“We are all of us pilgrims that struggle along different paths towards the same destination.”
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Years ago, I wandered the streets and back alleys of Varanasi, not sure where I had landed and not really old enough to process it all. I warn people not to go there on their first trip to India- it’s too raw, too intense. Having turned fifty, I feel ready to go back and see the city at the midpoint of my life. I arrive late in the day and check into the famous Ganges View Guest House, the ‘must stay’ in Varanasi. I hire a boat and a guide for a night tour of the Ghats (temples) to watch the cremation fires. As we chug against the current, the noisy diesel engine keeps a steady beat with water lapping on the sides of the boat. My overly eager guide can’t stop explaining irrelevant details about the town. His phrase “the place where people come to learn and burn” stays stuck in my mind. Tourists from all over India—-and the world—-snap pictures of the cremation fires on the shores, the men tending the blazes in constant motion, family members sit quietly talking: life and death go on hand in hand. This is Varanasi.
The next morning I walk up the river seeing all of the incredible temples from the shore. I snap pictures of the graffiti and chalk drawings on the ground, noting colors for new prints. Centuries old temples line the waterway, endless steps trail down to the river, filled with devotees alongside cows, goats and water buffalo.
The steps end in amphitheaters, where women in bright pink and yellow saris, shirtless men in white dhotis, all zestfully dip into the dark churning waters of the river. Cows attempt to eat offerings, shooed away by the priests. Monkeys dance along the perimeter of the Hanuman temple, sadhus covered in ash pray and request tea money for their offerings. Walking along with Indian tourists, young couples pose for pictures along the river, everyone’s in some way at peace, having a grand time. I start to understand what the river means to the Indians. Mother Ganges is a sacred town like so many things in India that are sacred; it is filled with life and fills your life too.
My days start in Varanasi, on the river, and end at the chill Ganges View hotel. The owner lounges in the lobby, clad in all white. He blithely directs his own ship, ordering fellows to change up the rooms, get this guest a tea, take that guest to the antique shop down the lane by the sweet shop. This last guest is myself, and I meet the owner of an old Haveli who leads me up and up through small dark hallways to a sitting room where he unpacks antique textiles, photos and tantric drawings. I try to conceal my excitement so as to negotiate somewhat. Stumbling out into the blazing sunlight I get lost going back to my hotel. Tiny lanes meander on, pilgrims make offerings; flower sellers display jumbled baskets of flowers in pinks, yellows and reds—-a drawing waiting to happen. I take note, buy some offerings, and lay them down on the little shrines all along the way.
The road is a source of treasure, I am transformed and still tempted by people unmet and places unseen. I hope to bring this curiosity to my work, my prints, my designs.