We spent the first two days in Varanasi with our mouths wide open in shock and surprise at the contradictions that this city presented. Firstly, it is the holiest Hindu city in the world: a city which performs nightly pujas (prayers) to the Mother Ganga; a city where the dying come to die and be cremated; a city where the grieving come to light candles atop marigolds and float them into the Mother Ganga to represent the soaring spirits of their loved ones. Varanasi is also a city where Westerners come to find 'enlightenment' and smoke copious amounts of hashish; where we felt like we were in a flashback to the 1960s with dreaded, stoned, and baggy-pants wearing Westerners flocking along the Ganga. Really, it was so strange and off-putting that we did not like what Varanasi had become. Apart from the pathetically enlightened Westerners, the Ganga was terribly polluted, its banks were filthy, and the sadhus and holy men (who traditionally should never beg) were thickly spread throughout the tourist areas hawking their so-called holiness. Varanasi was not, however, without its charms.
We were once again chaperoned by our friend Shakeel who is a native of Varanasi. Varanasi, or Benares as the locals call it, is often compared to the lovely ancient city of Venice. While I would not go quite that far, the narrow alleyways which represent the main arteries of the old city along the Ganga were reminiscent of its well-traveled Italian cousin. While Benares is holy to the Hindus there is a rather large minority of Muslims living here and our friend Shakeel is a Muslim. Benaras is known for its beautiful hand-loomed silk textiles and traditionally the Muslims are the weavers and the Hindus the merchants of these beautiful wares. We were lucky enough to weave through the back alleyways with Shakeel into the locals-only Muslim quarter. It was here that we got a taste for Benares and its many local contradictions as well as having the opportunity to meet with a number of Muslim weavers, who despite the constant power-outages continued weaving on hand looms that have been in use for centuries. In the end, we did not make any purchases as we decided that their wares would not fit with the trunk, but we did decide to become non-hashish smoking sightseers.
Benares is known to Westerners as the place for holy pujas and cremations. We decided that it would be too intrusive for us to witness the very personal and emotional open cremations which happen along the Ganga, but we did attend the nightly puja at the main ghat (gateway to the Ganga). The intensity with which the holy men perform their nightly prayers each night in honor of the Mother Ganga and the souls she protects is quite moving (even as we were rolling our eyes at the 'hippies'). During the ceremony, the devout sit right up front and grab a bell to chime in time to the chanting. Watching these men and women in prayer did feel a bit intrusive as we have little to compare their experiences with, but it was a truly transfixing and wholly Indian affair.
There were two really fantastic things about Varanasi: curd and cycle-rickshaws. The former was served up in thick, creamy dollops into tiny terracotta bowls all day long at various street stalls throughout the city. Curd (yogurt) proved to be a great antidote to any tummy problems we may have encountered (though we were lucky enough to be healthy the entire time: no Delhi-belly for us) and for 5 cents a serving we were able to eat it several times a day. Varanasi was the first city we visited that had more non-motorized vehicles than gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing ones. Therefore, despite the sheer number and surliness of the cycle-rickshaw drivers, we were delighted to be stuck in hours-long daytime traffic behind hundreds of other barefooted and cursing cyclers than the noisy and polluting tuk-tuks.
We had planned to stay in Varanasi 4 nights and 5 days. This would have been more than enough time for any ordinary visitor, but as we seem to be rather unordinary this brief time was not meant to be. We were scheduled on a 2AC night-train headed for Kolkata (Calcutta) which was to travel through the bandit state of Bihar. Bihar is well-known throughout India as being one of the most impoverished (in both monetary and governmental means) states in India. Addingto their problems is Bihar's geographical location. Bihar borders Nepal, which is equally known for its impoverished status as well as its tradition of Maoist rebels. The Maoists have now made their way into the lawless and largely rural areas of Bihar to wreak general mayhem and havoc while attempting to spread a seemingly outdated political message. It was the Maoists who bombed the train tracks in Bihar on the day we were to depart Varanasi. Unlike many other terrorists familiar to the Western world, Maoists are not concerned with physically harming people, but just in disrupting the 'system'. Therefore, the best way to accomplish that goal in a country of 1.2 billion people is to bomb the train tracks.
The only reason we knew of this bombing was the fact that we were in the Hotel Pradeep and the Hotel Pradeep had a television (oh the luxury!). Add to this the fact that Roni happened to be watching Indian news (in Hindi, not that either of us understood it) and noticed the headlines (which happened to be in English, though most Indians are functionally illiterate in English). We promptly called the very functional India Rail hotline to find out that our train had been cancelled. As you may remember from previous posts, train reservations in India were not easy to come by. Therefore, it should go without saying that we had to bribe the station agent several hundred rupees (gotta love democracy, eh?) to get ourselves booked on the following night's train. That is how we ended up on the train the next time the Maoists bombed the train. Yes, the Maoists bombed the tracks the following day. Yes indeed we were stuck on the tracks in lawless Bihar for over 16 hours and late for Kolkata! The beauty of the Indian rail system though is that there are always people looking to make a buck and so there was an endless stream of entrepreneurs (and beggars) hawking food and drink up and down the aisle. Even better for us was the fact that the 'Queen of Sheba' was in the berth next to us and so our train was on the fast track to Kolkata. The 'Queen of Sheba', as Roni and I dubbed her, was apparently an important businessman's wife. This important businessman had clout with the railways and so was able to get our train diverted in the relatively quick timeframe of 16 hours. Not bad!
Pulling into Kolkata at 5.30pm rather than the hoped for 8am wasn't so bad, especially after our cab driver kicked us out and the heroin junkies outside our hotel were shooting-up in broad daylight. But, more on Kolkata and why it was our favorite Northern Indian city to come!
PS: So sorry for the delay in this post, but please keep your eyes out for more!