Idling in the lanes of Varanasi

The lanes and crossings of Varanasi, just like the ghats of Varanasi, provide ideal atmosphere for addas. Take, for example, the image below. It is at the heart of a place where the action of Kashi ka AssiKashi Nath Singh‘s celebrated novel, is set. It’s called Assi Crossing. Within the radius of two hundred metres from the tree to the extreme right there are addas that have entered legends now. Although evening is when the maximum crowd is found at the crossing and its addas, morning and afternoon are also busy there. Different kind of regulars pour in from all directions at different times and on different days, and they do mostly one thing: they converse. Topics of their conversations range from extremely personal to purely public, and from local to international.   

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Addas at Assi Crossing

Addas have these features in common: they arise out of the meeting of space, time and persons. The same set of persons, at the same place, comes to spend their time day after day, throughout the year, irrespective of changing seasons and inclement weather. In fact, the real test of a regular goer (read addict) to addas is whether he was there at 48 degree Celsius, at 4 degrees below zero, and when the whole area resembled a flooded plane or not. 

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The famous coconut shop by the Kedareshwar Temple

I remember Laddu Chacha, an old bachelor, my father’s acquaintance, a regular at a specific spot at a specific shop beside the famous Kedarnath Temple, and now, long after he is gone, I add here, my friend too. At around six he would emerge from the lane in which he had rented a floor of a house for his mother and himself. He would amble at a really leisurely pace thorough the length of the lane connecting his place to the coconut shop where his adda was, wishing all his old acquaintances among the passers by, and old friends among the shopkeepers and other idlers, with a loud Har Har Mahadev!

He occupied his seat that was a folded gunny sack covering a section of a stone chabutra and stayed there for nearly two hours. (That gunny sack can be seen in the image above. It’s at the right hand bottom, just above the thick stone slab that it partially covers). He just sat there and gave company to the very busy man who ran the shop. That man happened to be one of the three brothers, the sons of the original shop owner. (The eldest brother, Pappu Bhaiya now runs the shop. He can be seen in the image above). They talked about life, locality, city, country etc. until a customer arrived. If the customer was an acquaintance of Laddu Chahcha, then they talked as the owner of the shop went looking for the thing they wanted. If not, he’d simply sit quietly and wait patiently for the transaction to be over. For as long as I was there, I’d go to the Kedar Ghat Market almost every evening, and when I passed that shop between six and eight, I met Laddu Chacha there. I stopped as I passed his seat, stood and chatted with him before I went on my way towards Dashashwamedh Ghat. He was an honest and good man who spent his life set in a pattern and did not like making alterations. He worked for his employer, Banaras Hindu University, from ten to five and lived his life after that. He was a part-time but virtuoso idler, and a true Banarasi. There were and are many like him in the city.   

 

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Adda near Hararbagh

Teas stalls and Paan (betel leaf) shops provide ideal spots for addas in the city. Take, for example the paan shop towards the right centre in the image above. It is the heart of idling, hence conversation, in the region. The conversation, and idling is something that’s done by the regulars. In fact, it takes time and many appearances before one can start contributing to the discourse. 

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Tea Stall near Tulsi Pustakalay
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Idling, conversation and adda in Varanasi

An acquaintance of mine returned from his really short trip to Varanasi, and instantly felt himself to be an authority on the city. Saying that he was not exactly awed by the aura of the city would be a conscious introduction of ambiguity in the discourse. He found the roads narrow, the lanes dirty, crowds ubiquitous, noise raucous and people mostly (and to his dismay, happily) idle. His ire was specially reserved for those men with gamchha flung across their shoulders, ambling alone or in groups towards their favourite adda for their constitutional conversation and other leisure activities of the day. 

Muslims Chausatti Ghat

Although he comes from a small city (from a city smaller than Varanasi, in fact), he fully belongs to his invented persona of a metro-dweller. A self-proclaimed self-made man, he does not want to be seen connected to his roots, to his small city, to his hell. Idling, for him, is a sin. It’s something others do, not people like him. Varanasi, for him, was some kind of hell, and those who belonged to that place (count me in) deserved to be there (alas! not ‘in’ this time).

I did not declare it in public, but my close friends know, I belong to my city, and have the mindset of a true Banarsi. I’ve been away from the city for full fourteen years, and nine months now, but the city has always been within me. To re-phrase it, I quote a great man:

You can take a Banarasi out of Banaras, you can’t take Banaras out of a Banarasi.

The Spine Vijay Nagram Ghat

There are two kinds of people one can see idling in Varanasi: the permanent residents and the pilgrim/tourist. My angry friend was definitely talking about the gamchha carrying pukka Banarsi’s idleness. So, I’ll write about the same here. Our idle Banarsi is a common phenomenon in the city. His addas are many. You can find him (it’s mostly him, sometimes her) at a definite hour, day after day, summer, winter and during monsoon, at the same place, or within a definite radius from the original place, losing himself in his favourite activity.

The best time for such activities begins at around five late in the summer afternoon, or at around five, early in the winter evening. Five is not the exact time, it’s an approximation for the end of office hours for a working adult male. Addas are full of life and laughter and are alive till late into the night. Ghats of Varanasi, that connect the city with the river and provide an unbroken stretch of public space for most part of the year are definitely favourite choice for addas.   

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At more than eighty ghats of Varanasi, men, women and children assemble at their various times to enjoy their life in their own way. As mentioned earlier, working men in the evening, children after the school is over and women, for the morning bhajan etc. I still visit one of my favourite addas, as a non-participant, and am sometimes recognized by the regulars, just to confirm that not much has changed in my city. I still find a couple of hands busy with their moves on the chess board, and almost always, a large number of fans/observers/supporters cheering, hissing and yelling suggestions to their favourite player of the moment. Victory, even in a game of chess, is collective there, and loss is mourned by the whole side. 

 

The lanes of Varanasi that run parallel to the ghats provide spots for addas too. 

Idling at Ghats of Varanasi

Don’t be surprised by the first word in the heading. Blame its presence, if you will, on the benign effect of Tom Hodgkinson of How to be Idle fame (He runs the show at idler.co.uk). I was an idler long before I associated my mindset and personality traits with those of fellow idlers, Tom included. The ghats of Varanasi were the training ground for the young idler in me, but this post is not about me. It’s about idling at ghats of Varanasi. The old Banarsi (adj. that belonging to Varanasi) culture has both space and respect for idling. There was space devoted for that use and it was known as nichaddam (Sanskrit nishabdam: quiet and calm, a place where one may spend time away from the pressure of the city). Idling was an integral part of the rhythm of a true Banarsi’s life.  

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In fact, I can claim with pride that public sphere in the city I grew up in always gave respect to the basic daily human need of idling. Safa-pani (toilet and cleaning clothes and body), bhang ghotai (the elaborate preparation of marijuana leaves paste), thandai (a cold drink spiked with marijuana paste) etc. went hand in hand with nichaddam to make idling a coveted activity. The other bank of the river, along with the deserted areas out of the city’s boundaries, has always been a place where citizens of Varanasi escaped to enjoy the above mentioned activities at their leisurely pace.

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Varanasi always had a large proportion of businessmen and service-men in its overall population. That is true even today. An average Banarasi businessman starts his day with an early morning walk to the river, followed by taking a dip in the Holy Ganga, or a swim across the river and back. It is either done alone, or mostly, with a couple of fellow ghat goers.  

 

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The Spine Vijay Nagram Ghat

 

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People Watching in Varanasi: Let the Game Begin

So, you have decided to do it. Then welcome to the heaven of people watchers! Welcome to Varanasi! Let’s start it easy. No specifics for the beginning, only broad outlines of how to do it. 

Whenever you are not solitary, people watching may begin there.

It may begin when you wake up, and end probably with your sleep, or not. If you are a lucid dreamer, then you may remember and extended the activity into your dreams.

The City of Temples wakes up in installments. There are pockets of this oldest living city that are known by the name of main deity of the locality. Some of these pockets are called sections (khandas) and few others circuits. So, wherever you are, ask a local a couple of questions:

Which Khanda is this (to take you to the next question)?                                                    How far from my place of stay is the temple of the presiding deity of the khanda (if it’s over a mile, then ask just about the most popular temple of the locality)? 

The answer to these questions will direct you towards the point you may like to reach before the first rays of the rising sun reach there. One important point to remember here: try to reach there through the lanes of Varanasi. On second thought, you may actually forget that point, because you cannot reach the core of any khanda without cutting through the network of lanes that the old city is. 

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A Lane of Varanasi near Kedareshwar Temple: Half-an-Hour Before Dawn

Now, when you have already started walking, yes, it has to be walking for two reasons. The first reason is that the beginners’ people watching, like the beginners’ archery, is done best when the observer is stationary. It’s only the advanced shooters/watchers who can manage movement along with the activity. The second reason is that in the lanes of Varanasi, in many, if not most of them, it’s difficult to ride anything faster than a bicycle, and impossible to bring even an auto-rickshaw.

So, as you have already started walking in the lane, I congratulate you. You have already become a potential people watcher in Varanasi. Look around you, even if it’s still dark and a couple of yellow lights illumine the darkness only directly under the poles on which they are fixed, and weakly. You will see a couple of devotees walking towards the river. Which river?

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The Vision of the Holy Ganga Waking with the Rising Sun

Oh people watcher, I’m sorry! I forgot to mention the greatest and the surest landmark in the whole old quarters (pakki mahaal) of the City of Lights. I forgot to bow to the life line of the city, its mother and the holiest of all Indian Rivers: Mother Ganga (atlases call her the Ganges). The lanes and ghats (the stone steps that lead to the river) are the two places where most of the people watching will be accomplished in Varanasi. I am biased towards the old city and the old city (I risk over-simplification here) is lanes and ghats.

Modern urban centres in India, at least the ones I have been to, (no knowledge of other countries, not a single stamp on my visa, never used my passport) have one definite tendency: they are homogeneous in many ways. If there’s an old city and a new city, then the new city will have features like malls, metro-rail, broad streets, skyscrapers (or aspiring skyscrapers), set routine of people’s daily life etc. The new city in Varanasi is not much different. Yes, it does not have any bona fide skyscraper yet, and the plan of metro is still in the incubation stage, but it is like any other modern city of India. Therefore, there’s no need for anyone to spend money and time and reach Varanasi, only to see what can be seen in their own city. The essence of the city is in the old quarters, or the old city.      

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The River Flows through Life in the City

As the sun rays bathe the river in their glory and the river rises, the city rises, and with the city rise the citizens, or those who were not awake already. What you have to do is to find the exact time of sunrise from any local newspaper or news channel and then, reach the bank of the river at least fifteen minutes before that. No, these fifteen minutes, and the fifteen minutes after the sun rises are not for people watching. In the fifteen minutes before the sun rises you must find a spot that is neither deserted nor overcrowded. Once you’ve found that spot, occupy it and look towards the other bank across the river. That’s east, and the little crimson disk of a sun peeks tentatively from there every morning, morning after morning. Behold the miracle of the rays of crimson raining on the rippling crimson mirror that flows calmly on, and then witness both turn golden and then yellow within the span of fifteen minutes. 

Once you have soaked in the warmth of the sun, it’s the time for you to watch people. As you have no set targets and no pressing demands over your time (the two prerequisites of successful people watching) look around, ahead and behind you. You will see a veritable cornucopia of human existence. Let the game begin!

People Watching in Varanasi 1

What is people watching?

Well, Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines it as “the act of spending time looking at different kinds of people in a public place because you find this interesting”.

 

I stumbled upon this long-known, but undiscovered term through a friend’s mail about his indulging into the activity in his visit to a country in South-East Asia. I was acquainted with flânerie and drifting due to my interest in psychogeography, Baudelaire and the Arcades Project, but not with the new rage of the new age. I researched a little and reached to the link between flânerie and people watching. An article I particularly  liked was about people watching in Paris.  

Not only was I excited as I read more about it, I could actually see how visitors to my city have been people watching since they started visiting it. From Ralph Fitch, Tavernier and Bernier to Pierre Loti and Hermann Keyserling, visitors to the city wrote paragraph after wonderful paragraph of description that amounts to the central activity of people watching much before the term was used and acknowledged.

Here’s an example from a work of non-fiction from early twentieth century, from E. B. Havell’s Benares: The Sacred City:

It is amusing to see sometimes at Mogul Serai, the junction for the East Indian line, how the up-to-date Indian arriving from Calcutta, Bombay, or some other large Anglo-Indian city, will in an incredibly short time divest himself of his European environment and transform himself into the orthodox Hindu. You will see him first stepping out of the train, dressed in more or less correct European garb, and smoking a cigarette. He is accompanied by a servant, who deposits a steel trunk on the platform in front of him. Then, coram populo, but without the least suggestion of impropriety, he proceeds to take off coat, waistcoat, trousers, and boots, and taking out of the trunk a collection of spotless white drapery, speedily arrays himself in puggaree, dhotee, and the rest of the becoming costume of an Indian gentleman, while the cast-off garments are stowed away until his next return to European society.

Pierre Loti’s India is full of such examples. This one is from the beginning of his visit:

A young fakir, whose long hair falls upon his shoulders, stands by the abode of the dead in a rigid attitude, with his head turned towards the smoking heaps of wood and their gruesome burdens. Though covered with white dust he is still beautiful and muscular. His chest is decked with a garland of marigolds, such a garland as the people here cast upon the river’s breast. A little way above the funeral heaps some five or six persons crouch upon the frieze of an old palace, which fell into the river long ago. Their heads are wrapped in veils, and, like the fakir, they stare fixedly at their kinsman who is being burned.

Here’s another example of people watching, this time, from fiction, from Shivprasaad Singh’s Gali Age Mudti Hai (The Lane Turns Ahead):

 [Varanasi] is a strange city. There’s not enough space to walk in the lanes, not enough even to pass if one person stops walking, yet, if a performer starts performing, people forget all work and problems and assemble to watch what he has to show…

Two mahuar players were competing against each other: moving in circles, challenging, taking stances with mouth full of air. They appeared to be from Rajasthan. They wore narrow cut, tight trousers and dirty vests. Both wore patterned headgear. One was young and the other older… They played the same tune from a very famous Hindi film, “Mann dole, mere tan dole…”. 

The novel presents many paragraphs of equally rich description as the hero goes on his way and watches people.

In addition to modern English and Hindi prose, people watching is ever present, in one form or the other but not as the central concern of the piece, in Sanskrit writing on the city. 

The Rhythm of Life in Kashi

DSC04323An hour before sunrise deep within the labyrinth of lanes near Kedareshwar Temple and Ghat, the movements of life start to register their presence. Although the lane had not gone to sleep before one very late at night, it started stirring by four in the morning. It leads to the temple of the central deity of the section, Lord Kedareshwar. Devotees of Lord Kedara and of Mother Ganga are men and women of confirmed habits. Change in seasons affects the rhythm of the life of the regulars only a little bit. They move through the same lanes to complete the same circuit with a constant rhythm throughout their life. Nothing can alter that, be it of personal, local, regional, national or international consequence. Life comes back to its norm-al self with a certainty that would make the poet who wrote the following lines proud:

Happy the man, whose wish and care 
   A few paternal acres bound, 
Content to breathe his native air, 
                            In his own ground. 
Blest, who can unconcernedly find 
   Hours, days, and years slide soft away, 
In health of body, peace of mind, 
                            Quiet by day, 
Sound sleep by night; study and ease, 
   Together mixed; sweet recreation; 
And innocence, which most does please, 
                            With meditation. 
Thus let me live, unseen, unknown; 
   Thus unlamented let me die; 
Steal from the world, and not a stone 
                            Tell where I lie.
(From “Ode on Solitude” by A Pope)

The Pauper-king

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Once upon a time, not a very long time ago, there used to be a youth who worked in a small shop. He worked hard. He worked long hours. He was never tired and always aspired to rise. With his kind of dedication and determination he was sure to rise and he rose in life. He soared high and still higher he soared on the wings of the dreams of those like him, the poor workers of that small shop. They chose him first, and then came others, and then some more, until, he was chosen the king of the city. They loved him like their own, they made him their god.

I think the story must end here, if it has to end happily at all but not all stories end happily.

So, the new king was honest and strong and kingly and his subjects were happy. His kingdom spread, and all was well in his kingdom, until…

I think we must end the story here. Don’t you? But stories have their life. They end when they do and this one went on.

It went on to the day when the king was away, to a far off land on a military campaign. He rode his horse down south, deep south, as he followed the horse of Ashwamedh Yajna. There was no way he could let the horse be captured, and his hegemony challenged. The king had a kingdom to expand, a war to fight and other kingdoms to win. So, he went on. battle after battle, he won. He crushed all opposition with might, and might is always right, as it’s said.

Even here, if the story ended, I’d call it happy. It did not, and went on.

While the king was away, the ceiling of the shop he once worked in caved in and all those men and women, poor friends of the king when he was no king, were buried while alive in it. Pigeons flew with the news to the king, the king read the message and shed two drops of tears from his right eye, and two from his left one. He could weep and laugh at will, for public display. Then he spurred his horse on and won again, and again, until he had won all the land there was to win. For that was all he had ever wanted. It was him, his dreams, his vision and goals. Those poor people just never existed. 

I think that the story ends here. For now.

 

Father and Sons

I have two black and white photographs of a father posing with his sons in my family collection and one of them is older than I am. The first photograph has my grandfather and his four sons in it. In the background you can see the old and still functional dressing table at our ancestral house in Varanasi. My grandfather holds my youngest uncle in his arms. My eldest uncle, the one younger to him and my father stand from right to left. Look at the posture and the eyes of the three boys. They stand almost at attention and their eyes are locked with the lens of the camera. Probably that was how people responded to such a strange black box at their place or, they were told to look into the lens and stand in that manner. I’m sure there’s a story about the marigold garlands the three boys wear.

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In the second photograph my eldest uncle poses gracefully with his three sons. Allow me a digression here. I think that my eldest uncle was the most handsome man in our family, his younger brother, my father, was a close second in his youth. We, the sons, got some of their features, that’s all. I can recognize the smile at the face of the eldest cousin of mine. He smiles like that even today, nearly forty years later. The boys at the front are at ease. Although they are very much conscious of the camera, they have not forgotten to smile. They are in a public place and not at their house. Probably that has reduced their camera shyness. They are mentally more prepared for the camera than the three boys of the previous photograph.

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Where are the girls of the family? Well, my uncle has no daughters. That explains their absence from the photograph. My grandfather had two daughters, both elder than my youngest uncle who is right there, in the photograph. Then why are they not there? Before we proceed, here’s another photograph of the same family. In this photograph my grandmother poses for the camera with her eldest and youngest sons, and her two daughters.Yes, they are fully conscious of the camera. And yes, this photograph was definitely taken at a studio. I’m sure you have marked the absence of shoes at the feet of the two aunts of mine. Why have they not worn shoes or slippers while posing for the camera?

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Moving on from the black and white photograph of an era long past towards the coloured family photograph, we reach my youngest uncle’s family.

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Yoga at the Ghats of Varanasi

Once upon a time, not a very long time ago, for fifty years is not a long time in a city that has remained alive for over three thousand years, the ghats on River Ganga used to be places for people to start their day at. Young and old men of all ages would perform the Hindu squats and push ups, followed by exercise with clubs. Time changed and gyms became the assigned place for such activities.

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Time changed again. Yoga came to the ghats in an organized way. It began a couple of years ago and it began at only one ghat in Varanasi. Not strangely for the city of Varanasi, this life-giving activity still takes place just beside Harishchandra Ghat, the one ghat where the last rites are performed and cremation takes place. It begins with the beginning of the day. No need to wear a watch here to reach in time. Just follow the rhythm of nature and wake up with the waking sun.

Colourful plastic mats are spread in neat geometrically aligned rows and columns and young students of a nearby Sanskrit college take their position, handwritten mantra sheets in their hands. The seniors and gurus sit at the head of the staircase. Among them sits the yoga guru too. Everybody follows the step by step instructions of the yoga guru as he takes them through the asanas of the day in easy to understand language.

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It happens in Varanasi, day after day, until the river rises in the months of monsoon. Then the space is engulfed by the river and probably the yoga class takes place indoor until the water recedes and the steps of the ghat are cleaned.

Rauza Laal Khan, Raj Ghat, Varanasi

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There is a little tomb in Varanasi that Banarsis like to call the “Taj Mahal of Banaras”. It’s not a great tourist attraction as the well known circuits of the city don’t take one beyond the routine ghats, lanes, temples and Sarnath trips.  The tomb of Lal Khan, or Lal Khan’s Rauza, is a late eighteenth century structure that stands by Shershah Suri Road near River Ganges at at Raj Ghat.

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The famous Dufferin or Malviya Bridge can be seen at bottom left of the image above. This tomb is in an enclosure that also houses the excavation site of the ancient city of Kashi. There is a central building with a large dome and four minarets at the four corners of the structure. When the sun rises from behind the eastern minaret of the tomb, the view is full of peace.

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The area around the tomb is full of greenery. Well maintained lawns and well shaped shrubs characterize the view. From near the eastern boundary wall one may have a glorious view of the river below and the complete view of the bridge with its shining girders to the south. The tomb’s walls and dome have patterns in glazed tiles that have lost their sheen in two centuries and more since the tomb was made. Just like the pinnacles on the minarets of the palace of King Chet Singh at Shivala Ghat, the pinnacles of the central structure of this tomb are in very bad condition and need care and repair.

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The aura of the place is such that people are drawn towards it. In the morning one can see people walking the length of the pedestrian path all along the boundary wall, laughing, practicing asanas, or simply lounging on the grass. Rauza Lal Khan is a place worth visiting. More than that, it’s a place worth spending some time in introspection at.