by Gabriella Sonabend
Yesterday was another early start as I had organised to meet Norman in Assi at 6.30am to take a motorbike trip around the edge of Varanasi, along the Panch Kosi route. The Panch Kosi is a famous pilgrimage route, which was first officially recorded in the 10th Century. The 58km route encircles Varanasi and passes 108 temples taking five to six days to walk, (factoring in time for worship at the various temples).
The Panch Kosi came about because once pilgrims had arrived in Varanasi, (often after months and years of walking to this holy site), they no longer wanted to leave the city, (for fear of dying outside of Kashi) Thus, a trail was established, which would allow these practitioners to make pilgrimage within the official holy boundaries of the city (between the Assi and Varuna river). New temples were built along the route; amongst these were five particularly holy and auspicious sites. To accommodate for the many pilgrims who would undertake this five day journey, large tanks filled with fresh ground water were built beside larger temples for bathing and washing and lodgings were offered in temples along the way. The pilgrims also attracted a degree of commerce and trade and small stalls popped up along the route offering food and refreshment. Although this route has been known to pilgrims and Hindus for many hundreds of years due to its length it is somewhat off the tourist track (especially at 6.30 in the morning).
I have no idea what to expect as I excitedly hop on Norman’s bike at Assi. Within less than half an hour the city has disappeared behind us and we are headed for rural India. Here single settlements line the one road and behind them lays acres of field and farmland. At this time of the morning the villagers are waking and beginning to go about their daily business, which involves relieving themselves in the fields, washing their children, building small fires and cooking outside their homes. The morning air is surprisingly cold and shockingly fresh as we head further and further from the city. The land we drive through becomes increasingly more idyllic; the children seem happier and safer; even the animals seem more contented. The fields around us are dressed in the misty gold morning light, which delicately hovers and creates ripples of golden cloud in the horizon. As we drive through different settlements people walk up to the road to watch us pass., Here every traveler is on foot or cycle and we are almost the only powered vehicle on the road. When we stop to take photos of the temples or the landscape children encircle me and stare unashamedly at my funny clothes, large camera and enormous helmet. They are perplexed by my image, which is so incredibly foreign and I can’t blame them for their intrigue. I am equally intrigued by them and I find myself standing beside the road staring at a group of villagers as they stare back at me. We both watch each other unflinching in equal fascination.
The oldest temple along the route is surrounded by monkeys who are quick to steal and consume the garland of flowers, which I am cajoled into buying at the temple. The women of the area have gathered early to sing the songs of the Kartika month. They sit cross-legged in a circle inside the temple; they clap and make flower garlands. Behind them the sun slowly rises over the large stone tank of water and young men bath in its twinkling reflection. We pass a beautiful old building, which looks close to buckling, the roof has already collapsed and trees and grasses now grow through the cracks in the brickwork, filling entirely what once might have been a large haveli style room.
As the journey continues I am struck by two thoughts. One, I am a big fan of motorbikes and two the area surrounding Varanasi is exceptionally beautiful. I am quite amazed that all of the land within the route we are travelling is considered part of Varanasi proper, this challenges my notion of the city and makes the Varanasi pilgrimage seem a much more romantic and desirable pursuit. We drive for hours and I relish the feeling of freedom, which being on a bike creates. By about 10am we have completed the pilgrimage route and have arrived back in the city where the pollution weighs heavy, my hair and clothes quickly become coated in dust and dirt. Norman takes me to the area where the British had once built their bungalows and established a mint house. Here are the two grand hotels, which were once gems in Varanasi. Now they look derelict and faded and it is hard to believe that they are still open to guests.
I am exhausted from the ride and famished, so Norman drops me at the Aum cafe in Assi where I order an enormous plate of chocolate chip pancakes and sit with Kathrin excitedly talking about the holiday we have planned together. I attempt to coax Norman into coming for breakfast, I wish that I could at least buy him some fluffy American style pancakes as small thanks for the great morning adventure, but, true to character, he refuses. It is incredibly hard to find a way to thank such an extremely generous and humble man! Kathrin and I go to a traditional Indian sweet shop to buy gifts for Diwali and I buy a box of treats for Tiiu to celebrate her birthday.
In the evening we eat together in the residency and Tiiu’s friends from Russia and Estonia join us. We drink Estonian gin, (I drink mango juice instead), and eat cakes. We talk about the various political problems within our respective countries and Terry tries to list great Australian inventions. (For some reason being Australian makes him vulnerable to endless teasing). We debate whether Bush is worse than Putin. We talk of the horrors of uranium exportation and fracking, and eventually we talk about how amazing it is that we live in an age where such a diverse group of people can travel and meet this way in India. We sing happy birthday to Tiiu in our respective languages. On Thursday the Estonians will be leaving the residency; this is our last night together at Kriti.