Mother India - Varanasi PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter Smith   
Saturday, 11 April 2009 11:13
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Day 42: Saturday 3rd November - Varanasi  

Today's a landmark. Firstly we are at the half way point. Secondly days like this have been quite rare on this trip i.e. free to explore. This is not just because of the gruelling schedule but an accumulation of factors; the main one for me being the lack of self confidence in my ability to survive out there without the support that travelling in a large group provides. But today we found ourselves away and alone and very vulnerable and gullible.

After the experience of last nights massage I decided to have an hair cut and shave, another service within the confines of the hotel's grounds. One look in the mirror told me I needed it, I hadn't seen my electric hair clipper since Bulgaria and Anne assumed probably correctly that I'd lost it. I made my way to the barber's chair only to be directed to an office occupied by three women in saras. One asked me what I wanted and suggested, looking at my appearance, the full works, although at this point I was completely unaware what it entailed. The second lady took my money for this major operation, a staggering 80 rupees or £1 and the third made out a chit or document to take back to the barber who stood quietly at the door looking on incredulously as though still trying to come to terms with the bureaucracy of this land. The actual operation took less time than the administration if you count the comments about my appearance and the transformation this 'very good barber' would perform. It started with a large pink comb and a pair of scissors similar the ones my mum used to cut wallpaper back in the 1960s. However the similarity ends their, this man wielded them like one of the three Musketeers. As I looked on, through the mirror in amazement, he reduced the back and sides, nothing on top to work with, to a No 2 with a series of strokes strait out of a fencing manual. The only lull in this two minute process came as he dipped his first two fingers in a bowl of something, wiped the contents round the back of my ears and with his cut throat created a niche for them to sit snugly in. Then came the longest activity, the ritual application of soap. This extended from a point in line with the space he'd created for my right ear and all the way round to the left and involved four or five applications of soap with a large floppy brush which had again similarities to my mums wallpapering skills. He then produced the nearest thing to a modern tool, another black handled gem; another cut throat but with a removable blade. This again involved a series of well tried and tested cuts which finished with his finger gently inside my mouth pressing my lower lip out in his direction so he could remove the last thin line of soap still hanging to my face. This last process was quickly repeated reducing my lower face and chin to the texture of a baby's bum. After each cut he wiped the contents of the blade onto the back of his hand until the size of the pile warranted being deposited in a small white pot which reminded me of the butter dishes once commonly used in Devon cream teas. After a few wipes of a towel I was lulled into believing this master class was over, but not at all. His attention now turned to spraying my hair with some sweet smelling liquid and enriching my face with oil before massaging my neck and shoulders. This little exercise was interspersed and concluded with a combination of slaps to the top of my head. Anne who had joined the class just after the scissors round sat behind me, her face smiling at me through the mirror. A quick shake of a bottle which very much looked and smelt like India's answer to Old Spice and a few dabs and rubbing movements and the upper part of the operation was over.

He then took my hand, I thought as gesture for me to stand and leave, but before I moved it was obvious he had other intentions. In no time at all with the aid of a scalpel type instrument he reduced my finger nails to ten perfect little arches. Once he'd done the same to my toe nails he wiped me down and with a well earned satisfied smile released me back into the real world of the three smiling, waiting, female administrators. All agreed that their assessment of his skills were justified and the transformation from shabby old man to clean one could be improved further if I would only pay for a full massage. Only Anne's intervention and assessment about the one that we had the night before played on their competitive spirit and thus distracted them long enough for me to escape. Also Noreen suddenly appeared at the door wanting the full works and the three headed back to their passion: administration. If you're wondering why I've spent so much time trying to give you a flavour of my experience then you need to understand that this was my first visit to a barbers for thirty five years and I have to say if I'd known it was so cheap I'd have gone years ago. A haircut, shave, manicure, pedicure and head massage and all for a quid.

I had first used the need for a hair cut to escape the clutches of the hotels tourist guide Tripiathi', pronounced like japaty, who was pestering me (Mr Peter and Anne, Mrs Peter) to muster up enough of our group to visit the Gov't Centre for Silk Workers and a night trip on the Ganges or Ganga to see the Ghats or steps where the living wash and the dead are burnt. As I escaped the grasp of the barbers three administrators Triapathy pounced once again and persisted, no matter what my excuse, until we agreed.

The visit to see the area where India's finest silk products are made was very interesting and bore amazing similarities with the carpets in Iran. Both were designed and hand made on hand looms within Muslim communities. There were designs taken from memory and ones punched into cards which are then followed by the loom and also the salesman capable of making a sale from a history lesson while using the old Muslim custom of offering prospective customers refreshments. Needles to say we left spending £40 on shirts, pillow cases and gifts. It could have been worse and indeed it was about to.

We escaped our guide with the intention of finding a camera shop to buy new memory cards. He said goodbye to us after instructing a totally unconcerned rickshaw driver to drop us at the best and poshest - chose my word selectively hoping it would have some meaning to a native and not just those travelling to India - camera shop in down town old Varanasi and not to charge anymore than 25 rupees. Firstly he looked disgusted at the 30 rupees I offered him and rightly so the journey took 20 minutes and had more obstacles than the Tour de France. Unfortunately all my other notes were 500s which I tried to explain to him through gesture but I had to leave him hands clasped in prayer still wanting. On turning away from him he'd got his own back the street and area looked no more up market than the one we'd come from.

Before I could explain to him about the lack of camera shops a voice rang out in good English 'Camera shop down there'. We turned round and got our first glimpse of Ras the young man from the back alleys of ancient Varanasi. The shop sold Konica roll film, no cameras but sourced an SD card via a runner in his sixties. I knew he must be going to another shop and buying them and adding cost but finding it would be virtually impossible. Also as I sat waiting, there was always the chance that Ras would get fed up and leave but unknown to me Anne had embraced him in conversation about post offices and sending parcels home and in the process of promises was sold a package which included the visit to a GPO and a festival taking place today down on the ghats.

The programme started with a walk down the old back alleys leading past old Hindu temples, 'holy oxen and holy shit' as Ras remarked and recesses where spices, vegetables and artisans wares were sold. All eventually led to his brother's silk shop. Surprise! surprise! After another 30 quid spent we carried on with our programme carrying a parcel of goodies, well wrapped and ready for dispatch. Our journey through the maze of little stinking alleys continued until we came out onto a raised area over the Ghat and stood staring out on a surreal picture of stacked tree trunks by the side of the Ganga. The stacks of wood which were arriving by boat and being unloaded and chopped along the grain by a frail looking underfed worker, using wedges and a sledgehammer, whilst others loaded the newly cut trunks on their heads and carried them to where they were needed gave the scene a work environment and not a religious one. Ras told me I could take photos of the old buildings but not of bodies because this would upset the families. I made it quite clear I had no intention of trying to do so. We'd heard earlier of Americans paying $1000 to be allowed to take shots of bodies close up. I think you'd have to be of a special mindset to infringe on someone's grief and passed it off as another story to discredited yanks further. At this point Ras introduced us to an Untouchable saying he could better explain the whole of process of the ceremonies which have taken place here for over a thousand years.

We followed the Untouchable into a building used as a refuge by the very old waiting to die and holymen sent to help them and be trained. As we entered the top room two very old women, sat crossed legged on mats and greeted us begging, hands in prayer as a holyman stirred a saucepan boiling over a wooden fire sitting in a hand made clay fire pit. Passing them by we walked out onto the roof and found ourselves directly looking down on a scene that as not changed for over a thousand years.

The squalor flowed out of the narrow alleys and down into the sacred river which stood wide and deep and slowly but noticeably flowed to Calcutta. The Ghat was built on a bend in the river which had deposited a large sand bank the width of the water again on the far side and left dry after the swelling monsoon floods. Flat bottomed, wide beamed, wooden, sail-less boats, rudders at the front, rows at the bow designed and tested over a millennium, some stacked with cargoes of wood others empty slightly pulled on their moorings.

The Ghat or steps rise and give way to a terrace and then rise again to two square stoned, outside areas, roofed to give shade from the heat of the day. One contained the eternal fire that has burned constantly for a millennium with a single orange flower placed at each corner just outside the reach of the fire's flames. The level behind and rising up to the shops and guest houses providing cheap accommodation consisted of Pagoda shaped roofed temples in need of attention. The covered outside area has a number of people, presumably families, patiently waiting to take their loved one's down to the water's edge to be submerged before burning. As we look down three golden silk wrapped body forms rest on makeshift wooden stretchers wet from their last meeting with Ganga. Our knowledgeable guide explains it takes two hundred and forty kilograms of wood and two to three hours to burn one body. He points to a white parcel burning fiercely enclosed by a large boy- scout-shaped fire saying that is a man. Pointing to an orange ball shaped object slightly protruding from the fire says that's a women. All arrive wrapped in the silk which is then discarded, folded and laid on the floor after the journey into the river to reveal a male in white or a female in orange. Anne asks about children and was told they are pure and so don't need purification by fire. Neither do holymen who abandoned their families for God and snake victims have to be floated on palm leaves until the poison leaves their body and so on. I'm conscious of the time and the fact we have to be back to the hotel for 5.00pm and the night sail down the river. But stood there staring over such a scene the time seems irrelevant and as we are led back down a level and confronted by the same old women as before my mind is trying to take in all the facts and images: the bodies burning, the oldest son head shaven with just a tuft at the back, 240 kilos of wood to burn one body, the bones that don't burn i.e a men's chest area and women's thighs.

As we make to depart I asked the Untouchable how much I owed him for the forty five minute lesson into the  Hindu death ritual and to my surprise he said nothing just make a contribution towards the cost of burning the old ladies sat begging and waiting for their turn to come. When I asked him what was normal he suggested 3000 rupees. I knew this amounted to £30 - £40 and even though I knew we were being duped it seemed little to pay for such an insight into this ancient and cultural scene. My thoughts immediately turned to how much Ras was going to want for his part in this surreal day and to my dismay when the time came to part he asked for nothing saying he wanted to become a guide and it had been a good experience for him. I had given all my rupees to one of the old ladies squatting in the building by the Ganges and had to give Ras one of the £10 notes from my money belt hidden there for an emergency.

Before parting he took us to the post office to dispatch our presents back to the uk. As we came to the post office, the largest building on the street and yet another remnant of the Raj, instead of going in we headed for an old man sitting on a chair outside a small shop like building directly across the road. Ras told us to give him the presents and he immediately set about wrapping them for their journey back home. The finished product was then wrapped in muslin, hand sworn and made secure and finished off with a wax seal. On presenting the man behind the counter in the post office with the muslin parcel I was given a long form to fill in which brought me down to earth with a bureaucratic bump. To finish off his role in our incredible day Ras commandeered a rickshaw, give him precise instructions where to task us and negotiated the fare.

We were too late to get the hotel minibus down to the Ganges and the festival but Triapathy instantly ordered one of the hotel staff to take us in the hotels four wheel drive vehicle. The journey down to the river seemed to take an age because of the horrendous traffic congestion but when we did get there we were only a few minutes after the main group who had set off much earlier.

The trip out into the Ganges and the releasing of small candle lights out into the night of the river against the splendor (costumes) and pageant (chanting and torch baring) of the ceremony taking place on the riverbank created a surreal scene from a Bolliwood classic and one I will never forget. When the festival ended we struggled to make our way back up the steps of the Ghats to the main streets avoiding litter and puddles, bodies and rats scampering about.

On arriving back at the hotel we were fed and entertained outside by beautiful young women dancers. As I sat looking down the long white linen table with the hotel guests eating, drinking, smoking and talking and being waited upon by white clad turban crowned servants I could see the pull of the Raj but not the justification for it. I think this is as near as I have been to being a Tory.  I felt like going back to the young masseur and asking him to cleanse my body once again.

Last Updated on Sunday, 19 April 2009 20:05