India

The Seventh Tale from the North East – Varanasi and Khajuraho

By Nick Goslett
Flying a kite ganga ghat in varanasi
Flying a kite on the banks of Ganges in Varanasi

At 5:30 in the morning I wove my way in the dark through the back streets to the ghats. I passed a chai vendor setting up stall. There were a few washer men and women already flailing away at the water’s edge. The manager of the small burning ghat sat me down to describe how it all works and even with 40 cremations a day at his place (and 360 in the main one) he is poor as a church mouse and would I like to make a donation? A rather heart-warming story (which may be true) is that people are cremated with their gold and other jewellery which end up in the Ganga and there are people who pan the river for these bits and bobs and give it as a charitable donations to those who cannot afford the ritual.

A devout at the ceremony


I joined a party of French people and we rowed up and down the river for half an hour as the sun struggled to get through the mist, stopped for chai and went down and back up for another hour. Enchanting. Later that morning I went back to catch a boat to the other side which is an enormous sand bank, flooded in the monsoon times. A group of boys on the boat with a bat and ball insisted that I join them (India were playing Pakistan and winning, engendering much excitement) and thank Vishnu, Shiva and Ganesh, I struck the first two balls really well, to their surprise I think; very jolly.

I returned to the massage place for another go. My man was absent but his “brother” took over. I stated that I would pay 100R ONLY for a neck and shoulders but of course in a trice he had me on my front and was working down my legs and crooning about a full-body massage for much more. I got cross, paid him a 100 and stormed off. Later, my original masseur told me that he was certainly NOT his brother!

A smiling Holy Man


I decided to have a stab at the Golden Temple in the Old City, a place of no charm (and one would certainly not want to be there after dark) except for the Blue Lassi Shop where I had my first Indian Lassi swiftly followed by my second. Fortuitously, I saw a kite shop and purchased 100 metres of kite nylon for 10R. Then began the fun and games with the Golden Temple. Foreigners need to have their passport which I did, but no one can take in a mobile or camera so that was the end of that … until a wee man tapped me on the shoulder and took me to his safe deposit boxes. Back in the queue I was led to the front, frisked three times by soldiers and then told to report to the police by a 15-year old girl in jeans who seemed to rule the roost and told the soldiers what they should be doing. A most unpleasant man, lounging back in an intimidating way, then asked the trick question “Do you believe in Hinduism?” Yes, and i was obviously lying, No and what right had I to go into their holy place. I answered No then extolled my adoration of Hindu architecture and the rituals. Begrudgingly he said OK. His little ego trip. The temple is pretty small, the entrances from one part to the next narrow and the Indians gigantic. The scrum was most unholy and at times I thought I might be squashed flat, but as usual in this country, an experience.

Cricket on the ghats


My cricket pals


I hung around on the ghats waiting for 5 pm to take another boat for the sunset. Once on the sand I looked up and saw the kites .. some so far away that at first you could not even see them. I organised a search party of boys to locate the flyers and after some time we located one. I showed him the kite string I had bought and in a trice he had affixed a 2R kite to it and I was flying mine next to his … but his was 800 metres out! Incredible. As the sun went down you could see the myriad kites being flown from all corners of the city. A top-dollar kite costs 26R (26p). Altogether magical time. I then watched the daily hour-long Poojah ceremony which is wonderful not so much for the ceremony but for watching the crowds, both on the ghats and in the plethora of boats. Quite a spectacle. I was taken under the wing of four youg men who had just finished their doctor’s exams and were awaiting the results, They all expect to pass and earn very good money!

I rushed back to eat and try the Music Festival again and upon hearing two excellent flute players immediately fell asleep, much to Simon and Denise’s amusement. This was followed by a good female singer but after that it was bed.

Drying the washing


Flying a kite


Spent the next morning doing very little, left for the station with plenty of time to spare, the platform was displayed when I arrived and all was well. Met an absolutely gorgeous couple of Argentineans, Mariano and Agostina, she a yoga-teacher in the making with fluent English and he a giant of a man with wild hair often mistaken for a Bollywood star. Opposite me was Subanti Baneerjee from Patna who assured me she was a theatre and film star of some renown in Bihar: she does get one mention when Googled! Ran out of conversation with her quite quickly. The auto-rickshaw owner taking me to the station had to stop for petrol and I saw his mileage meter at 58,000 km and if one assumes 200 beeps of the horn per km one gets eleven million beeps and that is just one tuk-tuk!

And so to my last real stop, Khajuraho, replete with temples with world famous erotic carvings. The temples were built from around 950 to 1200 and were then left to be taken over by the forest and completely forgotten about until TS Burt was guided to the ruins by his palanquin bearers in 1838. These temples, of which 26 are still in good condition, are enormous. Just like Luxor, I cannot understand why people who live nearby and have the same religion can just forget about such masterpieces. And masterpieces they are, not just for the plethora of naughty carvings (and they are very naughty) but the most wonderful fluidity of the bodies. By chance, I had arrived on the day when Shiva marries Parvati and all India takes a holiday and this is one of the holiest Shiva cities in India with almost all the temples dedicated to Shiva. Khajuraho is a small place but this day it was teeming with thousands of Hindus in glorious colour, washing themselves in the lake, enjoying a fun-fair and stalls set over many acres, and getting their prayers answered by taking water from the lake, haring up the 30 steep steps into the one temple still being used (Matangeshvara temple), hurling the water and any petals they could grab over Shiva’s lingam then roaring down the steps again, first men then women. All day. I learnt late that this particular lingam which is 2.5 metres high and probably 2 metres in diameter grew straight out of the earth and until recently was still growing about a inch a year, and I have that on authority from the man who runs the temple which his family have been doing for 37 generations .. and that is probably over 800 years. This guy also owns nine hotels and a diamond mine and “is a poor man”. Right!! (And being Shivaratri, entry to the Western Temples was free.)

Goat’s cheese as well


Learning to be a boatman


In the fun fair their was a Magician’s Act. The audience was all male, all between 18 and 30 and the testosterone level was high because .. the introductory act was an attractive girl dancing and the magician was a drop dead gorgeous mid-twenties lady who was actually quite good. Her two male assistants were hilarious, with lids falling off boxes, flowers being shredded, pots being left in the wrong places … all amidst gales of laughter.

The “marriage” was to happen at about 8 pm so at 7 pm I plucked up the courage to ask a charming policeman if it was OK for me to go up the steps of the temple with all the others (not so crowded now on the steps but a seething mass inside) and he smiled beatifically and almost pushed me on my way. Bonkers inside with people prostrating themselves in front of the lingam, hurling water and rose petals at it, all in a tiny space with everyone going anti-clockwise. It was absolutely fine for me to take photos. Lovely religion for the most part. A very moving experience. I happened to spot Mariano and Agostina by the lake. We spent the rest of the night together and it was if we had known each other for years. Another special day.

That’s it for now. Very annoyingly, when I wake up at three every morning, I can get The Archers on my mobile. It is just too tempting!

Much love

Nick

Indian electrics


Sunrise on the Ganga


Sunset on the Ganga


The beach of the Ganges River in Varanasi (Benares)


The laundering starts before dawn


The Poojah ceremony in the evening, Varanasi


Varanasi from the beach


What a spectacle


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