We spent the last two days in one of the oldest cities in the world, and likely the oldest city in India. We arrived fairly late in the afternoon and just had time to clean up and get settled in our hotel before it was time to head out for dinner. In stark contrast to our accommodations in Gorakhpur, we were in a very nice hotel with access to Internet, hot showers and clean linens! Food was also available there, but Al had a recommendation from his Dragoman mates that there was a steak restaurant in Varanasi and it is not to be missed. Seemed strange to be going out for steak in one of the holiest Hindu cities in the world, but almost the whole group opted for this option. I made sure to ask if there would be vegetarian options before we decided to join.
I was somehow imagining a Sizzler, but when our tuk tuks delivered us to the address, it looked like a non descript residential building. All the lights were off, but there were a few candles on the stairs leading up to the second floor. And a nice young lady was immediately there to guide us up the stairs. An electrical outage, of course. We were used to that by now. In Nepal, electricity went off regularly. Seems there is not enough electricity on the grid for 24 hours (for the gazillion people that live in this part of the world). Everyone seems to accept that there will be three or four hours without electricity on any given day. We all wondered if this would ruin our dinner plans, but no, in India they are ready for any eventuality.
Comparable in some ways to the menus on the Annapurna trail, you are not really sure if the descriptions or names of the items are really what you might expect, but we all bravely wrote our orders down on scratch paper and hoped for the best. The majority of the group ordered rib eye, or T-bone or fillet mignon. I for one wondered what they were thinking. Here we were in Varanasi, a city of vegetarians, with holy cows roaming the streets. Had anyone wondered where the beef was coming from, or how it was being refrigerated with electricity outages every day?
I ordered Obergene with cheese and potatoes and was quite sure I would be eating some semblance of eggplant cheese and potatoes, which suited me fine!
Our waitress was fluent in English and of course she was the daughter of the chef. Richard, one of the Australians on our trip, went out for a smoke and to order a second beer, and came back to report he had taken a tour of the kitchen, interviewed the chef, found everything to be cooking just fine on several hot plates and gas burners. Seems the chef has five or six sons and they all run restaurants in other cities in India as well as Nepal, all taught by him and doing quite well. Restaurant names were exchanged, with promises from Richard that we would give them all a try as we arrived in each city, and give our regards to his sons!
The evening was a great success. Everyone was served some semblance of what they ordered. The garlic cheese bread was more like toast with processed cheese, under the broiler and the brownie dessert didn’t really resemble anything we had ever seen before, but otherwise as the Auzzies and Brits among us would say, “absolutely lovely, no worries!” It was a nice change from the street food we had been eating for the last two days. But Marc was quick to request that I stop him from doing this again. I promised that I would try to remind him the next time an opportunity like this came up. Wish me luck! The name of the restaurant for the next time you are in Varanasi and are in the mood for a steak (or any number of other western delicacies) is El Parador.
Varanasi at sunrise
The next morning we really began our Varanasi experience. We were up at sunrise, in our rented tuk tuks (motorized rickshaws) and on our way to the Ganga Ghats (river fronts) where we boarded a boat to take a ride down the Ganges River. There we would be able to see for ourselves the morning rituals of the very religious Hindus who believe that their day must begin with a purification ceremony including a dip in the holy waters of the Ganges. We also learned that it is also a common practice to have your laundry done here. No soap is used, just a dip in the holy water, a beat or two against the rocks and a sun dry along the banks. I watched while two men untangled a large pile of washed sheets and spread them in perfect rows along the riverbanks. From a distance they looked perfectly clean and pure!
Both Marc and I were under the misconception that all of the Ghats along the Ganges in Varanasi were for cremation purposes. In fact only two are specifically dedicated for this purpose. Our local guide explained the process and the costs involved, while we witnessed a body being cleansed and prepared for cremation. There was more than one moment when I wondered if it was really our place to be watching such a personal family moment. But then I remembered, that the idea of personal space as we know it, is a foreign concept in India. Preparing the dead for cremation, taking a bath (men and women side by side in all levels of undress) in the Ganges, stopping by the side of the road for any number of bodily functions, is just second nature here.
As we floated along the river, we were also able to have our own spiritual moment. A very beautiful young girl not more than six or seven years old, provided us with beautifully arranged flowers in leaf bowls. Each of us lit the small candle in the middle, made our wishes/blessings and carefully set our hopes and dreams adrift. Something about the soft sound of the oars dipping into the water, and the offerings flickering as they floated away, as night became day was more than magical.
As it is written, all it takes is one drop of the water from the River Ganges to be purified. As I set my beautiful flickering flower cup off into the sunrise, I dipped my fingers into the holy water. After I felt I had given enough time for the spiritual purification process, I gave my hands a squirt of hand sanitizer to be sure I wouldn’t be taking anything else home with me other than the wonderful spiritual purification and enlightenment!
We returned to our hotel for a great buffet breakfast including both Indian and western fare. Al and Anja had rented us tuk tuks for the day so we were free to use them for scheduled touring as well as anything else we wanted to accomplish. The next arranged event was a tour of the Silk producing area of the city.
Our guide explained that different areas of India specialize in different products. Varanasi’s specialty is silk. As we neared the silk quarter, we saw some woman in full Burka. We later were told that the silk industry is primarily a Muslim occupation. The first thing we learned is that all of the work is done at home. We were taken to several homes/factories where we could see the different parts of the process (both mechanical and handwork). Although I was certainly aware of the technical aspects of weaving, seeing it in action and in these conditions was an eye opener.
If anyone reading this is as old as I am or older, you will remember the first computers, where you punched in a DOS like formula and got a pile of cards with holes punched in them, that were then put into a machine that read the cards according to the holes. If everything had been keyed in properly, the short program you had written would work. This is the best way I can try to explain the process of mechanized pattern making for silk weaving. But instead of a keyboard that mechanically punched the holes, in Varanasi, there is a man looking at a pattern, and punching holes in a cardboard card using a hammer. When all of the holes have been punched and checked, the cards are sewn together end to end like an accordion, and somehow this is attached to the loom and threads are threaded through the holes.
I was lost after that, so I can’t really give you any more details. The rest is done by hand as you will see in my photos. Centimetres of finished cloth take hours even with the simplest of patterns. The silk threads are so delicate, that truly fine silk fabrics can only be made this way (or so we were told). We moved from the simplest to the most complex patterns and were joined by the master designer who explained that these last artisans of a dying trade come in two varieties. There are those trained to be blind weavers (My take on this is that the patterns do not require remembering what you are doing from one pass to the next.) and those, master craftsman who have to know what they are doing for each pass. They can see the design and decipher what happens next. One cannot replace the other and the work requires so much concentration that it is a job you can do for only so many hours a day and for so many years.
If a mistake is made, it is game over. No seconds are acceptable. Two options are available. Just rethread and start over, and throw away several days work, or cut the fabric just before the mistake and try to salvage the existing fabric. High pressure work indeed.
These families have been in this business for generations. It is simply what you do. I guess as each child is born and grows up, it is determined which part of the business he/she will be trained for. It is hard and tedious work at the best of times, and the conditions are less than glamorous by anyone’s standards. The end results are absolutely amazing, which of course we soon saw in the cooperative shop, but seeing the conditions and the poverty was a stark contrast from the bolts of glistening Sari fabric, duvet covers, and pashmina scarves.
The master designer, sitting in a lotus position on a long mattressed area, protected with a white sheet, uncovered example after example of their best work. Most of it, the last of its kind as this handwork is no longer financially viable. Slowly he moved from the most expensive pieces to ones even ordinary overland travelers like us could afford. Of course we were all quite aware of the tourist angle — show us the poverty stricken people creating the work and talk about a lost art, family cooperative, with portions of the profits going to the cooperative, as well as for retirement funds for the weavers after they can’t continue yada yada yada. But the work was magnificent and some of us were not able to resist the “made in Varanasi” silk. I was content to take away with me the experience and some great photos of the people and their beautiful products. We will see how long I last!
A group of us took two tuk tuks to the local supermarket to stock up on packaged snacks for the moments when street food just didn’t hit the spot. We managed to get our shopping done without incident, and made it back in time to join the entire group for a second trip down the Ganges to watch the night ritual bathing and light show. Back in the tuk tuks again, we managed to get only so close to the Ghats. A short walk through the back alleys and through a dark tunnel (electricity outage once again) and we were down the steps to a boat, that took us close to the evening’s spectacle.
Once again we made our blessings/wishes and floated our lit flower cups off into the sunset, watching the Hindu candle ritual performers undertake their tasks as on every other night of the year. There was a wonderful calm atmosphere, whether you were following the ritual, or just contemplating life. What a beautiful end to a very full day in Varanasi.
The ride back in our boat with the rhythm of the paddles hitting the waves, and the only light, the last flickering candles in the river and the reflection of the candle ceremony from the Ghats, is something I will remember always. I made many blessings for family members and friends facing challenges, and blessings for those who’s soul’s have already left their bodies. And of course I also sent along a blessing for the remainder of our trip. May it be full of amazing experiences of all descriptions. And my biggest wish for us was to be reminded, that like on our trek, with every up there is a down and with every down there will inevitably be an up. It seemed like the most sensible wish of all.