water like the locals. He got giardiasis from that. The Indian doctor he consulted thought that he was mad. I think he could have got something far worse than giardiasis.

Further down the river, some men were doing laundry at a ghat. These men were dhobis or Indian laundrymen. I felt a little affinity to that ghat since it was a real dhoby ghaut, like the Dhoby Ghaut area in Singapore used to be.

Washing in holy water

I wonder what it feels like to have one’s clothes washed in holy water. Not that I want to find out myself. I asked D if the clothes washed in the river would become holy. He replied that they did when holes appeared in them.

The Ganges

The opposite bank of the river was however strangely empty. D mentioned that that side was not blessed like this side and so no one stayed there.

Varanasi looks simply amazing along the river. I kept wondering if I would get to see anything better than this during the rest of the trip. The boat cruise definitely ranks somewhere very near the top of my list of most wonderful touristy things I had ever done.

By the Ganges

By the Ganges

The climax of the cruise was supposed to be a visit to the cremation grounds. I was only rowed past the ghat though and did not get to disembark for a closer look. It was also quite disappointing since I did not actually see any dead body burning. I did see some fires but they had consumed the bodies already. There were ashes everywhere and it was a very forlorn and depressing place.

Out of respect for the deceased persons, photography of cremations is not allowed.

By the Ganges

D and I got off the boat very close to the cremation ghat and started our walk through old Varanasi.

Getting off (cremation ghat just on the left)

More wood to burn more bodies with

House in old Varanasi

My walk through the narrow alleys was as fascinating as the boat cruise. This was despite the land mines of bovine origin all around. It was bad in the morning because the cattle would do their morning business and there was hardly any people or cars on the street to trample on them or splatter them away. On the other hand I remembered my experience with splattered dung and was thankful that the ones that morning were still mostly whole.

How does one tell if a temple is dedicated to Shiva? Look for the bull.

Street in Varanasi

I was taken to visit another Hindu monument that Christmas morning before breakfast. We had to walk down this narrow alley which reminded me somewhat of some of the streets in old Jerusalem. It made me feel a little tense when I had to go through a security checkpoint. This was a reminder that despite the religiosity of the city terrorism could strike there too. In fact it had. But the visit of the Viswanath Temple more than made up for the tense feeling. I was not able to enter the temple however but stood outside the door looking in as worshippers went in and out. It was a crowded morning. Most significant however were the golden spires and domes on the temple. They definitely stood out in an area of really dreary looking houses.

After breakfast back at the hotel, D took me to Sarnath. This was the place where Buddha first taught the Dharma and the Sangha was formed. Sarnath is one of four important Buddhist pilgrimage sites.

There are plenty of Buddhist temples in the area and I visited one. The relatively new temple, the Mulagandhakuti Vihara, has wall paintings that tell the story of Buddha’s life. A Japanese painter created them and they were really quite lovely. Within the same compound as this temple are shrines built by Buddhists from places such as Myanmar and Tibet.

Mulagandhakuti Vihara

Inside Mulagandhakuti Vihara

Murals in Mulagandhakuti Vihara

Burmese shrine commemorating the first lesson in Buddhism

Next door is an archaeological site with the remains of ancient monasteries and temples. The Dhamekh Stupa among those ruins apparently marks the spot where Buddha had first taught the Dharma.

Archaeological site in Sarnath

Archaeological site in Sarnath

Archaeological site in Sarnath

Buddhist woman walking around the Dhamekh Stupa

My visit in Sarnath ended in the Sarnath Archaeological Museum. The centrepiece of this museum must be the Lion Capital of Ashoka that used to stand on the top of the Ashoka Pillar that was originally erected in the area where the archaeological site is. This is the national emblem of India and therefore unimaginably valuable to the country. The rest of the pillar, in pieces, is still in the archaeological site.

The most beautiful item in the museum was undeniably the statue of a seated Buddha dated to the 5th century AD. There was something perfect in the way his face was moulded and contoured.

The city tour ended in a textile factory. I had told my agent in Singapore that I did not want to be taken to factories and workshops but I guess this was something quite unavoidable in India. On the positive side, I did see workers in action weaving cloths. I learnt that weaving with the modern method was much easier and used less time and equipment than the traditional method. I felt quite sorry upon learning that. Would businessmen of the future continue to use traditional methods?

At the textile factory

I was on my own in the afternoon and I decided to visit a church nearby that D had suggested. But it was closed when I got there. So I decided to have a walk anyway to take in the lovely car emission laden air all around. The walk would of course turn out to be a very daunting attempt. I was firstly very much affected by the traffic. I never realised how noisy it all was before this since I was mostly protected from it all inside the comfort of my ride. It was all so appalling that it was astonshing. After a few minutes of being among the traffic I thought that I was going mad!

The ubiquitous rickshaw drivers were also not going to let me off. After having said no for the hundredth time to god knows how many of them, I started pretending that I was deaf. One followed behind me for a hundred metres or so hoping that I would change my mind. At least two tried to convince me that I needed a ride and even attempted to negotiate a fare without me initiating it. It was all so exhausting! Somehow Varanasi stopped feeling like a holy city on those streets.

After I realised that pretending to be deaf was of no help to me, I started pretending to be a dumb tourist who could not speak or even understand English. That did not help me either but I thought that could at least allow me to avoid getting into unwanted conversations. A man came to talk to me, not sure why since he was not driving a rickshaw, and I tried that trick on him. He then started going down his list of Asian countries. After he had reached something like the fifteenth country on that list, I still did not hear Singapore. Then I started replying him in Teochew and he decided that I was from Thailand. That was definitely weird. Anyway, after a long valiant attempt to find out where I was from, and failed, he finally gave up and walked away.

The only reason I even bothered to continue walking around despite my gradually losing my mind was to see the cattle roaming about freely on the streets. Even the car drivers, while not giving way to any human being, gave way to them. It was a sight that I did not get to see every day and I greatly appreciated the fact that the cattle left me completely alone.

Random cow

Random cow

Random cow

Nevertheless, I only lasted about an hour on my own on those cruel streets and then had to beat a hasty retreat back into the peace of the hotel. I felt like I was wasting so much precious time in India not being out there and experiencing as much of it as I could but I really needed to retain my sanity for the rest of the trip!

Street in Varanasi

Varanasi building

Street in Varanasi

As my mind slowly regained normalcy however, I realised how fortunate I was to be in Varanasi. It was a fascinating city. Infuriating and maddening often, but no less incredible. I would love to take another cruise down the Ganges past the interesting ghats of Varanasi and a longer walk down the old city’s narrow alleys with its wandering cows some other day.