After being played out from our village retreat by the local troubador, we found ourselves waiting at Khajuraho station for the sleeper train to Varanasi. The fact that there was an imense bull laid down on the platform did not seem to bother the locals, so it didn’t bother us. The fact that the train was two and a hour late did. The lizard on the wall in the men’s waiting room (yes, they are segragated) entertained us for about two and half minutes. Eventually, I remembered that I had a deck of cards, so we played a game called ‘The Game With No Name’, though Josh was fairly certain it was called ‘S**thead’. Shaemus hadn’t played before, but won the second game, and it wasn’t until midnight that I got my first win. At that point the train arrived, and we were re-united with the group. After a lullaby and a bedtime story we settled and the train arrived in Varanasi twelve hours later.
After the obligatory hotel stop, we were to make our way down to the Ganges – the holy focal point of the city. The transport method would be cycle rickshaw.
Our driver was half my size, but was obliged to propel his singled geared machine loaded up with 24 stone (336lb or 153kg) of tourist through the Varanasi streets, which are tight and hectic, even compared to Delhi. Shaemus and Angela managed to look like honeymooners as we started off.
The journey was like a very intense fairground ride, apart from the fact that the danger was very real, and there were farmyard animals all over the place. Rags was holding it together through the middle section (but he’s used to this sort of thing).
By the end of the ride Nikki and I were in a meditative state…
…as an alternative to browning our pants.
From where the rickshaws dropped us off, there was still some walking to do, then as we worked our way through the busy streets the heavens opened, so we took refuge in a chai shop. Masala chai is a national institution in India. It’s a spicier, creamier and sweeter version of normal tea. The locals gathered round the chai master in eager and fairly damp anticipation of his works.
With chai in our bellies we headed back onto the street, and made our way past another enormous bull down to the riverside.
My drenched casual white shirt was making me look like an entrant in a wet T-shirt competition.
Leaving my dignity on shore, we clambered into a boat from where we could see the many Gaats and the area of the embankment where bodies are ceremonially cremated.
As we returned to the riverbank people were gathering for the evening prayer ceremony.
Next morning we came down early to catch the sun rising over the sacred river.
You could sense how rejuvenated the people were by the day’s fresh turn of the wheel.
We felt better because we weren’t getting rained on.
As the tuk-tuks returned us to the hotel, a new working day was beginning in the city.
The cattle maintained their imperious position on the roads.
An unexpected and very welcome gift from the holy city was a sitar lesson conducted by Tarak Nath Mishra. Thanks to Hannah and Josh for thinking of it, and Rags for organizing it, but the biggest thanks of all to Mr Mishra and his family. I have always loved the sound of the instrument, but it looked far removed from the six string guitar, which myself and Josh were familiar with. Mr Mishra was able to demonstrate how the do-re-me-fa-so-la-te-do from western music fits onto the sitar; so he had us playing scales on a sitar; and yes, I did try to play that song from The Sound of Music.
Following the lesson, Tarak insisted that we take masala chai. We were then treated to a performance with his uncle and then his son taking turns on the tabla – a totally awesome experience! Thanks to Nikki for recording it.