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Notes on Antique Textiles, Folk Art & Timeless Traditions – Jaina Mishra

The City of Benaras

“Yeh Benaras Hai”

Literally it means “This is Banaras” but the tone included pride and an assurance – a way of saying “Don’t worry – it’s okay – this is Banaras – there is no need to worry”.

This is the call I heard 3 or 4 times when the locals sitting around saw me gawking at some sight that I found interesting as I walked through the lanes of Banaras.

Here are some of the interesting spots at which I managed to stop in my tracks, get out the phone & take some shots  of this amazing city:

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Reminded me of the Bihari salesman I’d met in Okinawa – he spoke Bhojpuri (a dialect of Hindi) and he spoke Japanese but did not speak English at all! To my unenlightened ignorant mind that had been moulded by the British-Raj legacy this had seemed mysterious!! Of course once I thought about it, I realised that it is the other option – of having English as an intermediate learning step when neither of his two worlds needed the language – that would have been completely absurd! Imagine a Frenchman needing to learn Sanskrit so that he could mastr German!??!

Similarly to find an advertisement that was crated to appeal to the Japanese and not the Europeans,  surprised me.

 

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Roadside shrines at every corner!

 

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We went during the monsoon floods when the mighty Ganga was mightier than it had ever been in the past decade and the river was swollen well above the danger mark. The waters had climbed the ghat steps and gotten into the lanes – making our feet, ankles and calves very very wet.

But I didn’t mind.

Because along these wet paths, there were many delightful discoveries waiting.

Such as this evening school in which little boys learnt sanskrit shlokas and mantras from their guru!

Maybe someday I will join them as a student.

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**

The floor-level windows of most houses along the lanes of Banaras, allow us all to become peeping-toms without much effort. And  getting a glimpse of the inner lives of others is always interesting!

So in the picture below, a resident conducts his puja with arti inside is home.

He is not necesarily a priest – these are just normal people  performing their morning prayers.

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A better photo after some photoshop:

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Here is a priest in another house:

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What a contrast to have him entrenched in the traditional ways of life AND using modern technology!

The words “Yeh Benaras Hai”!!!! echo in my mind….

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**

This man runs a little store near a temple. And while we rested there, he generously answered all my inquisitive questions and shared the story of why he had Mehndi on his hands. [The reason for my curiosity is that I had always believed that henna is used only by women.]

The henna is from the festival Raksha Bandhan when a sister ties a protective band called the Rakhi on the brother’s wrist in order to protect him. [In the days this custom came about the men went to battle and needed diving blessings such as these for protection. Today’s world is slightly different ….].

So in Benaras or perhaps all of UP the sisters also put henna on the brother’s hands during this festival! So so cute!!

All that I manage is to put a huge large teeka on my cousin brother’s forehead!!

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Next year I shall *try* to add henna to our ritual!

This interaction was an eye-opener – for once again it had been proved that what I do not know about India is like an ocean and what I do know is a microscopic drop.

**

The season of festivals starts with Raksha Bandhan that is in July/ August and then one after the other the weeks are dotted with one festivity or another. So Raksha Bandhan was just over a few days ago – as evidenced by the man’s fading henna – and the next festival was just 2 days away – Janmashtami i.e. Lord Krishna’s birthday. This is celebrated with great excitement in many parts of India, including Benaras.

Now miniature idols of many of the Gods are kept in the home shrines of Hindus. And there are tiny little clothes for each tiny idol.  And on the birthday, one of the things people do, is to decorate the shrine and get brand new clothes for the idol.

Here they are on sale:

The Idols

The Idols

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The clothes for the idols

 

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And interested buyers.

My late grandmother used to procure these festive clothes –  shiny and decorated with gold trim – from special markets in Bhuleshwar in Bombay. But for daily wear, the idols were given clothes she made herself with scraps of cloth saved from other sewing projects.

Here are 3 pieces I stumbled upon in her home-shrine shelf that will now, always remain in the work-in-process state. I have added them to my woven-souls collection of textiles.

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To be slipped on over the head through that little diamond shaped hole. Each is about 1 finger long.

These are the most precious textile I own as they contain her yog-daan and is infused with her soul.

**

Back to some fun.

In Bollywood hit films like ‘Dabang’ and ‘Omkara’ – the character of the UP policemen shown is so so adorable.  They are uniformed men with strength of character naturally – but the bestest part of the character is the strong desi flair to their personality – very earthy & very Indian – and totally adorable!

And I thought these people existed only in the movies. But they DO exist in real life. Here is the story of a 60 second encounter:

So in the market square as I tried to find a cycle-rickshaw to go into some particularly crowded areas, the rickshawwala informed me that they are not allowed to go into those lanes and that I’d have to walk over 50 metres and get another one.

Which – for the ‘abala naari’ that I am – was too much to do. [abala naari = helpless woman (a term used to poke fun at ourselves) ].  So instead, I decided to ask the police officer sitting there with his BIG gun whether there was some other easier way out.

The conversation went as follows:

Me: So we want to go to XYZ place with the rickshaw… but there is this barricade …so how should we do it?

Real Life Dabang Police Officer: Just go right ahead

Me: But this rickshawla says it’s not allowed

Real Life Dabang Police Officer: “Yahaan ke Rajah Hum hain – hum keh rahey hain ke allowed hai – toh allowed hai – Jayiye aap” = The King of this place is Me – so if I say it is allowed – then it means that you are allowed – you may proceed!

Now this scene is so straight-out-of-Bollywood that I totally thoroughly loved it!!

On the return journey I stopped to take a photo with him (don’t want him to get into trouble so I’ve covered his face). He of course was least bothered with my selfie-taking session and continued his phone call as though I was just some fly in his environment!

Sssoooo Dabang!!

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Note: Now the policemen of India have a personality that is totally different and unimaginably unique . They simply have NO parallel elsewhere. It would be as pointless to use the image of the Hollywood policeman to imagine the UP policeman – as it would be to use the idea of  Black Pepper to imagine Wasabi. Completely futile.

This 60-second interaction was among the top 8417 highlights of the 3-day trip.

**

On the last morning, before we left – from my breakfast table at the hotel on the banks of the river, I could hear some hymn-singing accompanied by the clinking of brass manjiras and bells. I abandoned the food and walked out of the hotel to check this out.

On the large ledge attached to the hotel building, a group of older men were seated, spread out on a few cloth mats surrounded by worship paraphernalia. They were performing the morning puja of the holy river Ganga. I walked up to them and with a nod, asked permission to join them.   [I am aware that there is a gender segragation in U.P. and the permission to join them was not something to take for granted.] But they kindly said yes and I went up and sat with them cross-legged on the floor mat. One white-bearded man silently handed me manjiras and I participated in the hymn singing with them. No words exchanged. All 8-9 of us just sat there and sang / hummed. No audience. No selfies. No other people. Just us and the magnificent river before us.

Perhaps this was the best way to say goodbye to this intense city.

 

jm

Sep 2016

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2 comments on “The City of Benaras

  1. Pingback: Ganga Diaries | The Wovensouls Journal

  2. Leonie Andrews
    October 2, 2016

    Thank you for this wonderful post and for sharing your experiences. I have only been to Benares once many decades ago, this story brings back happy memories .

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