A few dry facts. Be patient with me.
In Hindi pronounced something like ‘wahr-an-se’, Varanasi has been called by many names, most recently Benares or Banaras, before donning its present appellation. Located on the banks of the Ganges it is regarded as the holiest city by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs alike. It is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in India, claiming with the now ruined biblical Jericho the title of the oldest city in the world. Varanasi is one of the four pilgrimage sites said to be designated by Gautama Buddha. It is also where Ravi Shankar, of sitar playing and Beatles fame, was born into a high caste Bengali Brahmin family on April 7th, 1920. He came to be styled The Godfather of World Music. I had watched him perform in company with his daughter Anoushka at the Sydney Opera House. He was frail and vulnerable, his daughter respectful and constantly attentive to his wellbeing. Ravi Shankar died whilst I was drafting the manuscript of my road trip. Nothing lasts.
In summer Varanasi experiences a humid subtropical climate, it can be oppressive, but in winter the middle reaches of the Ganges Plain can be cold and fog-bound. In elevation the city is placed about 70 metres above sea level, a distinction it shares with that of my house; an elevation sufficient for both myself and the residents of Varanasi to avoid the worst of projected sea level rises, thanks to global warming. The population of its metro area is around 4 million, but this swells massively owing to its seasonal importance as a place of religious pilgrimage. Collectively, the population produces about 350 million litres of sewerage daily, most of which enters into the Ganges. Drink it, or brush your teeth with it, at your risk. But in Hindu mythology water is the source of life and creation and so rivers and riverbanks are considered to be holy. Thus emersion within the Ganges brings remittance of misdeeds, expunging karma of the negative kind. It’s just a shame about the ever-present plastic refuse of all descriptions that finds its way there.
A possible origin for the name of the city is that of the rivers Varuna and Assi, for the old part of Varanasi lies on the northern shore of the Ganges bounded by these two tributaries; with the Ganges to the south. In the texts of the RgVeda, the first and earliest of the Vedic praise verses, the city is referred to as Kasi or Kashi, ‘the luminous one’; an allusion to Varanasi’s historical status as a centre of learning and culture. One it still holds. According to legend Varanasi was founded by the Hindu deity Lord Shiva, several thousand years ago. In addition to the RgVeda it is also cited in the works of the Skanda Purana, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. During the time of Gautama Buddha Varanasi was the capital of the Kingdom of Kashi, and under British rule it remained a commercial and religious centre. It is now a centre famous for the production of muslin cloth, sari fabrics, perfume, ivory works and sculpture. In 2009 there was estimated to be 300,000 people, mainly Muslim men, working as weavers. The saris produced at Varanasi are considered among the finest in India, however, thanks to inroads from cheap Chinese manufactured saris the city’s silk weaving industry, spectacular as its brocaded fabrics are, is hard pressed to compete, with individual weavers being paid at a daily rate less than that of labourers.
Varanasi’s old city quarter has crowded narrow lanes flanked by road-side shops and scores of Hindu temples. Some of the major ones are the Kashi Vishwanath Temple dedicated to Shiva, and the Vishalakshi Temple of the Divine mother Sati, Lord Shiva’s wife. There is also the Jantar Mantar, an observatory built by the Maharaja Jai Singh of Jaipur in 1737, this overlooking the step-like ghats on the Ganges. There are nearly 100 ghats, most famous include the Manikarnika Ghat and the Harishchandra Ghat, as well as the main Dashashwamedh Ghat, where nightly, spectacular ‘aarti’ rituals, associated with ‘puja’ worship celebrations, are held. Some ghats are privately owned, but if I unknowingly trespassed upon any no one came to chastise me for the crime.
However, Varanasi is also a city of kites. Hundreds, thousands maybe, may be seen on a warm day. By noon the barely felt gentle air currents circulate above the flat house tops and carry each little one aloft. Kites of all colours, but of one design, square though at an angle, with a little square tail; the whole structure of tissue paper, feather light, held together by the simplest pieces of split cane. Captive to single strands of ultra-thin fishing line, they are made by children to dart and dance high above. The kites play and jig about like the little butterfish that mass and swirl about at pieces of bread thrown by children from rocky ocean break walls where I live.
The kites are made to fly, until finally they snare in powerlines or tree branches, and rip. And are left ownerless by the wayside.
I looked from my balcony down to the riverbank, and out beyond in hope of seeing what lay upon the other shore. There was just this all-pervading light brown haze and the remains of the early morning’s fog. The vision at that distance was ethereal, hinting at the presence of scattered trees and a remnant of a reed-bound wetland. The doors of other similarly facing rooms, three I recall, with which mine shared the view, allowed their occupants no greater clarity, but if occupied, their inhabitants had not yet stirred from bed. I imagined there might be a forest somewhere within the shroud that the covered the horizon for here and there villagers, carrying neat piles of severed tree limbs upon their heads, wound in small groups to the far bank of the Ganges, then by small craft to this. The far shore was devoid of any structure or pavement, just bare coarse sand. But the bank directly below me had already been long consigned to a series of cemented terraces. These were the fabled ghats of Varanasi. I had a vision of one of the biggest almost to myself. Only clusters of wooden boats tied alongside softened the angular rigid lines of the riverbank’s encased outer profile. It appeared that nature had retreated from this place.
Cold as it still was I would walk to the ghats below and decided to consign my good luck to finding unguided passage there. To do this I had to navigate a maze of extremely narrow alleys but had forgotten to seek a tourist directory to aid the certainty of reaching my destination. In compensation I tried to balance my right turns with more to the left, for left turns suggested greater chance of finding myself at the water’s edge, rather than too frequent a turn to the right, from which I feared being lost to any hope of return. I had forgotten a primary rule of travel in a foreign country, or anywhere out of one’s zone of familiarity for that matter – always acquire a business card from the inn’s concierge. At least write the name and address of your hotel down on a piece of paper. In India everyone seems to know where everything is, no matter how large the city. If they don’t know they know someone who does. Slipping them 20 rupees will always get you home safely. Be generous and give the good Samaritan 50, it’s only a dollar. Most do the service for free, and throw in a friendly face as well. Just flash them the address, you don’t need to know the language.
So to the streetscape I committed myself. The quiet of my little hotel evaporated instantly. Images: two small boys perfectly attired and groomed for school appear out of an ancient and faded green doorway. Across from them, maybe two metres away, four policemen with old .303 Lee Enfield rifles stand at the crossway of three alleys. Such rifles, 17 million of them by the end of their production, were the standard infantry weapon of the British Empire and Commonwealth for the first half of the 20th Century. The policemen warm their hands over a small fire whose modest splitters of wood are contained within a large rusty tin, their uniforms to me seeming insufficient in insulating depth or weave to offer comfort. They engage in idle banter, nodding in polite acknowledgement as I pass. Tucked close to a brick wall someone gains refuge under a long-lived blanket, below which he, maybe she, has momentarily withdrawn from the world. Into this narrow thoroughfare project the tiny shop fronts of hopeful merchants. Most seem to be selling the same range of oddities and paraphernalia. I note few obvious sales. A young man approaches upon a motorcycle, a great heap of baggage, his merchandise or goods for delivery, balancing with precarious fixture to the rear of the bike’s thin frame. The grasp of the bike’s tyres and that of the rider’s guided feet upon the paving is uncertain. A cow, upset by the menacing approach of the motorbike, sends all a-skittle as it suddenly lurches sidewards and attempts to enter a passageway too narrow for its body. I stop for a moment, avoiding an unwelcome hoof as it rises in fright. Then the cow settles, resumes its prior serenity, and continues tranquilly onwards to where it was going, from wherever it had come.
At last I find a flight of smooth-worn steps, opening downwards, that lead me to my quest. An enormous pink cement cylinder festooned with a giant painting of what I take to be Vishnu, or maybe Shiva, dancing joyously, marked the point of my entry to the tiered ghats. A young man was there to greet me, generously proffering a welcoming hand. He wouldn’t let go. He insistently offered a massage. He had three attendants.