VARANASI: A DIP IN THE RIVER

The big story in India this January is the ‘Cold Wave’. Everybody knows the daily low temperature, how much it is below average, and the grim statistical death-count it has caused (643 and counting) . The cold moist air that comes down from the Himalayas creates a huge fog bank across the northern plains every evening as the temperature drops. Depending on conditions and where you are, the fog lingers into the afternoon, or doesn’t lift at all. Every year this throws transportation schedules into utter chaos. One couple we met waited 12 hours on the platform in Calcutta, and then learned their train was cancelled. We have been fortunate: both overnight trains we have had have been pretty much on time. But enduring the fog and cold is another matter.

The way the railway lines run mean we don’t arrive directly in Varanasi from Calcutta, but at a junction called Mughal Serai. Mughal Serai is a rubbish pit of a town, and one of my least favorite places in India. The clamour of drivers trying to get us into their auto for the 13 km trip to Varanasi starts as soon as we hit the platform, and increases in volume and decreases in price the further into the station we get. The ruse is to get you into the vehicle at any price, and then put up such a fuss at the destination that you give them more . The benefit of arriving from Mughal Serai – in the morning at least – is that we get dropped at the end of the bridge over the Ganges River, and hire a boat to row us the final 2 km to our guest house.

We are wrapped up in all the clothing we have to guard against the morning chill, and bundle into the bow of a wooden dory. It ‘s a huge relief as our boatman, Muna, pulls away from the hassle and hustle of the road. All that jarring cacophony is replaced by the rhythmic squawk of the rope oarlocks, and the yammering gulls trailing a neighboring boat who are throwing them snacks. The fantastic curve of the river fades into the fog as we slowly row towards the place called both The City of Light and The City of Death. It is a timeless vista: on our left the bank is completely deserted; on the right stone steps continue the rise from the river into an idiosyncratic geometry of palaces, temples and houses. A beautiful scene unfolds as we near our landing, Scindia Ghat: washer women are holding up long lengths of bright sarees to dry, forming a multi-coloured mandala.

Our business begins later that day as it always does: with warm greetings and sweet chai. Everyone is seated on the floor wrapped in balaclavas and blankets, and we are in down jackets. With the new moon approaching, we are told, there is a conjunction of three events: the kite festival, Maha Sankrati; the festival of Mauni Ama Vaysa ; and a solar eclipse. The kite festival traditionally marks the end of the cold season, but this year there is no end in sight. Our host Ajit, as a responsible member of the community, has already given 100 blankets to the poor. His mother, he says, has made it known that no one who comes will be sent away without one, so porters are constantly coming in with more bundles. In between this philanthropy piles of silk scarves are unfurled at our feet, and bed spreads, and cushion covers, and tea is served, and food, and more tea.

No work takes place on Maha Sankrati – everyone is flying kites. The next day is the new moon, and with the festival and a solar eclipse it is a major event. Where we are the eclipse will only be partial, but it is still regarded as ill-omened. Most businesses are closed, and the superstitious will require purification rituals afterwards. Since the Ganges is perceived as the ultimate purifier, it is a big day at the ghats. Many of the crowd are villagers from the surrounding area, and they have been gathering since morning. An important part of the ritual of this festival is the giving of alms. Professional beggars, snake handlers, the handicapped and the poor line most of the approaches to the river, and receive, typically, a sprinkling of special rice, “khichori”, from the pilgrims. After their dunk in the river, many worshipers also leave their clothes behind to be picked through later. Ajit tells us that some of the wealthy even leave gold bangles and Rolexes behind. It is also a day to give clothing to the poor of an untouchable caste, and they walk through the streets of the old city, making their request with a half-sung half-shouted rhyming verse. By the time the moon has moved away from the sun – about 2:30 – there are tens of thousands of people along the banks of the Ganges River. More are ferried in over-packed launches to the other side, a wide sand bank, where it is much easier to get into the water. We have left the impossibly –congested ghats for the space afforded by a boat. From this perspective the crowd changes from a collection of individuals – some singing, some dressing, some just waiting – into a single flowing creature, a river in itself. This is India, and the river and the city and the country always has something more to throw at you. As we are rowed along in front of the worshipers, the body of a young boy floats past – the boatman has to raise his oar to avoid it. He is face down, and there will be no answers to who he was or where he came from. It is a startling sight, but I have to think of it as the boatman does: meaningless, now that the life is gone; more matter, returning to the water, the earth, or the fire. So life goes on. And so much life goes on that there is no time to pause; the crowd chants, and surges, and submerged in the water purification is given.

The other topic, besides the “Cold Wave”, that everybody is talking about is the “Price Increase”. It came up in Calcutta, when I was negotiating for a leather bag, and the dealer’s first line was “sugar is twice as expensive!”. In Varanasi it is the same: cotton is forty percent more than last year; and silk yarn has gone from 1600/rupees a kilo to 2400. Everyone is pointing fingers, but in general it comes down to two things. One is good: a general increase in wealth in the country. And one is bad: hoarding by speculators, and the newly-created futures market for agricultural commodities. The merchants that we deal with in India operate on small margins, but have always been (like us) very reluctant to raise their prices. This year they have no choice, and we willingly pay them more. In the case of one of the products most dear to us, the price has increased almost 40%. These are the silk scarves and shawls from Varanasi that we call in our display “Simply the finest hand weaving we can find”. They are extremely beautiful, intricate hand-woven silk made by a Muslim community outside the city. When we started buying them eight years ago, there were over 70 weaves making them.  Because of our special relationship, the price remained unchanged until this year, even though the art is dying out. This year there are only 12 weavers left, and with the price of silk at record levels, the increase was unavoidable. We have decided to keep our price the same, on these masterpieces for one more year. But this is your last chance! After this, they may not be available, at any cost.

For a video of the festival, check out this:Mauna Festival

You can see more of our Varanasi videos: The Boatman Rows us to the City of Death , Silk and ChaiGadaulia Crossing and Our Front Yard (and they are getting better all the time!) or all of them by going to youtube, and searching for: kebeandfast

There are, of course, lots of photos on flickr.  Just go to our website: http://www.kebeandfast.com and click the flickr link.

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