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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Thursday, 20 January 2011

January 20th: Benares

On January 20th 1979 I was in Benares.  Map of Benares.

I stayed a month or more in Benares. Benares is a city very rich on the senses. This day was towards the beginning of my stay and I was still not distinguishing clearly the things that passed before my eyes. The ghats were obvious places to sit and watch and on this day I was moved to write:
Near the Central Ghats, the day much clearer so that you can see the entire length of the river front from Varuna to Assi.  Prompted to write by my first sight of a body floating past, caught between the houseboats and the rowboats, no one takes any notice: they carry on with their body scrubbing, their clothes washing.  Behind me is one of the big palaces, a high front off the ghats where the pigeons nest, and above towers and rotundas and balconies and shuttered windows - it seems deserted, a neglected elegance.  A group of donkeys doing a little dance.  Next to the palace steps rising flanked with little temples.  People sit, talk, stare, smoke. 

Benares Ghats:  My picture (1982)
The noise of Hindi, a distant radio, a passing rowboat, a donkey starts a desperate neigh.  Across the river they're building a temple of what looks like straw and bamboo, people say it's some guru and his non-sadhu adherents, they're going to burn it down next month.  They row boats laden with pilgrims across, and further downstream there's a big encampment of tents.  Beside me all the time is a shape covered by a white cloth, I thought at first it was some small person sleeping, but it could be a corpse, or just a pile of belongings.

A few metres downstream, more activity, the body continues its passage to the sea.  To my right a line of twelve men, with nearly shaven heads and white clothes, sit with their hands out receiving food and verbal admonitions from an old man wrapped in a blanket.  At his request they get up and turn round.  A Japanese hippie plays the flute.  To my left sit three cows chained.  A poor man in a light crimson turban counts his money.  An ancient woman is building a little fire under a pot, using bricks, paper and a few pieces of wood; she tried to take a heavily soiled Hindi newspaper from some Brahmin pilgrims in front of me and they were aghast.  A line of barbers, tilak men and pundits under their matting sunshades on their little wooden balconies.  Shouts of Om or Bom from a neighbouring temple and the ringing of the bell.

Another day I sat on Scindia Ghat and wrote this:
I chose this ghat to sit on because it seems lively and colourful on this grey day.  A rich group in colourful sweaters and saris is moving away.  The ghats I passed coming here have been mainly empty, just one place noticeable where a lot of men wearing white had their heads shaved bar a top-knot.  A cold wind sweeps across the Ganga from the east, it's a wintry sweater day despite occasional incursions from a hot sun. 

Scindia Ghat:  My picture taken in 1982
One baba in white has a bag of food for the goats, and some puppies come along for a bite.  So often here in Benares it's the animals I notice, they live and produce and suffer and die just like the rest of us.  Away to the right a column of smoke rises from the burning ghat.  An old white-bearded baba is curled up on the step, a blanket over his head, and a goat sniffs him enquiringly.  Another old guy with white marks on his forehead, a blanket around his head, an umbrella with fancy handle in his hand and a strange fringed shirt over his  legs.

One strange fellow passed with yellow ochre lunghi, Buddhist colour, and a large circular top-knot in two stages in layers, a young educated type.  Another group dressed in white just passed to do quick puja at the temple on the ghat, the leader carrying food, bananas, sweets and thin curd.  Beyond is the stone temple that rests in the water almost up to its lowest roof level at a strange angle, a victim of a flood perhaps.  There's even a rooster on this ghat.  Young men doing vigorous push-ups.  Boatmen trying to push their boats against the wind.  A group of large boats without sails appears opposite where they seem to be dredging sand in front of the tent encampment.  A few sailboats near the bridge.  Pigeons settling on a log floating by but they can't all fit on.  A hippie passing by sits for a while almost out of sight at the other end of the ghat; he has a beard, and a new denim vest over a t-shirt.
I walked all over, through the lanes, along the river-front, along the main roads; when I got tired or too lost I could always get a rickshaw.  Some impressions in my memory:  the taste of good buffalo yoghurt in a clay bowl, mixed with papaya;  the noise of bicycle bells in a traffic jam of bicycles and rickshaws, no motorised transport, while the white-gloved policeman in his box at Godowlia fails to sort it out;  the crimson cloth on brown bodies as hundreds of sadhus process along the main street in the early evening, perhaps for Shivaratri, many of them naked and holding tridents; a group of monkeys stealing sheets from the balconies of rooms above Dashashmadhev, the central ghat - everyone becomes focused and animated, even the sadhu who sits over the duni burning the eternal flame on his single log of wood.

As the city sits on one curving bank of the river, the other side is a bare sandbank from the Malviya road and rail bridge to the Palace at Ramnagar.  This year a guru, Jai Gurudev, was building a temple to be ceremonially burnt and this was surrounded by a huge encampment of devotees.  Towards the end of my stay I went to visit:
There were even Jai GuruDev boats crossing from Ghai Ghat, so I took a boat and we went back six or seven times to pick up more passengers, once even from quite a way out.  We had a lovely wizened old boatman with thin scaly legs, cloudy eyes and grey hair, but another young man with paan-filled mouth rowed for him.  On the other side I admired the view from the bank, a different view of the city.  The bank itself less interesting than I'd imagined, flood mud hardening now, and little fields fenced off.  The centre of the "village" is a big temple made of bamboo with little mud shrines under canopies, the whole thing circular and guarded.  The guru was seated inside receiving visitors.  Much joy from the acolytes, people go round saying "Jai Gurudev!" to each other.  A man in a Kangra hat began to lead a chant which sounded to me very Afghan.  A group of followers danced and sang round the temple with a couple of hippies in attendance.  Most people were just gazing at the action, as I was.  I saw almost no sadhus.  People were selling Jai Gurudev pictures and calendars and buttons and literature and hats and scarves, the lot.  The big burning is scheduled for tomorrow morning and should go on for a week.  By now the sun was setting over the city.  I took a crazy crowded boat back to the chaos of the riverside on the city side.

Ghat in Benares:  My picture taken in 1982
I walked the entire length of the waterfront seeing all the ghats and taking care in the few sections between which were used as toilets.  At Assi I was on the edge of the city, with the green fields of Lanka beyond and the pontoon bridge across to the cliffs of Ramnagar, with its fortified front and palace.  To the left I had the whole sweep of Benares to the red spans of the Malviya Bridge.  The river was quieter at the Assi end, just a few people walking, a few boats, little bathing and almost no pundits or vendors, silk saris left out to dry, a black-dressed sadhu in a shrine with his dog, mynahs squabbling and parakeets in a tree above where I sat.  Nearby was a Muslim ghat, undecorated and with no buildings, and a single man at prayer, facing directly away from the river.

I found that the beauty of Benares was in the small details every bit as much as the grand spectacle.
From my window at Ghai Ghat I recorded some impressions:
Lane up from Ghai Ghat:  My picture taken 1982
A man goes past with a great cry, something like "Mallayeki", selling that delicious yellow creamy stuff like whipped egg-white.  Opposite my room is the door of some shrine, open now, an old man with very short hair is doing something, not puja, maybe cleaning, a boy of 10 comes by and sits by him, says a few words.  There are several images in the shrine, three in the middle in yellow, at least two others.  Next door is a little shop-booth, huddled under the steps which lead up to a house - inside a tailor sits at his cloth.  A donkey stumbles past, his front two legs hobbled.  A cow is feeding at the doorstep of one of the houses nearby.  A religiously dressed  man comes out of a house opposite and leaves the inner door closed; round the doorway are traditional Benares paintings and a couple of custodian figures, dressed in yellow this time with a green sword and a flat turban; above is a Ganesh surrounded by two girls and two fish.  The stone pavements in the lane are at different heights and have various functions, for walking on when the street is wet, for chaining up calves and cows, for selling food in the little bazaar area, for lying asleep on during hot afternoons.  A couple of cows block the street, a bookbinder is at work, and I can hear the distant hammering of the silversmith.
I'd be back in Benares three years later.

Ghai Ghat:  My picture taken 1982

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