The City of Shiva, or Holiest of the Seven Sacred Cities

VARANASI, INDIA: The airport is a ways out, took about an hour for us to get near to Varanasi, partly due to the traffic. I was surprised by how far out it is. The car drove to northern edge of Varanasi where I was taken on a boat docked on the Ganges. Greeted by a sweet young woman who offered me a cold towel for my face and hands, placed a strand of Shiva beads around my neck, offered me cold water and a sweet yellow drink to refresh myself as we traveled down the the river. As we drifted past the various Ghats she told me what each one was.

VARANASI, INDIA: I still feel that India does not have much to offer beyond the religious and five star services one comes across in their travels. To walk around the cities you find the desperately poor, repeated over and over again, the squalor and begging, the hustling for money is so prevalent. You try to see the culture and the arts, none of that seems to exist now but everyone wants to capitalise on it, something seems missing. Where is it? There may be more to what meets the eye but if you are not a local it is difficult to see. Being hounded every minute you walk outside to purchase unwanted trinkets and faded postcards from every man, woman and child on the street is the memory you are left with.

Sleeping monkey man
Sleeping monkey man

I feel a captive of the hotel – although it is a beautiful one. The little monkey man outside the window looking in from his naps with understanding eyes. You want to pet them but you know they can be vicious. No need to tempt them. It could be very different if I were a man, or traveling with a man I expect. I would not get as much harassment. This was once a king’s palace, the place where I am staying, on the Ganges, my exotic prison from the heat, the begging and the poverty.

The palace that has been under restoration for years, somewhat controversial I read. It was once owned by a king, built around 200 years ago and bought by a finance minister at some point (go figure). A lift was installed in 1915. The main part of the structure is made entirely of sandstone with pretty little alcoves and carved pillars, marble floors and rosewood trimmings on the doors and windows. There are painted flowers on the ceiling and motifs in the recessed wall cubicles which once held candles for the evening light. The restoration is probably the best I have seen so far in India, but I do need to get out more.

The airport is a ways out, took about an hour for us to get near to Varanasi, partly due to the traffic along the two lane highway. I was surprised by how far out it is but appreciated the opportunity to ramble along, seeing some of the countryside India has to offer. The car drove to northern edge of Varanasi where I was taken on a boat docked on the Ganges. Greeted by a sweet young woman who offered me a cold towel for my face and hands, she placed a strand of Shiva beads around my neck, and handed me a cold bottle of water and a sweet yellow drink to refresh myself as we traveled down the the river. As we drifted past the various Ghats she told me their names.

There was one temple which I surprised her with because I knew the story already. For the last 150 years the Rataneshvar Mahadev temple has lain half submerged in the Ganges, said to have collapsed due to weight of the construction with only its crown  peeking out from the water and and listing to one side. The legend however is that a king wanted to renovate the temple, but the holy person of the temple said no, claiming the temple did not need it. The king proceeded with his plan so the holy man put a curse on the king and the temple, saying it would forever be incomplete. When the river has swollen from the monsoon rains only the tip can be seen, but when we floated past its unmistakable crooked awkwardness made it easy to find. And  yet, it seems like it is right where it needs to be. That temple will not be torn down, it will remain, partially submerged as long as there is water flowing in the Ganges.

Rataneshvar Mahadev temple
Rataneshvar Mahadev temple

Upon arrival to Munshi Ghat, where the hotel is situated, we were greeted by a security guard (carrying a rifle I might add) and I was shown to the little elevator the hotel makes a big deal about. The staff here are quite proud of the palace, they love to share the history. I heard the story told no less than on five occasions. It was the same story too, so they have memorised the script well.

Leaving the lift I entered into the main drawing room of the hotel. It is a transport back to the early 1900s – same furniture you could expect in a vintage photograph – it reminded me of photos of the Russian Czar and his family at home in St. Petersburg for some reason. Ornate ceilings with colourful hanging lamps, gorgeous Indian glass bulbs with yellow, green, red and blue. Some even have stones attached to them to reflect the quiet setting. The traditional Indian brass bowl with water and orange coloured flower petals (I think jasmine) in the center between the three sitting areas. A welcoming dot of red paste was applied to my forehead and I was shown into the the reception to check in.

Evening Ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat
Evening Ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat

The next morning I got up on the early side (for a Saturday) to come down for breakfast. While I had my breakfast two little monkeys came up to rest on the patio. They apparently come each day. One leaned his head against the glass window for comfort. There is a half inch gap under the door, allowing the air-conditioner to send a cool breeze outside. I got closer to get a better look. Both were male monkeys, neither could not be bothered with me on the other side looking at them. I suppose the heat will do that to any creature – rendering them lethargic. They were there for peace and quiet napping.

My day of exploring was packed. The Ganges outside my window, it looks to be half its size, waiting for the monsoon season to arrive. There is an enormous beach where there should be water across the river.

The Ganges
The Ganges

I was escorted from the hotel to a car around 8:30am. My driver showed me the nearby temples of Varanasi, I was even able to go into a couple, and of course the university.

If the campus had a quick restoration the complex it would do it a bit of good. But like much of everything here in India, it is institutionalised, not privatised and the institutions are decaying under the corisive India environment. Of course maybe a university is privatised but so much of India seems to be massively corrupt. Buildings and infrastructure look good from a distance, as soon as you are close enough however the facade shows signs of cheapness and lack of real skillmanship or durable material. Even in the five star hotel I am staying in, the restoration is beautiful but the quality of the bits added does not compare to its original glory. Cheap mirror mosaic where there likely would have been marble or semi precious and precious stones 100 years ago. Uneven joints at the floor and walls. The elements of India are harsh, extreme heat, extreme dampness, extreme pollution, extreme dryness in other seasons – all of this makes it difficult to maintain anything at all. The cracks in the cement and dark spots of what appear to be mould on the outside show before the building is occupied.

My main goal was to see the Buddhist temples in Sarnath, so we drove the 30 minutes out along the shady tree lined streets. I think if I had not done that little bit exploring I would have found Varanasi very dull. The Buddhist monuments were indeed the other highlight for me. I loved walking among the history, the same area that a living legend was said to have given his first sermon, the Buddha himself. The excavated temple grounds show how vast it was, if only it were still standing. The pillars have long been flattened to their base. The stupa is said to contain a relic of the Buddha, one of his teeth.

Mulagandhkuti Vihara
Mulagandhkuti Vihara

The Sankat Mochan Hanuman, or Monkey temple was the first Hindu temple I went in. I didn’t really understand much about what was taking place, or what I was seeing, but I proceeded around the complex to take it all in. After taking off my shoes my eyes caught a brightly dressed woman who had arrived just before me. I proceeded to follow her around and imitated her movements in a sad attempt to fit in.

First, one room where everyone touched the walls, used their fingers to write something or trace something, then touching their foreheads between their eyes, leaving a marking either gold or orange paint. They run their hands over the flames of the candles, again touching their face afterwards. Chanting and moving forward. There offerings are made, it looked like people were crowding to take from the priest but they were not, they were rushing and crowding to place their offering then moving on again to the next room. Others were sitting on the stone floor, chanting. I had lost sight of the spritely woman so just meandered on my own, following others and looking dazed. I am used to not fitting in so I was not so much self conscious as I was self aware, me looking at people who were looking at me.

The other temple I visited was the Bharat Mata, or Mother India temple. This temple is know basically because it has a giant marble map of India in the center. The map is a topography map with mountains and plains on the surface. The temple dates back to the 1930s and was visited, or blessed if you can say that, by Gandhi himself. The temple is located in a dusty patch of what looks like a parking lot. Nothing much around except a concrete building. You walk inside, leaving your shoes outside, to be greeted by a sleepy caretaker or two just chatting about nothing in particular. There’s not much to do except walk around the map, overlook the railings to get a better look at the dust swirling around at the bottom. Sleepy, sleepy little temple. No metal, leather or cameras are allowed in the temples, so no photos. It is quite a different look at religion in this modern age – one to experience versus record.

There is no real way to end this post. I have not done Varanasi justice in my scribblings, but while searching the Internet I did come across this video by three men from what looks to be Park Slope, Brooklyn. They had an interesting story to tell about Varanasi and the video they created is well worth a watch.

 

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