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Phil's 1998 India Travelogue

Varanasi November 2nd to 4th

I woke up this morning in Varanasi, considered to be the oldest city in the world, also known as Kashi and Benares, and there were 2000 people in the front yard.

And the reason that there's so many people in the front yard is that I am staying in a really nice little guest house called the Hotel Ganges View, which obviously by the name, sits almost on the Ganges river, and is right next door to the Assi Ghat. A ghat, literally "landing" is a set of steps that lead to the river Ganges, and Hindus bathes in the Ganges river as a means of purifying themselves.

To my good fortune, I just so happened to book this part of my journey during the Kattika full moon, which is a time for a huge celebration, with lights and candles and dances, and plays and fireworks and in general a helluva party.

I got to Varanasi after taking the Shatabdi Express train from Dehra Dun, just outside of Mussourie, which took much longer than expected, and was over 5 exruciating hours, for some reason. I again braced myself for the Delhi train station, and just before getting off the train, I befriended another fellow with a backpack, a young Indian man named Ghosh, who mentored me through the train station, and right to a bicycle rickshaw which is the cheapest form of transport.

Unfortunately, my rickshaw driver, either on purpose or not, thought I said the hotel Kumar instead of the hotel Connaught, and I went on this really intense adventure through Delhi - first going exact opposite of where the Hotel Connaught was, through some really strange neighborhoods, and wondered if I was being set up for a mugging, and finally into the Connaught Circle area of Delhi. I turns out he really did not know where my hotel was - apparently not too many people go to the 3 star Connaught via bicycle rickshaw. Either that or he was a really good actor, which goes around a lot, the fake "misunderstanding" number.

So finally after a 45 minute adventure (which should have taken 15), I get to the Hotel Connaught near midnight, only to find I didn't confirm and now there's no more room. Fuck. So, being a good New Yawker, I display my disappointment most graphically, but without cuss words. The hotel manager had the good sense to call my travel agent, Mohet, who came over at midnight to bring me to another hotel. He told me that he had another nice hotel to put me up in.

Travel Tip: When a young Indian man tells you about the nice hotel you're about to go to, watch out.

Sure enough, it was a seedy little guest house with spit on the walls and a bathroom that needed sandblasting and big cockroaches, but I was only there for 7 hours, and now being a hardcore Indian traveller, no longer gave a fuck. I had my sheets and did my bed number, took a hot shower, and got as much sleep as possible for the next day's flight to Varanasi.

There are two worlds in India, one the dirty, noisy, overpopulated world, and the rich world. The domestic airport of India, where Indian Airlines is based, is part of rich world. Passing the gate to the terminal, you enter rich world, which is simply a normal, clean, new, spacious and pleasant airport terminal, one of the nicest I've ever been in.

But the security was amazingly tight, with the Indian army doing the work. First a body frisk, then intense bag scrutiny, then once you're inside the waiting area, you have to walk out to the baggage handler area and identify your bag, or else it is not put on the plane! Now that's what I call top quality security. So I board a bus which takes us to the plane somewher else on the tarmac, another security precaution, I guess, and have a very pleasant plane ride.

But I was pretty shot from all the travelling. When I got to the baggage area in Varanasi, some guy who wanted to carry my bags just would not leave me alone, following me around. Finally after he said "Yase" one too many times, I turned to him, put on my mean face, which I really meant and yelled "NO!". Turned some peoples' heads but he finally got the message.

Got my extremely heavy bag, and decided right there, I was going to send a lot of my shit back home, really lighten my load. I met Ajay, an intelligent and knowledgable tour guide who unfortunately speaks in an express- ionless monotone with a Hindi accent, which can do wonders for insomnia. But he is wealth of information, and I appreciate that.

I immediately took a liking to Varanasi - it's bigger than Rishikesh, but less polluted, and there's something special about the place, you can feel it. It is really, really old and traditional, that's why I call it The Essential Hinduisn. We drove through countless streets (obviously no grid pattern in this city) till we reached the Assi Ghat area and my hotel.

Varanasi is also a sadhu capital, as well as a place where a lot of old people come to die and get cremated on the "burning" ghats of Varanasi, a means for final purification at death. I find the burning ghats intense but attractive and powerful for some reason, which does worry me a bit. The Shiva thing, perhaps.

This hotel was suggested by a friend who came to Varanasi a year ago, and it is a wonderful place to stay. The room is small, but the entire ceiling is covered in silk cloth like the whole room is a poster bed, the ceiling fan and hot water works great, and it is a big hangout for westerners, many of whom I meet in the next few days. Well meet some of these interessting characters in one of our next exciting episodes.

But as is often the case, I am burned out, out of balance and disoriented, and in a foul mood. And there are beggars all over the place calling out "baksheesh, baba" and I don't have anything smaller than a 100 rupee note. And when I walk out to the beach, two guys jump me, asking me if I want to rent a boat, and I snapped back, Mr mean face again, No damnit!.

I meet the owner of the Ganges View Hotel, a real interesting fellow, who informs me that my travel agent said I was coming yesterday, and that the place is booked up after my two days here. Shit, more hotel hopping. But nevertheless, I really like it here, it is a happening, but mellow place, and after a good nap, I'm coming back into my body.

Also staying here is a Tibetan Lama, and his entourage of really good looking blonde women, and he is giving a talk that night in the dining room of the hotel, one of the most smartly furnished and attractive rooms I've seen in all of India. So comforting and consoling, just to see a clean, well furnished room!

So, having nothing better to do, as it is getting dark, I go to the lecture after a lasagna dinner at the VatiCafe next door, which is really a Buddhism 101 lecture, but ever once in the while he spurts out some gems that are part of a more advanced teaching. The lama has a real good sense of humor and the delivery of a professional comedian. Very charming, in contrast to his stoneface Danish translator next to him.

And part of this hotel's charm is that the hotel serves dinner to the guests as a real family kind of thing, and I get to meet the people in the hotel, as well as the blonde entourage women. The lama is having dinner also, and asks me who I am and where I am from, and it turns out he has a retreat site in Mendicino County, CA, not far from my home in San Rafael. Next door to me are 4 German ladies from Bremen, and I end up having an hour conversation with one of them, an HSP, a "highly sensitive person" who is really soaking up the Indian experience for the first time, and it's intense for her, to say the least. But since she is also very sensitive to energies, we have a wonderful conversation about our impressions in India. She makes the insightful comment that even though there seems to be a lot of spiritual stuff going on and even a lot of practice, she feels that no one is really breaking through, and part of the reason is that the motivation is based too much on escapism, there is not enough grounding in part of the practice. I couldn't agree with her more. The tendency to go "up and in", the avoidance of "worldliness" runs so strong that it itself is a barrier to realization, in my opinion. I could say tons more on this subject, but for the sake of brevity, no more on that. We also discussed the beggar situation.

You see, right below our hotel, on the sidewalk are a line of beggars sleeping on the ground, including several familiies. The stark contrast of being a priveledged western person in a nice hotel room right there, 10 feet from people who have utterly nothing but their hunger, really pounds home the fine line between the haves and have nots, and the extreme differences in lifestyles and living. The contrast to me, and to the German woman was very intense and brought up a lot of sadness. But as the lama stressed, you must match compassion with skillfulness, lest you give away all your money and you end up being the next beggar. India is a land of stark, stark contrasts, in fact that is its major attractive features, and it is these huge contrasts where a lot of energy is brought into the world, generating a hypnotic attractiveness that brings peple coming back time and time again.

But anyway, by the time I went to bed, I had two dinners and met some really interesting people, and was in a totally different and emotional headspace. I was really, really liking it here, and again, was back to the sheer enjoyment of this most amazing country. I had to cut my talk off with the German woman (and even speaking in German a bit, which I feel so proud of!), because I have to get up at 5:00 to go on my first tour - to watch the sunrise and morning bathing on the ghats, one of the truly "must see" experiences for us pasty white people of the west.

Morning Ganges Bathing Ritual

My alarm clock didn't go off, and I awoke 15 minutes late, but it didn't matter,as my guide couldn't get into the locked front veranda of our hotel (most guest houses seem to have gates, making them fairly secure). So I had to find one of the hotel worker boys, and shake him quite vigourously to wake him up and unlock the gate doors.

There was a huge mass of people on the beach in front of my hotel - thousands of people going to and fro, taking a bath, checking out the scene, selling stuff, etc. The streets were lined with beggars, and the custom today is to bring a bunch of raw rice or other grain, and hand out a handful of grain to the beggars as baksheesh. One of the rare days I see Indians even acknowledge their fellow Indian beggars. It was a caucauphanous pre-dawn multitude and due to exhaustion and earplugs I heard nothing.

There's something a bit tacky about the whole thing, a bunch of western tourists taking out boats to watch people bathe on the Ganges, and I felt a weird about taking pictures, and being a white person in general at the moment.

My guide Ajay explained that I may not even see the concrete steps of the ghats today because of the Kittika full moon festival and sure enough he was correct. There are about 15-20 ghats along the river Ganges, and the main ghat, Dasasmedwah ghat is a set of steps that could hold several thousand people. And several thousand people were there completely covering the ghat - it looked like a picture of blood cells racing through an artery, people flowing back and forth to the water.

Needless to say, the water here on the Ganges is really dirty, with sewage pipes dumping into the river, and assorted dead carcasses and garbage floating here and there. But people were dutifully bathing in the sacred river, brushing their teeth. There were many, many boats out, and though the natives did not appear to mind, I did see a few throwing things at some of the boats, which did include a lot of Indian tourists also.

We also passed the crematorium, a very intense and solemn place with people carrying and burning dead bodies. It takes a lot, a lot of wood to successfully burn a body, especially the bones, and there were several funeral pyres going at once. Pictures are not allowed. The morning sun on the west bank, where all the ghats are located, provide some excellent photo opportunities. I tried not to photo the people head on, especially the partially naked, but other folks were pretty forward in their photo op avarice.

The Ganges does have some near miraculous capability of processing bacteria, but according to some, even it cannot withstand the kind of abuse it takes. No way to treat a Goddess, methinks. And even though the river is flowing south, there is a back-current on the surface of the water flowing north, which I do not know the reason for, except that it is hard work for all of the river boatmen to battle. Apparently, this double current helps the river to process waste effectively.

But in spite of the tackiness of boat watching, it is a most unique event to witness, the deovtional fervor that people have towards purification by Gangaji. Ajay pointed out to me several water marks on the huge maharaja mansions that line the Ganges, several stories up the walls, such as in 1978, when the river rose about 50 feet or more of its present, fairly high level. In fact it is so high now that the normal paths between that ghats are either mudfields or blocked by the river.

So after the morning boatride, I went back for breakfast and waited for my next tour of the Sarnath Buddhist site.

Sarnath, The Birth of Buddhism

Sarnath is one of the most sacred sites for Buddhists worldwide, for this is where Gautama Buddha came back after attaining enlightenment to do his first teaching in a deer park, to 5 of his friends who took up the ascetic with Buddha (but remained ascetics after Buddha dropped the extremity of asceticism, took food and adopted the middle way, a pillar of his teaching).

Sarnath is in the north section of the city, and has been recently renovated in the past decade to become a very beautiful park. The temple was erected in the past 50 years, a beautiful structure, and to the right of the temple is the third generation of the bodhi tree, the tree under which Buddha became enlightened. Saplings have been saved throughout the centuries to keep this icon alive. Next to the bodhi tree are colorfully painted statues of Buddha giving discourse to his 5 friends, a bit tacky, but I found the site to be potent and emotionally moving. Prayer flags cover the branches of teh Bodhi tree. I circumambulated the tree three times, amidst the devotees from Burma, Thailand, Tibet, Japan, Korea, and parts unknown. Many of the Tibetan boys and men had signs on their back saying "Free Tibet" and other slogans, which I thought was great.

The temple itself had a "darshan" line to pass by some relics of Buddha, but the line was so long that we passed on it. In contrast to Hinduism, the multiculturalism of the Buddhism was refreshing - it was great to see people for all sorts of countries in one place, a real international flavor.

We then moved on to the park next door, which contains many old temples devoted to Buddhism built by King Ashoka in the 4th century, and the exact spot where Buddha gave his famous initial sermon. It was hot as hell in the midday sun, and there was this intense looking Theravadan old monk sitting in the sun meditating. One site was a temple containing many of the ashes of Buddha, which was rebuilt over several centuries, but destroyed by the invading Moghuls of the 12th century. After one pillage, a fellow found the casing containing Buddha's ashes and other relics, and thinking that they were of some Hindu king, threw the ashes into the Ganges, one of the big screw-ups of all time.

The actual site of the sermon contains a giant circular stupa, about 50 feet in diameter and several stories high, refurbished over the centuries, an impressive structure. I circumambulated the site several times.

We went on to a musuem containing a whole mess of Buddha statues, as well as gods and goddesses of Hinduism. It is interesting that every country gives Buddha a face with features of their own native culture. Some really cool, big breasted Durga and Tara statues also (apparently Tara is the Buddhist "equivalent" of Durga, a fierce aspect of Shiva's consort Parvati).

Ajay, my guide asks if I would like to see some silk works, in that Varanasi is world famous for its silk. Being now a street-smart traveller, I ask Ajay what his commission is, and he lays it out in typical monotone, but honestly. So I said ok, let's go, a good opportunity to purchase some anniversary presents for my dear Annie at home. There was some really incredible stuff at this particular factory, prices were decent, but no big bargain, and I purchased some really nice scarves. And it got me thinking, hmmn, import-export of silks from Varanasi... Vandalay Industries!

Then back to my room for a shower, nap and meditation to get ready for the night's activities.

While sitting on the hotel Veranda, one of the hotel workers shows me the sign-in register, that a couple from Larkspur, a neighboring town from San Rafael. I knew exactly who these folks were from the previous night's talk from the Buddhist Lama - there's a signature "I'm rich, but I dress funky" look to Marinites. I tried to guess their vocations: massage person, therapist, author, tantric sex teacher, doctor, acupuncturist? But it still is nice to meet up with folks from the 'hood when you're traveling alone.


Varanasi, con't.

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