Observations on India
Wednesday 25th - Tuesday 31st
1. There is something very cleansing about being somewhere so hot you sweat out water as fast as you can drink it (and make no mistake, it’s hot as hell - today was 36 degrees and it wasn’t even sunny). Yesterday we were getting ourselves pleasantly lost amongst Varanasi’s Old City alleys - most so narrow three people would struggle to walk arm-in-arm, and when at last we came to our guesthouse some forty-five minutes later, even the keenest detective would have deduced that we had been the victims of some exceptionally localised monsoon, so drenched were we from head to toe.
2. There is a lot of orange. We were lucky enough to arrive in Varanasi during the eight-month period of yatra (pilgrimage), when pilgrims dressed in every shade of orange flock to holy sites around the country, including the Ganges, where they bathe and cleanse themselves of sin and fatigue, creating a sea of bright orange wherever you look - which, let me tell you, is quite something.
3. The people are the best thing, and the worst thing. They are truly one extreme or the other; endlessly helpful because they want to help, or endlessly helpful because they want your money - and it’s often tough to tell the difference. The touts abound, offering everything from boats to hash and silk, or carefully befriending you for an hour before casually mentioning they own a shop. But then there are the kind souls - like the passenger who saw us looking lost and guided us to the right berth of our train asking nothing in return, or the shop owner who let me take my purchase and come back later to pay because he didn’t have change - who serve to keep cynicism at bay.
4. The Ganges is vast - just vast - and its size almost impossible to take in until you see one of the many tourist or pilgrim-filled boats bobbing in its centre, the boat like a leaf on a lake, its passengers like ants. This is only possible from one of the rooftop restaurants along the river’s edge - from which you can also watch the Old City’s resident monkeys chasing each other from building to building - because as soon as you descend to street level, the river is reduced to a blip in your peripheral vision by the chaotic, endless bustle of the alleyways and ghats. Here, on tiers of steps disappearing into the water’s murky depths, touts scream for attention, pilgrims chant, cows plod by, bodies burn on holy pyres, sacred rites take place, children bathe, boats bob and people surge, all moving to the rhythm of Varanasi’s palpable hum.
5. Spirituality is everywhere. From the vermillion bindhi on the foreheads of schoolchildren, shop owners and holy men alike, to the buses and cars covered in deities’ portraits, the ever-present shrines and temples, and the constant sound of chanting an warbled prayer, India’s main religions are more visibly, ubiquitously, inextricably linked with its culture than in perhaps any other place on earth. This is especially, and most beautifully, illustrated by the ganga aarti, a ceremony of fire, dance and puja (prayer) which takes place every night at sunset by the water’s edge at Dasaswamdh Ghat, drawing crowds of hundreds to clap and watch entranced as seven holy men perform the ritual Ganges worship.
6. Always eat your rice. We learned this lesson the other evening when, having finished our dinner in one of the Old City’s rooftop cafés, one of the two waiters - who were competing for least charismatic man on earth - came to take our plates. The waiter - a large, totally expressionless man dressed entirely in black - glared at the small pile of uneaten rice on Luke’s plate, otherwise managing to avoid moving a single facial muscle, and boomed menacingly "You don’t like rice?" Luke smiled the special smile he reserves for the unhinged. "No no, I do." He said amiably "I’m full. And look, I’ve eaten everything else." This was met by a sort of grunt. We handed over a 500 Rupee note, and the waiter glowered at it. "Change?" He roared, as though we’d wounded him in a past life, his face still unaware the exchange was occurring. "Err, yes. Yes please?" We squeaked. He removed a wad of bills from his pocket and spent the next twenty-four days counting out the 150rs. we were owed, threw it at us, then watched as we sheepishly exited, imperceptibly ruing the day we’d walked into his life. Always eat your rice.
7. Accept as fact that no matter how many times you agree on the price of your rickshaw ride before you get on, it will always have a habit of doubling by the time you get off - after you’ve fought tooth and nail to avoid ending up at his brother’s shop / guesthouse / tour agency.