I read today that Varanasi is the world’s oldest inhabited city with an unbroken lineage back to 800BC, and there is evidence of early Aryan settlements as far back as 4000 years ago. I can certainly believe it, the small alleys and dirt roads that snake around the back of the ghats look timeless, every nook and cranny seems to have grown as slowly as a snails shell, encrusted with time.
There is only one place where people have been used to dealing with tourists for as long and that is Egypt. Indeed there is graffiti in Greek script on the pyramids and when Herodotus visited well over 2000 years ago the pyramids were as far away from his time as he is from ours, so where people have been dealing with tourists for a long time they become very adept at prising money from them. When you take a walk on the ghats, taking on the strange sights and sounds, the bodies being carried down to the funeral pyres by the river, the Sadhus bathing themselves in the ash of the freshly burned corpses, the boatmen plying their trade, chai sellers, hawkers, do not expect to walk far before you have made a new friends or are surrounded by young girls asking you to launch flowers into the river for luck.
When we arrived we made for one of the best hotels in Benares (yes, the place has got two names), the Ganga View Hotel. It is a timeless place where marble meets teak and lovely, cascading rooftop balconies, full of flowers, allow you to breakfast in the sun and watch the world go by below. Inside is a music room where classical musicians occasionally play, it is there that every night a buffet meal is served so that you can meet the other guests, all of them with a few tales to tell as this is the place to be in Benares.
My favourite pastime since we arrived has been to watch the kite fights that go on above the city between nimble fingered children. They are simple one stringed kites, yet with skill they are steerable and when two kites meet they fight to see who can cut the thin thread of the other kite. It’s a serious business and I am sure that reputations have been lost and won with a few sticks and a sheet of paper. You watch the kites being played out until they are more distant than the other side of the river, or way overhead in town, then they come together and you secretly root for one or the other. When victory has been won the loser floats gently down to earth, or to float down the Ganges with the ashes and the fishes.
Merry Christmas to you all.