Accidental Tourist: Three Days in Banaras

Features Issue 71 Jul, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai

In the late ’80s I decided to make a trip to Madras, Bangalore and Puttapurti. The latter, if you don’t already know, is where Sai Baba has built his ashram and school (No, I’m not a Sai bhakta yet). The office added Calcutta (now Kolkata) to my itinerary, so I could fix up someone there to send us Nitrogen for the color lab. I was then working as a technical supervisor at Nepal Color Lab at No. 1 Freak Street and that’s where I first met people like Tom Laird, Tom Kelly, Mani Lama, Min Bajracharya, and Robert Powell when they came to have their films developed.

I walked down Freak Street to a small travel agency called BVS or something, which I think has since folded up (I hope), and booked a train ticket from Banaras to Madras (Note: Banaras as in ‘bananas’. Most westerners spell it ‘Benares’, which is actually way off). It has been called Kansi in the distant past and Varanasi in recent times. Two days later, I dropped by to confirm my ticket and the agent sitting there told me my ticket WAS CONFIRMED. He even called someone on the phone to confirm and then turning to me said, “The train to Madras leaves on Saturday, so you should be in Banaras by Friday. Catch the bus to Sunauli on Thursday.”

So I did, and arrived in Sunauli on Friday morning. I walked up to the travel agency that was supposed to hand me my train ticket and asked the Indian-looking guy sitting there, if he had my ticket for Saturday. He looked surprised and asked, “But there is no train to Madras on Saturday, how can I give you a ticket?” I lost my cool as I do once in a ‘purple’ moon. I ended up shouting and on the verge of letting out a few expletives, (I can, if the circumstances and the ambience is right), but he explained his predicament: “I’m only filling in for this guy who’s gone out. I’m from the other agency.”  That cooled me down. “So, what do I do?” I asked. “The train leaves on Monday, so if you go to Banaras today, I will deliver the ticket there. You’ll have to spend three nights there,” he replied. I had no plans for Banaras, but what could I do? And Banaras does not appeal to a young Nepali, the way it does to a foreigner, unless you are a devout Hindu nearing 70 and looking for possible exit routes. Here I was, with two extra days/three nights in Banaras and having to trust another travel agency after one had just let me down. But did I have a choice?

I crossed the border and waited for the bus to Banaras along with many foreigners. There was a rude Indian immigration official shouting at an inquisitive tourist waiting for his papers to be processed, “Keep quiet! If you want me to do your work, Keep quiet. Understand!” The poor man looked stunned and didn’t say a word again. Nice way to treat guests who bring in dollars! No wonder some tourists look so relieved when they enter Nepal from India. The bus finally arrived and we piled in. Most were tourists.

The speaker above was blaring out a Hindi song (full treble), so one of the tourists got up and pulled the wire out. Peace returned to the bus once more. Somewhere along the highway, the bus driver had a discussion with a few people and we suddenly veered towards a smaller road and stopped near a couple of huts after half an hour. We thought nothing of this, relaxed outside and had our cup of chai (as they call it in India); then another and another, but the bus wouldn't move. We were there for hours on the roadside.  Then on enquiring, I found out that some cops were checking heavy vehicles on the highway, apparently to make a fast buck. The conductor told us, "They're so corrupt, even if there's nothing wrong with the vehicle, they make us pay 500 rupees." That explained it. Finally some trucks rolled by and brought the good news that the cops had moved off. We piled in again and headed back to the highway. By the time we entered Banaras city, it was way past 10 pm. I had no idea where to go or where to stay.

I had to think quickly and decided to follow the tourists. They read Lonely Planet, and usually know a nice place to stay. Just then, I saw a couple get into one of the three-wheeler tempo taxis. I hurriedly walked up to them and asked, “Where are you guys staying tonight?” Before replying, they asked me, “Can you speak Hindi? We have to find Yogi Lodge.” When I said yes, they looked relieved and said, “Can you come with us?” They’ll never know how glad I was to join them. We needed each other.

But finding Yogi Lodge turned out to be another adventure we didn’t have in our itinerary. The tempo driver left us just outside a narrow lane and looking up, we saw a tiny, faded sign with an arrow that said, “Yogi Lodge”. We walked and walked and walked through the dark alleyways. We came across many signs that led us through many different lanes until finally, we were lost. No more signs and no sign of Yogi Lodge. After a whole day’s journey by bus and carrying rucksacks, we were exhausted. We decided to split up and look in two different directions. After a few minutes, I heard them shout, “This way!” At last we’d found it. It was almost 11 pm. Luckily, there were still a few beds available in the dorm. While we were checking in, another passenger from our bus walked in. He had taken even longer to find the lodge and sadly, the poor man was turned away. Even the dorm was full by now.

From Day One, I liked Banaras, because of its warmth (don’t know what it’s like now). It was full of life and the common factor was simplicity–simple people leading simple lives. The ghat was just a minute away from the lodge, and I would take an early morning walk to be by the holy Ganges (Ganga). The activity around the place ensures that one never gets bored. There are many taking holy dips in the water; there are wrestlers building up their muscles using age-old methods, tourists taking pictures and boatmen showing them around. I took a boat myself and looking up I saw marks high up on the walls and asked the boatman, “What are those marks on the walls,” and he replied, “When the Ganga  floods, the water rises high up there and those are marks made by oars like these.” I was astonished as they were a good twenty feet above the river’s surface, if not higher. The Ganges is always full of offerings and always full of people. It has a life of its own.

Back at the lodge, the Australian couple had found a room and had moved. Their rucksacks were gone. The dormitory was full of baggage all left in the open. We had to trust each other. There was great camaraderie among the tourists and I was glad to be one of them. In the evening, we would sit around together and someone would pull out photographs. Two of them had been to Nepal and were showing some exceptionally beautiful pictures from their trek. It was then that I realized how effective photos could be in promoting Nepal. There were many “Wows!” and most of them wanted to visit the country. (NTB could do well to promote/sponsor photo exhibitions abroad.)

The next day I went to visit Ram Nagar fort. It wasn’t far and on the way, the driver showed me a 5 star hotel, which he said was owned by the Maharaja of Banaras. He had lost his power, but still retained his title and wealth. It seems the simple people still regarded his family as royalty, as a guard at the fort asked me, “Do you also have a king?”  He was quite happy to hear that Nepal also had a king. There was much to see inside the fort and what really caught my eye was a huge wooden clock. The guide explained that it could tell not just the time, but could also accurately tell the phases of the moon and the positon of the Sun. Moreover, it was built in Banaras a century ago. “The descendants of the man who made it still take the responsibility of repairing it when it falters,” he informed.

Sometimes, Lady Luck does favor me. Returning from the fort, I wanted to take the ferry (small boat) across the river. While I waited, a man approached me and smiled. “Where are you from?” he asked and when I replied, “Nepal,” he became very interested. We began to talk and when the boat arrived, he wouldn’t let me buy a ticket and instead, got one for me. We crossed the river and before parting, he offered to show me around Banaras the next day. “Why not?” I thought. Sure enough, he was there waiting for me the next day. He had come on a scooter and we zoomed around the city. Showing me the major temples and mosques, he was my guide and would tell me, “This was a Hindu temple once, but was razed to the ground and converted into a mosque by Aurangzeb.” Or it would be a mosque converted into a Hindu temple. He would not enter a temple, but would wait outside while I took a look inside. My newly found friend was a Muslim.

Towards the evening, we drove 14 km from Banaras to beautiful Sarnath. “This is the place where Buddha preached his sermons to his followers thousands of years ago,” my friend informed me. As we were approaching Sarnath, I saw a strange sight. In this holy Buddhist site, I saw two Muslims turning towards Mecca and doing namaaz on the lovely grass field. We walked by the old stupas that are typical of the ancient stupas in India and Pakistan. They are more cylindrical and totally made of bricks with no plastering at all. The main hall here has superb paintings by a Japanese artist who has used only pastel colors. They speak of Buddha’s life. We had our dinner there and returned to the city late in the evening. It had been a most wonderful day and all because this man had chosen to befriend me. I gave him (I’ve since forgotten his name) my visiting card and he promised, “I will come to Nepal for a visit with my family.” Sadly, he never did. Perhaps, he lost my card. A small piece of paper can make a world of a difference in our lives.

On my final day in Banaras, I checked the map and discovered that the Golden temple (the famous one is in Amritsar) was only a minute’s walk away from the lodge. So, off I went and found myself confronted by a host of people selling offerings of flowers, edibles and abhir. “You can’t enter the temple without this,” they shouted in a chorus. I was outnumbered, but still hesitant. “You can pay later,” they added. So, I took one and entered. There in front of the temple was a smart, young and neatly dressed priest who greeted me very respectfully. He offered to guide me. But no sooner had we entered the temple, then he began to instruct me saying, “You have to put seven rupees here.” I complied. Then, it was eleven. When he next asked me to offer fifty-one rupees, I couldn’t take it anymore. I knew he was trying to con me and burst out, “This is not religion; this is thievery.” I started walking out, still shouting and he followed. Surprisingly, he was taken aback and even apologetic as he tried to return my money. “You keep it, I don’t want it,” I told him and headed straight for the guys who sold me the offerings. I handed back the offerings and shouted at them, “You want to know what religion is, you come to Nepal. You come to Pashupati and I will show you what religion is all about!” They were all stunned and gawked at me as I walked past them and out through the gate. I was utterly disappointed. This was supposed to be the holiest city in India. I’m not religious and never pray. Being a good human being I believe is quite enough to please the Almighty.

I did get my train ticket to Madras from the travel agency in Banaras. Bless the guy at Sunauli. I packed my rucksack and headed towards the train station. On the way, I stopped at a restaurant and was eating my lunch when I noticed three girls glancing at me and smiling at each other. They looked Tibetan, so I asked them where they were from. “She’s from Shillong, she’s from Kalimpong and I’m studying in Sarnath,” one said. Sometimes Lady Luck is not with me; I was leaving Banaras in less than an hour. Could have made friends, but time was running out and I hurriedly said “Goodbye” and left.

I did make it to Madras on a train in which all the passengers (South Indians) in my compartment, put out the lights and went to sleep at 9 pm sharp. I had to stop reading, switch off the light and follow suit (when in Rome...doesn’t matter if it’s a train). It was raining in Madras—Fort Museum was fascinating (Read Robert Clive’s letter to his bosses in Britain claiming he could take Calcutta if they sent reinforcements immediately). Went on to Bangalore—Liked M.G.Road—saw “The Last Emperor”. I then visited the Sai Baba at Puttapurti and met a gentle couple from Bhotebasti in Darjeeling. The man became my guide and would make me queue up for a bath at 4:30am. We slept in a huge hall and every night the musicians from Andhra Pradesh who had come to celebrate Baba’s birthday, would practice. They were superb and played something akin to jazz. Reminded me of an American pianist at the Soaltee, way back in the early ‘80s, who used to say, “The South Indian musicians, they play jazz, man!” And the stick dances were incredible. I left Puttapurti a day before Baba’s B’day and the devotees assembled there couldn’t believe their eyes, “YOU ARE LEAVING?” they asked wide-eyed. Foreigners had arrived from Russia and Europe to celebrate, so my leaving was sacrilegious. With a stupid grin on my face, I walked through the crowd that stared back at me in disbelief.

 I made a short visit to Calcutta, which for me is the warmest city in India. Having lived there for my graduation from St. Xavier’s College in Park Street, I have fond memories of the old city. Finally, I returned to Kathmandu. When I reached my flat in Kupondol, I discovered that my well-educated, English speaking landlady had broken my lock, had packed up all my belongings and put them in one corner. “We need your flat for my brother-in-law’s wedding,” she said nonchalantly. Nice welcome! Well, all great stories don’t have a great ending.
Back in Freak Street the next day, I gave a compelling display of my Kiranti wrath, which did the trick. The idiot at the travel agency complied with my wishes and reimbursed me the hotel expenses I had incurred in Banaras. Little did he know that I had enjoyed the visit so
much, and that I was secretly thanking him. 

Sincere thanks to Rabi Thapa of ‘Sacred Summits’ for his invaluable help in finding the relevant photographs.