India Backpacking 2017-18

Varanasi

14 Nov. Varanasi
After another good breakfast at the hotel, I caught an autorickshaw north to Allahabad Museum http://theallahabadmuseum.com (Tues.-Sun. 10:15 am.-4:30 p.m. except closed 2nd Sun.). Entry cost to foreigners is a surprisingly stiff 500 rupees. It’s a big place and I particularly enjoyed the downstairs galleries of ancient stone sculptures of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain images. India’s famously detailed miniature paintings fill a large hall. Upstairs I went through a photo exhibition about the life of Mahatma Gandhi and another of the country’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Decorative arts such as brassware and ceramics filled additional rooms.
 

Hotel staff recommended taking a bus to Varanasi because trains that go there tend to run late. I headed from the museum to nearby Civil Lines Depot where a ticket agent pointed to an empty air-conditioned bus, which I prefer for slightly roomier seating and for less dusty air. My backpack just fit in the overhead storage area, then I waited about half an hour for passengers to file aboard. Ticket price for the 126-kilometer journey was cheap at 223 rupees. Getting out of town seemed to take forever in the thick traffic, then the bus crossed the long high bridge over the Ganges and roughly followed the river valley eastward to the river’s most famous pilgrimage city of all—Varanasi, also commonly referred to by its older name Benares. After about four hours, with one pit stop, the bus pulled into Varanasi’s main bus station, where an autorickshaw driver soon found me and agreed to take me near the guesthouse for 200 rupees, after coming down from 300. Modern wide roads narrowed and became rough stone pavement as we neared the Ganges, then I had to go by foot into a maze of lanes too narrow to drive. Western tourists, whom I hadn’t seen since New Delhi, also wandered the tiny lanes. Cows and lots of street dogs live here, so one has to watch where one steps! Also one has to get out of the way of motorbikers—they take up most of the lane and expect people to get out of their way. People helped with directions and I eventually found the Indra Paying Guest House near Pandey Ghat; the room was basic, windowless, and cheap with a simple (no sink) private bath. Despite the late hour nearing 10 p.m., I was able to order a palak paneer dinner on the guest house’s rooftop restaurant high above the banks of the Ganges.
 
I had come to Varanasi once before, back in the winter of 1987-88. That time I made my first trek in Nepal—40 days and 40 nights to the Everest region—then traveled to the historic places of the Buddha beginning in Lumbini (Nepal) where he was born and ending at Kushinagar (India) where he died. The Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath, just northeast of Varanasi, and I plan to revisit that site as a day trip.
 
15 Nov. Varanasi
I had the breakfast buffet at nearby Brown Bread Bakery, which is a smaller-scale version of the one in New Delhi’s Parharganj. Just as at that one, I went with an omelet, porridge, a bunch of different cold cereals, and lots of real bread with spreads. The place offers free wi-fi, and I got on with my computer for the first time since leaving New Delhi. There’s rooftop seating, but like that at my guest house, it’s a smoking area and bad news for me. The downstairs seating is non-smoking, so that’s where I hung out. I took it easy today with some internet surfing, writing, and photo sorting. In the evening I returned for a small mushroom pizza. Staff have connections with boatmen on the Ganges, and I made a reservation to meet one tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. for an hour’s journey, which saved the hassle of riverside bargaining. Gliding along the river at dawn and in the evening had been the most memorable times of my previous visit to Varanasi. And with rivers on my mind, I made a reservation with an agency in Kolkata for a three-day excursion in the Sunderbans, the delta of the Brahmaputra River where tigers roam a land of jungles and mangroves.
 
16 Nov. Varanasi
With the partly cloudy and hazy sky just beginning to brighten, I met my boatman and we walked to Pandey Ghat and got in his little rowboat. At this quiet time many pilgrims had come to the water’s edge to perform worship ceremonies, sit in meditation, or take a dip in the dubiously murky water. Religious music rang out in places. First we went south (upstream) along the ghats and their attendant temples, shrines, palaces, and hotels. Dobi wallahs (clothes washing men) smacked clothing on rock slabs just above the water in one area. Fish occasionally splashed on the river’s surface, and I later saw unlucky specimens for sale in fish markets. A lot of other tourists had hit the water, some in small rowboats with one oarsman and others in middle-sized boats with a man on each oar. Big tour groups tended to go in large motorized craft, which didn’t seem as spiritual. Most tourists were Westerners, but I heard a monk narrating the scene to a boat full of Thai people. Chinese were out on the water too, as were a few boats filled with Indian tourists. Worshippers on the ghats just ignored us on the boats and went about their early morning practices. About 80 ghats line this side of the river, and the boat trip took in the main ones. The far shore is just a low beach, but a few groups of people had gathered there. My boatman turned around and headed upriver, going as far as Manikarnika Ghat, the most auspicious place for Hindus to be cremated along the Ganges. Fires roared into the sky, and vast piles of wood awaited future customers. The boat ride ended back at Pandey Ghat, where I went for a stroll along the ghats before heading to Brown Bread Bakery and another buffet breakfast.
 
I had an easy day with some computer work of writing and photo editing. At 5 p.m. I went on another boat trip, this time shared with a fellow from Spain. Again the boat first went upriver and we passed the secondary cremation site of Harishchandra Ghat, which had been comatose this morning and now blazed with several fires. Other ghats had far less activity than this morning until we arrived at Dashashwamedh Ghat for the nightly ganga aarti ceremony. With boatfuls of tourists in attendance and under bright lights, five priests went through a long synchronized routine of bell ringing, waving large oil lamps or incense, and throwing flower petals. A group of seven priests also performed the ceremony at a ghat just downstream. Off to one side in the semi-darkness a young priest practiced the moves in unison with the five priests. Cremation fires of Manikarnika Ghat blazed farther downriver. Lastly I had a light dinner of tomato soup and a spinach-mushroom burger at Brown Bread Bakery.
 
17 Nov. Varanasi
I started the day with another big breakfast at Brown Bread Bakery. In the afternoon I headed south several kilometers by autorickshaw to Banares Hindu University to see the art museum, Bharat Kala Bhavan (Mon.-Sat. 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; 250 rupees). Security was strict here and I had to deposit camera and phone so as not to ‘steal’ any artwork! It’s a big place and I most enjoyed the Miniature Painting Gallery for its finely detailed Mughal and other styles. Just beyond I was pleasantly surprised to find a small exhibit of Himalayan paintings by the Russian artist Nicholas Roerich. In the Central Hall I viewed a temporary show of Himalayan paintings by Manjula Chaturvedi, an Indian woman who takes inspiration from Roerich and who dedicated this exhibit to his memory. The Sculpture Gallery covered a wide range of Indian styles, though many are badly battered. Upstairs there’s an exhibit by a European woman, Alice Boner, who fell in love with Indian dance, art, and architecture, then interpreted what she discovered through sculpture, paintings, and writings. The Banaras Gallery has lots of old drawings and photos that show the ghats in previous centuries, though little seems to have changed. Wide leafy roads curve through the university, a pleasant scene after the chaos and dust of Varanasi’s market areas. In the evening I returned to Brown Bread Bakery for a vegetariana pizza.
 
18 Nov. Varanasi
I’m getting to be a regular for the breakfast buffet at Brown Bread Bakery! A local travel agent got a train ticket for me to Kolkata in two days time. In the afternoon I walked north upriver along the ghats to the Assi Ghat, the last major one. They were very quiet this time of day except for several cremations in different stages at Harishchandra Ghat.
 
From Assi Ghat I got an autorickshaw along bumpy roads and through a terrific traffic jam—Indians are great at creating these—then across a new bridge over the Ganges to Ramnagar Fort, a large 17th-century palace-fort that still belongs to the family of the Maharaja of Benares. I walked through the first courtyard and paid the 200-rupee entry, then followed the museum galleries that surround the second courtyard. Everything from palanquins and elephant howdahs to a big Cadillac show how the maharajahs traveled in style through the ages. Upstairs beautiful embroidered saris and men’s coats shimmered with gold and silver threads atop colorful backgrounds. An extensive armory collection contains many antique swords and flintlocks as well as ‘sporting’ rifles used to slaughter elephants and tigers. A giant astrological clock, made locally, displays its information in Hindi writing—indecipherable to me. Dusty bric-a-brac fill a lot of display cases—the maharajahs liked to collect things! Lastly I entered what must have been an elegant reception hall, which has photos of the maharajas meeting with kings, prime ministers, and other notables of the world. I was about to leave the fort when I saw a sign for a temple, then headed down a long corridor and emerged onto a terrace high above the river. Two temples here have Shiva lingams of polished copper. The late afternoon sun glowed bright red across the Ganges and illuminated the river-facing side of the fort’s palace—the most elegant of all.
 
My autorickshaw driver had waited for me and we went back to Assi Ghat, where preparations for a music concert were underway. Two days ago I saw a notice in a newspaper for a classical Indian program by two prominent vocalists, Rajan Mishra and Sajan Mishra. This would be their first performance in a world tour that would run well into next year. A flower-decorated stage went up near the river, and carpet and chairs were set up on the steps of the ghat. I was early and got a seat. Although 6 p.m. had been given as the concert time, a ganga aarti ceremony started at that time on the steps nearby and the bell ringing would have conflicted with the concert. Things had quieted down by the time the music got going after 7:15 p.m. with the two elderly men singers accompanied by players of a harmonium, table drums, and two tambura (drones). I found the singing mesmerizing. The stamina of the singers impressed me as they were still performing after 2.5 hours when I left in order to get back to the guest house before the 10:30 p.m. closing time. Back near the guest house, I managed to get a glass of milk tea and a vegetable burger before hurrying back to my room.
 
19 Nov. Varanasi
Yes, another breakfast buffet at Brown Bread Bakery! In the afternoon I headed by autorickshaw to Sarnarth, about 11 kilometers northeast of the center. That sounds like a short distance, but even on a Sunday the traffic is incredibly dense, chaotic, slow, and noisy. Add the vehicle fumes and dust to that and I don’t plan to ever do this trip again! Once at the site I enjoyed the peaceful park-like setting. Normally there’s a 200-rupee admission to the main archaeological site, but today it was free. First I headed to the museum (admission 5 rupees—less than 8 cents!), built of sandstone in 1910 and one of India’s oldest museum buildings. The 3rd-century B.C. lion capital erected on a pillar by Emperor Ashoka takes center stage. Four lions of polished sandstone gaze out from what has become India’s national emblem and most iconic sculpture. A wheel that symbolized the Buddha’s first teachings once sat atop the center of the sculpture, and fragments of it are on display. Many large stone images of the Buddha, Buddhist gods, and Hindu gods fill the halls along with small terracotta pieces, but nearly all are badly damaged. I crossed the road to the archaeological park that’s filled with ruins of ancient monasteries and temples from the times that Buddhism thrived in northern India. Only shattered remnants of Ashoka’s inscribed stone pillar, which once towered 15.25 meters, survive.
 
The 34-meter-high Damekh Stupa marks the site where the Buddha gave his first sermon in what was then known as a deer park. Stone reliefs of geometric and floral designs, dated to the 5th century, still decorate the lower parts, while the oldest brickwork dates to the 2nd century B.C. Many groups of Buddhist pilgrims of different nationalities and sects wove around the grounds.
 
Next door I visited a park with a giant standing Buddha and other sculptures. Lastly I stopped for a look at the 5th-century Chaukhandi Stupa, which marks the meeting place of the Buddha and his first disciples. Oddly a small tower that commemorates a visit by Emperor Humayun in the 16th-century rises from the summit.
 
Another unpleasant trip through Varanasi traffic got me back to the little lanes that lead to my guest house. The driver certainly earned his 500 rupees for the round trip and waiting time! I headed to Brown Bread Bakery and went for a tomato soup, vegetable lasagna, and chocolate cake. Although my train wasn’t scheduled to reach Varanasi until tomorrow afternoon, I already got the first phone texts that it was departing late from Dehra Dun. Back at the guest house, the computer managed to successfully install the latest Windows 10 feature update despite the hours-long download time and flaky wi-fi connection.
 
20 Nov. Varanasi
I had one last breakfast buffet at Brown Bread Bakery, then took it easy today with internet surfing and postcard writing. In the evening I returned to Brown Bread Bakery and went to the rooftop dining area where two young fellows played table and sitar. For dinner I went with a pizza fungi and an apple strudel, though I had to chase off a smoker. My train to Kolkata, which was scheduled to depart at 4:10 p.m. now looked delayed until after midnight. I departed from the guesthouse about 11 p.m. and mistakenly figured at this late hour traffic would be light. I reached the main road and soon reached the first traffic jam where an elegant horse-drawn wedding carriage blocked the way, but easily walked around it. Then I got an autorickshaw for 200 rupees to the main train station, Varanasi Junction. On the way a huge traffic jam caused a big delay where trucks and tractor carts got stuck in a narrow spot until traffic police help to untangle it all. Indians just cannot get it together with their city roads, which are too narrow, badly paved, covered in dust during the dry season, and layered with mud in the rainy months. Hundreds of people had bedded down in the train station and plaza out front, but I found a waiting room upstairs.

On to Kolkata