Whenever I’m in Varanasi, I walk along the river, from Assi Ghat, where I stay, up to Dassaswamedh Ghat, the Main Ghat near Godolia. When I realized that I’d been in Varanasi for a week and basically hadn’t ventured further than Shivala (maybe halfway to Godolia), I decided that the time had come for my walk.
I’m going to use today’s walk to illustrate what I often tell people at home when they ask what it is that brings me back to India over and over again. Sometimes, if I’m trying to be brief, I say that it is because it’s always interesting, because I never know what I’m going to see. (And, in fact, I wrote an essay about this very thing a few years back.)
That remains true in other places in India, but it is especially true for me in Varanasi. Here are a few of the things I saw in the maybe 4 hours that I was out.
First, there was the man having his picture painted. A small crowd had gathered by the time I got there and remained after I left.
Then, when I got to the main ghat, I heard singing, and it turned out to be coming from this boat. Notice the men with drums and the man with the horn in the back. I’d never actually seen a singing boat like this before. They stayed by the main ghat for quite awhile and then set off into the river.
There was a lot of activity on the main ghat getting ready for the evening’s grand aarti. Platforms (for the priests) were set up, and people were preparing flowers and other offerings for the stands. Right near the ghat, many of the shops sell items related to devotion and puja.
Slightly farther away, though, the wares turn to more worldly goods. I’m contemplating a larger series entitled “Unattractive Underwear Displays.”
I had a late lunch and wandered through Viswanath Gully, which is always part of my routine. No pictures from there, alas.
The walk back down was especially lovely, almost as lovely as the other night’s stroll down the nearly empty ghats after 11 p.m. under the full moon. (If anyone is wondering if this was safe, the answer is, I’m not entirely sure. But I had Rakesh from Harmony Books serving as my gent escort, so I wasn’t worried. Our only threat came from some extremely loud and not-happy-to-see-us dogs who barked at us until we left the road and walked onto the ghat.)
Partway down, I stopped for a cup of chai. It was still and quiet, and I watched the lights on the river. In what was perhaps a first, I turned out to be sitting next to a vendor (of beads and malas) who didn’t ask me if I wanted to buy something. He called me "didi" (sister), which I prefer to “madam,” which I get called most of the time, and said I looked like I was enjoying the shanti (peace). I said I was. He said he would leave me to it, and I said thank you.
I saw these dogs sitting attentively next to the chai wallah. I wondered if they’d developed a taste for tea, but it turned out that when the chai-wallah cleaned out his milk pan, he gave them what was left and that was what they were waiting for. As it happened, I had a packet of biscuits in my bag and while, generally, I don’t approve of giving dogs people biscuits, I figured that with most likely hungry street (well, ghat) dogs, it probably didn’t matter. Where there had originally been 3 dogs—mom, pop and pup—lined up for biscuits, word spread quickly, and soon I had an extended family, including 3 or 4 very earnest puppies, surrounding me. Once the biscuits were gone, they returned to the chai-wallah in the hope that they could have more milk to wash down their cookies.
One thing that didn’t surprise me: I was asked 10 or 12 times on the way up the river, and almost as many on the way down, whether I wanted a boat. One man announced, proudly, “I have boat.” To which I replied, in Hindi, “Well, that is a very good thing for you, but right now, I don’t need a boat.” I think one of his buddies laughed, but I’m not sure he did.
I will be very sad to leave tomorrow.