Shot of the Day - Brocade Weaving Machine

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Finally landing in Varanasi airport after a 2 hour delay due to the dense fog that has gripped the northern part of India over the last week, and receiving our lei of marigold flowers, we felt very special and welcomed. Driving out of the airport I was struck by the massive construction project to build a raised highway above the current one – expected total completion time is 2 years, that’s unbelievably fast. This modern construction is in stark contrast to the condition of the surrounding buildings along the highway. Soon we would learn that the bulk of 4 million inhabitants of the city especially in the area surrounding the Ganges, live in buildings and on streets that in my eyes can only be compared to a city that has been bombed. Dirt and dust, crumbling walls, roofs that will appear to not provide rain protection, electrical cables and city plumbing that truly defy any concept of engineering standards, lack of sidewalks and claustrophobically sized narrow streets that have barely enough room for two people to walk let alone cows, bulls, carts and motorcycles. We did not see any street lights or lines on the streets as this was a decision made since they found that rules on the streets were less effective that letting the chaos manage itself – per our guide “there are no rules, just a mutual understanding”. Wow! I am resigned to the fact that I will never want to or be able to drive in this city, I would be in an accident in the first 10 minutes. That said, they all find their way and everyone seems to have a spiritual calm about themselves.

While we felt we were getting used to the traffic and constant horn blowing in Delhi, we quickly learned that was just kindergarten compared to the sheer volume of the relentless honking that we would face over the next two days, it was in fact deafening. While there are many cars and trucks, they appeared to be totally out numbered by motorcycles and scooters. One can’t imagine the sheer chaos when thousands of cars, motorcycles and rickshaws, all decide they want to navigate the same narrow streets leading to the Ganges along with the thousands of pedestrians, both visitors and inhabitants. Trying to capture this chaos photographically is a challenge, and while I did try, I wished I had my drone, as I feel the aerial view would have better luck. I am now convinced, the streets of Varanasi would win the world’s top prize of the “Chaos Award” should there ever be a competition.

Our initial event was an Aarti, a daily celebration just after sunset, that pays homage to the power of the Ganges. Held on it’s shores and attended by thousands of people in chairs, we swept up in the excitement. I was blessed by a man who has no clothes and is painted in white, and who has dedicated his life and given up his worldly possessions to be a self professed spiritualist. The event was spectacular as the 7 golden silk clad brahmans led the ceremony using fire, water, drums, flowers and incense to make the connections with the Ganges.

The next morning found us heading back to the Ganges, on the same streets that only 10 hours before were teaming with people and chaos, and now are empty – my ears were thankful. Watching the locals take in their morning rituals of bathing and drinking in (literally) the water of the Ganges, while monkeys, dogs and cows ran amuck around us. We climbed aboard our small boat to have a tour of the Ganges, captained by a talented young boy who could not have been older than 14. Men, women and boys bathing, women washing their clothes and the local feeding the seagulls by calling out to them with a haunting howl – and the birds flock to their feeders. The buildings built along the shores of the Ganges, were both very colourful and in various states of repair, rose high into the air and seemed to form a fortress wall to the city. Some were king’s houses and now hotels, temples, housing. The buildings are divided in to 84 ghat’s named after a variety of religious and famous people/deities.

Through the fog, we approached the crematorium on the banks. Some fires were lit as the dead were being burned. This process goes on 24 hours a day. After landing the boat, we walked behind the crematorium through the narrow streets, where I was almost run over by a bull and motorcycle. These streets, or should I say alleyways, are narrow and wind so crazily, one would be lost in a moment if you weren’t with a local. Streets have no names, locations are described only by their proximity to major landmarks. How do they live in these broken, crumbling and filthy buildings? However they do. Locals across the city can be seen warming themselves by fires with wood that has been provided for by the city.

After breakfast at the hotel, we went to Sarnath, which is a major archeological dig that uncovered significant Buddha artifacts, statues and “stupas” (structures built like mounds and carrying significant spiritual weight). This location was where Buddha’s first public talk was given. I found it interesting that the beliefs of Buddhism have many parallels to other world religions, including Christianity – it’s all about living a life based on goodness and respect for others.

My engineering interests picked up when we entered a silk and brocade factory owned by a family whose business has been based in Varanasi for generations. The equipment they use to manufacture these painstakingly intricate metallic threaded woven art pieces, was both fascinating but technically mind blowing. The old manual machines that were invented in France, use the concept of a series of punch cards that hold the designs, and the machine is operated by the artist using wooden pedals, my pictures are the only way to describe them.

Back at the hotel we relaxed on the terrace overlooking the gorgeous grounds that included, rose gardens, 6 hole golf course, prayer temples and many peacocks roaming the lush green tree covered property. It was an opportunity to enjoy my first cigar of the journey enhanced by a glass of Glenmorangie scotch with a Kingfisher beer chaser – aaah! Paula had a nice glass of Shiraz.

At night we made our way back to the shores of the Ganges to watch the ceremonies from a boat. This was the highlight of the trip to Varansi. Our boat moved close to the shores near the crematorium. I was not allowed to take photos that close due to respect for the dead and their mourners, we watched from a mere 30 meter distance, the many activities involved with the cremation of the dead. We counted 22 fires burning and while we were there another 5 or so colourfully dressed dead souls were brought into the area and dipped into the water of the Ganges to prepare them to be cremated.

We headed back after the ceremony along the streets, that since it was Saturday night, were unbelievably busier then they were the night before.

has left an indelible impression on my very being. Sight, Sound, Spiritually – I have been touched and I know that I am a bit different because our visit here. If you want to witness the true India, visit Varanasi.


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