Monday 29 October 2018

The Lanes of Varanasi

Varanasi, also known as Benares sits on the banks of the River Ganges and is the holiest city in Hinduism and Jainism. It also played an important part in the development of Buddhism, the Buddha having given his first sermon at nearby Sarnath in 528 BCE. Archaeological evidence has been discovered dating back to 1800 BCE making Varanasi one of the longest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

The subject of many travel shows, it is known for its Hindu cremations on the ghats (steps) leading to the Ganges. It is a place of pilgrimage and a somewhere devout Hindus may go to die as played out in the recent film Salvation Hotel. But Varanasi is also a place full of life. Its narrow lanes and bustling bazaars are packed with shoppers, sellers, sadhus and pilgrims all competing for space with cows, goats and dogs. Above the lanes monkeys travel from roof to roof, sometimes descending to steal food from the market stalls. Travellers are often advised to "look up" so as not to miss delights above street level. The same is true here but it is also advisable to look down and step carefully due to the number of animals in the street.

During the few days I recently spent in the city most of the ghats were under water due to a particularly heavy monsoon. I spent most of my time doing what I enjoy most, wandering the streets, meeting people and attempting to capture the experience with my camera. I stayed in a hotel on the river side, stepping through the door straight into the lanes. Early morning is an interesting time to be out and an opportunity to see the city coming to life. At this time the lanes are full of pilgrims on their way to the Ganges for early morning pujas (prayer rituals), shop keepers opening up and small cafes preparing and selling breakfast to locals and visitors alike. Savouries, chai and other treats are on sale everywhere whilst fruit and vegetable vendors are already on the street, displaying their goods to passer-by. Turning a corner I noticed a woman crouched on the ground selling huge coconuts and a selection of green vegetables. She was accompanied by her son Jyoti, aged 8. I was struck by the contrast between her vibrant green sari and the terracotta coloured wall against which they had set up shop. But more touching was Jyoti's affectionate attitude to his mum as he placed a protective hand on her shoulder.

Although most of the ghats were flooded I was able to visit one that stands at a higher level. Groups of people and lone devotees were descending into the water whilst others sat on the steps, participating in prayers led by priests and sadhus. Others were purchasing ground haldi (turmeric) from women vendors which would then be used for ritual purposes and in some cases. Still others were being shaved by one of the many barbers who work on the ghats. The pilgrims included a group of men from south India. I observed one of them for some time. Of striking appearance, he alternated between prayers, making calls on his mobile and taking selfies. I couldn't resist taking his picture.

Varanasi receives visits from millions of pilgrims every year. There are hundreds of small hostels that specialise in receiving them, many of them charging very small amounts for a place to sleep and a little food each day. For the poorest of visitors a range of charitable organisations or private individuals provide simple free accommodation. Some of the pilgrims collect alms in the street either for distribution to charitable institutions or to sustain themselves whilst in the city and on the journey home. I came across a man sitting against a wall in a dark, covered alley leading to one of the ghats holding out a silver tin for passers-by to donate. The sunlight from the street pierced the darkness around him, lighting up the wall's crumbling yellow plaster and his brilliant ochre head covering.

Still in the lanes, I was approached by an elderly woman who invited me to take her picture. She explained that she was a pilgrim and that she was extremely happy to be in Varanasi. After standing for a photograph, she smiled and asked me for some money. I was happy to hand over a small amount of rupees and she was happy to receive them, checking that I was not angry with her before she moved on. I like her style. India is one of only two Hindu majority countries in the world, the other being Nepal. It is not surprising then that there are many Nepalese visitors in Varanasi, predominantly in groups and immediately identifiable by the small caps worn by most of the men.

Business of all kinds is conducted in Varanasi's narrow lanes. Spices, fruit, vegetables, religious items and clothing are available here as well as kitsch tourist souvenirs. Countless stalls offer chai (several cups of which I managed to consume each day) whilst others sell paan. Paan is a preparation that combines the betel leaf with the areca nut which is then chewed for its stimulant effects before being spat out or swallowed. When spat out it leaves deep red, stains wherever it lands. There are numerous variations of paan some of which add tobacco. Some vendors claim positive health effects for paan.  A character in Rohinto Mistry's novel Such A Long Journey sells paan that can address any or all of your problems. However the World Health organisation advises that consumption, with or without tobacco, increases the risk of oral cancer. Despite this its use is widespread in much of Asia and it is easy to purchase.

Varanasi is known for its many sadhus, Hindu men (and occasionally women) who live a life of asceticism having renounced worldly things. They are easily identified with their simple clothing which often includes saffron coloured robes and spiritual markings on their face and body. Committed to a life of spiritual discipline, meditation and self-denial some of them will give blessings and carry out rituals or other religious services for a fee. The sadhus pictured below were collecting alms and sitting on a platform on which various boarding houses were advertised. As if to demonstrate the visual delights of the city, they sat just a few steps away from a paan seller and a group of women enjoying a cooling yoghurt drink after a hard morning in the bazaar.

In Kolkata I made an early morning visit to an akhadi, a traditional exercise centre, to see kushti wrestlers practising their skills, lifting weights and performing gymnastics. It was a dark morning and the pictures I came away with were a little disappointing due to my poor low light photography skills. All was not lost as I had scheduled a similar visit in Varanasi. 

The Tulsi Akhada is located beside the Tulsi Ghat on the banks of the Ganges. I arrived at around 6.30 a.m. to find some of its members already exercising or preparing to take part in kushti. Over the course of an hour, perhaps 20 men of varying age arrived to make use of both traditional and modern strength building equipment and to participate in wrestling. There is evidence that these facilities are dying out as younger men in particular prefer to exercise in a modern gymnasium which is sad given their long tradition. These traditions include a strong spiritual dimension. The Tulsi Akhadi has a tiny Hanuman shrine and every morning a ritual is undertaken before the kushti begins. Wrestling is an important and popular sport in India and one in which the country has won several medals internationally. Many champions have been discovered through the akhadi system and its supporters hope that renewed interest in the sport will help ensure its preservation. 

Back on the lanes, the Trivedi brothers saw me before I saw them. They waved to me from the open window of their animal foodstuffs shop and invited me in to sit with them for a while. Their family has been running this business for three generations but has lived in the city for much longer. They were very proud to tell me that one of their brothers is a doctor and that another works in government. They also wanted to know about me and my life in London. When I rose to leave, a cow was standing at the door refusing to budge and making it impossible for me to exit. One of the brothers saved the day by climbing over it and enticing it away with a bowl of animal feed before joining the other brother at the window to wave goodbye. It is always nice when hosts don't want you to leave but this was something new for me.

There are delights and surprises hidden around every corner here. In close proximity to a shop-house with hand painted figures on the exterior, a goat passed nonchalantly underneath someone's washing line. And a few minutes further on I turned into a narrow alley where I came across a beautiful haveli. The external walls were decorated with paintings of dancers, aristocrats being carried by elephants, and other figures whilst a stunning arched entrance was surrounded with floral motifs. This building would not have looked out of place amongst the beautiful havelis of Churu, Rajasthan. 

Beautiful doorways are commonplace in Varanasi. Many of them have small representations of Ganesha, Hanuman and other Hindu deities above the entrance, protecting the home and those who live there. Others are decorated with hand painted designs indicating a recent wedding. One of my favourites has a brightly coloured sunburst motif, floral designs on the pillars flanking the doorway and striped vases on the lintels. Delightful.

During my recent visit to India I was fortunate to be able to meet many ordinary, working people and to hear a little about their lives. In Varanasi I met a 38 year-old weaver called Mohammed. It was well into the evening when I met him, still working at his loom where he had sat since early that morning. He looked younger than his stated age but was very thin and told me that it was difficult to manage with two children aged below three years to feed and clothe and eventually to send to school. He makes beautiful saris on a hand operated loom, hard physical work for which he receives just 200 rupees per day. The person who owns the business will employ many weavers. The saris are much prized and sell for 15,000 rupees or more. I met Mohammed on my final evening in Varanasi, a sober end to my time there.

You can see more pictures from India here.

Tuesday 16 October 2018

Moshe Gerstel and Haifa, City of the Future

During the 1930's Haifa was often referred to as the "city of the future". It underwent significant development in the inter-war years when the Hadar HaCarmel neighbourhood was established with Modernism as the dominant architectural style. Perhaps the most iconic of the new buildings was the market hall of Shuk HaTalpiyot on Sirkin Street.

The shuk was built in response to the events of the Arab revolt of 1937-39 which caused the Jewish residents of the mainly Arab lower city area to flee the area and Jews from across Haifa to no longer feel safe to visit the markets there. Consequently plans were made to build a major market in the centre of Jewish Hadar. The site selected was extremely challenging, located on a steep slope on rocky ground. Nonetheless a design competition was held and architect Moshe Gerstel, working with engineer C. Cohen submitted the winning entry. His design was judged unanimously to be the best as it addressed the difficult issues of the site and required only local materials. Construction commenced in 1939 and the building was inaugurated in April 1940 when the city's Mayor praised the architect who "with imagination and ingenious creativity gave this city of the future a structure in which she can take pride". 

Gerstel's design included a rectangular structure at the front of the  building and a circular market hall to the rear. The stalls were arranged over three floors underneath a glass roof that flooded the building with natural light. There were also to be stalls on the ground floor and in the basement. Horizontal ribbon windows covered the surface of both parts of the building, giving views over the city and the bay. The exterior is striking due to the bands dividing the levels and the decorative fins above the main entrance. The fins are separated by a glass ladder, allowing even more natural light to flow in. The shuk quickly became a focal point for Haifa's Jewish residents. Nissim Levi describes it as "...the biggest and fanciest shopping centre in the Middle East...The central structure was roofed with a brilliant glass ceiling and the sunlight that seeped inside glittered on the fresh fruits and vegetables and created a colourful celebration that the eye can never get enough of". He also recalled  the wide range of products available and the songs and slogans made up by the vendors to attract customers.

Sadly the building has been allowed to deteriorate terribly and when I last visited two years ago only the basement remained in use for the sale of produce. The ground floor had a few low quality stalls and the upper levels were sealed off. Many of the windows were broken and feral cats roamed about. Netting had been installed to prevent pigeons causing further damage but serious action is required if the building is to survive. 

Gerstel was an extremely interesting character. Born in Galicia, Poland in 1886 he studied in Lviv and Vienna, saw active military service in the First World War and then lived and worked in Bucharest from 1922 to 1935, where he designed many buildings. He made aliyah in 1935. Settling in Haifa, he established a life long friendship with Hajj Tahir Karaman, a successful Arab businessman and deputy mayor of the city. Although Karaman was an Arab nationalist he was not opposed to co-operating with Jews and recommended Gerstel to several other wealthy Arab families who commissioned him to design homes for them. Their friendship was so strong that when the Gerstel family were in financial difficulties, Karaman not only took them in but added four rooms to his own home for them. Gerstel designed a house for his friend in the same street as the Shuk and continued designing for the family even when they left Haifa after 1948.

Karaman's recommendations resulted in commissions for three adjacent residential properties on Tchernikovsky Street on Mount Carmel. These include the Agnes Khouri house at number 29, built in 1937 and which has a spectacular glazed curved corner. One of the three properties is now divided into two with a Jewish family living in one half and an Arab family in the other, perhaps continuing the architect's tradition of good inter-communal relations. Gerstel's star began to fade in the 1950's but he remained in Haifa until he died in 1961. Several of his buildings have survived until today.

Sunday 7 October 2018

Mumbai stories - 2 The Lives Of Others

One of the great things about travel is the opportunity it offers to meet and hear the stories of people whose lives are different to our own. During my recent time in India I met many people who were happy to give me a little of their time, to tell me about themselves and who in turn wanted to know about me. Several times I was struck by people's attitudes to their lives, accepting what had been dealt to them and displaying a generous heart to a stranger who they are unlikely to meet again. I was to witness this approach to life throughout my visit but perhaps no more so than in a few days I spent in the streets and bazaars of Mumbai, often thought of as one of India's most modern cities but which still has many neighbourhoods in which the old India can still be found.

Samuel, Gates of Mercy Synagogue "I am happy here"
Masjid Bunder is one such place. Mumbai is home to the last numerically significant Jewish community of India. About 3,000 Jews remain in a city of more than 20 million people. There are still a number of working houses of prayer but attendance dwindles as the community becomes smaller. The Gates of Mercy synagogue is tucked away behind a wall in Masjid Bunder. Masjid generally means mosque but was also the local term for synagogue. Bunder means port. I was welcomed to the building by the keeper, former print worker Samuel aged 72. He told me a little about the history of the building and invited me to light a candle whilst he said a blessing. He said that there are no longer enough congregants for a daily minyan (prayers) but that he receives many visitors from overseas as well as from community members. He went on to explain that although he might be better off in Israel where several of his friends and relatives now live, he is too attached to his neighbourhood to leave. "When I close the doors of the synagogue I know I will meet friends in the street and we will stop to talk for a while. I would miss that. I am happy here".

Water carrier
Outside the chai shop
Still in Masjid Bunder, a short walk from the synagogue there is a street in which all day long porters carry water from a well to local restaurants and temples. It is easy to identify these workers. They carry large metal jugs and trail backwards and forwards to the well possibly hundreds of times during their working day. Although water is available inside the buildings, temples prefer water from the well for rituals and ceremonies and some of the businesses may only have access to running water for a limited number of hours each day. There is also an excellent chai shop in this street and as I waited for my drink I was able to watch the continuous procession of water carriers as well as to exchange a few words with some of them as they took a short break for chai. Some sat in groups, others alone, seemingly lost in thought. One man with startlingly white hair. He is pictured above. His fatigue is obvious and his hair colour and white stubble make him appear older than he may be, but his eyes shine and his face carries a hint of a smile. 

It was whilst drinking my chai that I noticed Manjula. A tiny woman with vivid hennaed hair, she smiled and stopped to talk. She carried a heavy bag full of snacks that she had made to sell from door to door. Looking tired and older than her 62 years she told me that her son had some problems that made it difficult for him to work and so she tries to make a little money in order to get by. She had hennaed her hair a few weeks earlier so that she would look her best at a relative's wedding, She smiled at the memory of that happy day. I wanted to buy a chai for her or to purchase some of the snacks. She refused saying that she believes her life is difficult because of something she did in a previous incarnation. She does not wish to build up debts for a future life and believes that if she makes amends now things will be better next time. She shed a tear whilst talking and my guide hugged her calling her aunty. And off she went. The lives of others.

Manjula offered to share an apple with me. She was not the only person to display such generosity that morning. An older man sitting amongst a group of porters said that he was looking for a job. Also a porter he explained that he gets less work now than when he was younger and asked if I knew of anywhere he could find permanent employment. He said that he would even come to London with me if I could find work for him. Despite this, he wanted to buy tea for me, an offer I had to decline.

Porter in Masjid Bunder
The Bhendi Bazaar is a sprawling market in South Mumbai. It is said that its name originates from colonial times when the British referred to it as behind the bazaar in reference to its close proximity to Crawford Market. Residents of the area are primarily Muslim although the traders are drawn from various faiths. Shoppers can buy meat, fruit, vegetables and spices here as well as household goods and the services of various repairers. 

Suleiman is 72 years old. He was born in Zanzibar into a Gujarati family that had lived there for a couple of generations. They were forced to leave in the 1970's when many Asian families were expelled from East Africa. He works in one of the narrow lanes of the bazaar and keeps the tools of his trade in a cupboard that he unlocks every morning. He was repairing an iron when I met him but he told me I can repair anything. Like Manjula he said that he accepts what life has given him and is thankful for the good things. Before we parted he asked me to come and see him again. I would like that.

Just around the corner from Suleiman's stall there are several small restaurants and food stalls selling meat based dishes. The meat is prepared from early morning in massive cooking pots and then served in the evening when the area is flooded with hungry locals. One stall was operated by a man called Mehmood. He said he was cooking beef which in India means buffalo since it is forbidden to kill and eat cows. I told him I am a vegetarian. I was not sure he believed me as this seemed to provoke some mirth and a cry of take my picture I'm famous, I've been on television and in the newspaper. So I did.

Suleiman "I can repair anything"
Mehmood "take my picture, I'm famous"
Opposite Mehmood's stall there are several small shops selling a range of foodstuffs. Luckily for me, the wooden doors of one shop had been pulled closed to display a brightly coloured advertisement for surma, a cosmetic worn around the eyes and which many people believe protects the wearer from the evil eye. It is also known as kohl. I could not resist this stunning backdrop particularly when the papaya vendor sitting in front of it signalled his agreement to be photographed.

The Pydhonie neighbourhood is close to the Bhendi bazaar, on the opposite side of traffic clogged Mohammed Ali Road. The name is derived from two Marathi words - py meaning feet and dhonie, which means to wash.  When the city was still a collection of islands, a small creek would form here at high tide which may explain the how the name came about. It was in Pydhonie that I met Mr. Shah. A Jain businessman, he has an ayuverdic medicine shop, established more than 60 years ago. I noticed his friendly smile and crisp orange shirt whilst he was serving a steady stream of customers, who were requesting his advice before making purchases. During a short lull in trade he  sent one of his workers to buy tea for me, explaining that he wanted me to go away with good memories of our encounter so that he will not have bad karma for having neglected me. Respect for and reverence of guests is strongly ingrained in Indian culture. It is even codified in Hindu scripture as well as being observed by other communities.

Mr. Shah's is one of several ayuverdic medicine shops in Pydhonie. Mohanbhai is one of his close neighbours. Aged 62, he explained that his family originally came from Karachi, but left during partition, going first to Gujarat before eventually settling in Mumbai and opening the business. This is a place where everyone has a story.

Papaya seller and Surma advertisement
Mr. Shah and his ayuverdic medicine shop
Mumbai is a city that wakes up early. Thousands of people begin work in the early hours of the morning, many of them coming in by train from surrounding towns and villages, beginning their journey the night before. These include the people who work at the city's flower market which operates 24 hours a day and includes less formal traders in addition to those that have shops. Whilst walking through the market I noticed several small groups sitting together, selling cut flowers, marigolds and jasmine. Several of these people live outside of Mumbai and at first were a little shy about being photographed. To my surprise, one of the slightly older women, sitting alone, indicated to my guide that she would like me to take her picture. This seemed to smooth the way with some of the neighbouring vendors and I soon had a number of willing participants.

The flower seller who asked to be photographed
...and one of those who followed her
The flower sellers are not the only people out early in Mumbai. Across the road from the Chhatrapati Shivaji station, dozens of men sit sorting the day's newspapers for delivery to shops, offices and homes. Many of the sorters are unable to read and write yet are still able to sort the papers into seven different languages without making mistakes. Some of them work independently whilst others work with groups of friends or family like the man pictured below who works with his two sons. Some of the sorters work on the road whilst others work underneath the canopies of shops and stores that will open in a few hours' time. It is also possible to see people sleeping between the piles of papers and the sorters. Some may be the families of sorters. Others are people who have nowhere else to live. 

Mumbai offers many visual delights. I love the colours of this city - the brilliant combinations and hundreds of shades of green, red, blue and yellow that feature on the city's buildings and act as a backdrop to the activities of its residents and visitors. It can also be a city of visual shocks. Mumbaikers consume thousands of chickens every day. They are delivered to various points in the city via trucks from which they are carried to the slaughterer, suspended on rope and wrapped around the necks of the workers transporting them. It is an odd site. From a distance the chickens look like a strange garment wrapped around the waist of the porter. The fowl are strangely quiet, perhaps aware of their fate. One of the porters, a young man, stopped, offered me a half smile and allowed me to photograph him. I was surprised to learn that visitors may enter the abattoir and to witness the slaughter. I decided against it, preferring instead to press on to the flower market. 

Newspaper sorter near Chhatrapati Shivaji station
The chicken man
You can see more pictures from India here

You might also like Mumbai Stories 1 - The Koli of Worli Village

Thank you to Ranjana Jain who led me through Masjid Bunder, Bhendi Bazaar and Pydhonie and who made it possible for me to speak to Manjula, Mr. Shah, Mohanbhai and several others. She can be contacted at

The newspaper sorters and flower sellers can be seen as part of the Mumbai By Dawn tour offered by No Footprints.