No Place As Home
Contact Daniel: noplaceashome at yahoo.co.uk
General Musings (2)
Guide to this site
At home in the world
Not very heroic
Small town West Bengal
An ending approaches
Sights, frights and memories
Everyone's cup of tea
Introduction to Gari
In the hate period
Don't take this too seriously
Making the bag
Things which make me angry
September 28, 2004
Early evening in Varanasi, pinkish-grey dull sky stretches out over the wide brown Ganges. India is very unusually subdued, nature seems old here, like a weary god reflected in a sickening world. Our cheap hotel is south of the old city's centre, just off from the waterfront, just off from the steep stone steps leading down to the polluted holy waters of Hinduism's greatest river.
These ancient steps going down the steep banks have been used for bathing, praying and cremation for centuries (or longer).
Sombre broken palaces, bare temples and dessicated houses line the side of the Ganges, and although each a different colour, each in a different architectural style - in their worn down old age, their colours sun and rain bleached, they seem oddly at home together.
Dark men bathe in the opaque water, other sit with friends on the steps silently, dogs and goats wander, monkeys with pink arses pick among the rampants. A hawk with torn feathers sails low in the silent sky.
Old Varanasi is a difficult, contrasting place to take in. We pondered at the edge of the sluggish river, then climbed the vertiginous steps up into landings, battlements and narrow alleyways. The stepped slope up into the city proper breaks off into houses at different levels, leaving one suddenly walking across roofs or climbing upwards beyond turrets. Leaving my friends for a minute, I walk up and on, to a barred shrine about the size of a phone box. The man praying to it departed, I peered in. A melted orange stone figure, only vaguely humanoid, "head" sunken into its chest, yet with human like glass eyes inserted into its sockets. A garland of flowers has been draped around its neck, incense burns.
Gari and I spent our time in the city with Peter and Henrica, who were travelling together for a year pre-University. It was a very fun group being a four for a while, and we idled about two meals a day in the nearby Haifa restaurant, eating through the wonderful Middle Eastern menu.
The Hindu sense of the holy is staggeringly robust. I imagine many Christians find it hard to feel God's presence in the sombre quiet of church - now imagine your church was open to the air, goats and monkeys were wandering around, tourists were snapping photos, guides were giving explanations of limited precision, children were trying to sell trinkets and boatmen were haggling, a few guys were taking a piss against a nearby wall, and on some level you knew the church building (in my analogy the Ganges) was deeply contaminated and dangerous to your long term health. Yet the bathers and riverside shrine chanters seem unaffected, their eyes intent, minds facing inwards.
And in the more private setting of a temple, the intensity of Hindus going about their daily prayers is unsettling. In the modern built Tikal-like temple of Shiva in Varanasi's university grounds, Indians stood over the rock shrine to their god, at the centre of the building, and threw flowers, splashed Ganges water from little brass pots, and simply stared in a way that showed how immediate the divine was to them. In the "Shiva" restaurant, we chatted to a Hindu couple on their forth pilgramige to the city. They had visited now eight of the twelve holy sites to Shiva (they chose to worship only Shiva, out of the 300 million plus gods of the Hindu pantheon), and tonight they were leaving Varanasi towards the ninth.
Varanasi is the city of sanctity, yet it swelters with scams and con artists. Back in a Delhi restaurant, Indians had warned us, "Even we get tricked when we go there". Every Indian Gari and I have spoken to has described the gurus and holy men (sadhus and brahmins) of the city as fraudsters and thieves - although, as it turned out, the tricksters we actually met in the city were of the more secular variety.
Our driver from the train station offered us an all day city tour for 500 rupees (plus something extra for him if we liked the tour). After a reduced price dawn boat ride on the Ganges and visits to a few temples, he took the four of us to the weavers of the Muslim quarter. In the ground floor of a dingy house, three extremely complex looms, manned by fathers and their very young sons, created intricate "brocade" Varanasi silk. All well and good up to this point - the "Mughal town" had been somewhere I'd read about and wanted to visit. Then the man explaining the weaving process guided us to a showroom. Our guide had explained to us previously that this was a fixed price exporter, so he couldn't get any commission - this was the best place to buy in the city. Writing this now, it all sounds obviously a set up, but all I can say is that it was only after the event that we pieced together all the manipulation. Although our guide, with his rotting teeth, thinning hair and tobacco spitting seemed rather wretched, he was I now see quite a skilled player of people.
Fortunately, during the explanation of the weaving process, one of the kids at the looms had been continously saying, "Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello..." and whenever I met his eyes in response, he'd rubbed two fingers against his thumb in that standard Indian request for a donation ("baksheesh"). This, and the failure of any of the adults in the room to shut him up, had put me in a foul mood, so as the seemingly never ending array of silks mounted, I was little concerned about politeness - we were either going to buy something or we'd be there until evening. Plus I was feeling very protective of Peter and Henrica, who were just starting their trip and on a smaller budget than Gari and I were. "I'm going to get up and leave in a few minutes", I told Gari, and after some consultation, the four of us climbed to our feet and uncerimoniously scrambled out the shop. The shop manager was not, despite his promise, smiling, and neither was our guide. We've since heard that he would have earned a 40% commission from anything we bought (hence the inflated prices), so his unhappiness was understandable.
All these things are lessons, and the lesson I took from this encounter was that us tourists' desire not to be rude, to buy something out of politeness, is what these touts play on and amplify. We were in that shop in part out of a sense of responsibility to our guide - we agreed to see a second shop later that day just to make him happy (he was almost begging us to try it out by that point). We entered the second shop, and exactly the same brocades were laid down in front of us. There was no way we could have left either shop with a win win outcome, with mutual good feeling, and they were hoping our guilt would encourage us to be polite and buy something as a concession. I felt no regret at being rude and forceful given the situation.
We directed our now frustrated guide to take us to Sarnath, 10 kms north of Varanasi, the site of the Buddha's first sermon (Varanasi is that kind of place - even Jesus has probably showed up at some stage). The temples and ruins of the site sit among fenced parks, a strangely peaceful haven from the mad pushiness of India. We had a tour from a local Buddhist guide, then relaxed and chatted on the serene grass as the sun turned red, then walked among the great paintings of the interior of the temple to the Buddha.
[I probably don't need to say that our parting from and payment of our guide was less than harmonious - the whole experience with him led to Gari dubbing Varanasi: "Vara-nasty"].
The scam side of Varanasi isn't the only side to the city however, annd despite the great piles of cow shit, air thick with car fumes, and men who match pace with me, claiming to be students, then get aggressive when I decline the chance to chat, these don't dent the endearing, entrancing side of Varanasi, city of light.
Daniel, 27 September 2004, Delhi
Posted by Daniel on September 28, 2004 07:49 PM
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