Published on May 1st, 2012 | by Simon

Bengal & Benares

Calcutta, or Kolkata as it is now known, is a huge city and once the seat of British India. You would have to say that they made a pretty good job of constructing such a giant edifice that nobody would doubt their divinely-ordained power. And out the front is a huge open space which has few trees but lots of grass, making it ideal for multiple cricket matches. This country truly is cricket crazy with at least one match on TV every day of the week.

My hotel, The Fairlawn, has been under the same management since 1936 and is defintely in a timewarp. It is painted in shades of green, possibly popular in the 50’s, and serves an outstanding English breakfast whatever the steamy heat outside. There are six English language newspapers in reception every morning – Indians love their news and a bizarre use of English which also seems trapped in a bygone era. As are many of the vehicles – the police car below is not really designed for high-speed chases, based as it is on the 1956 Morris Oxford, and changed little since that time.

Kolkata is the only city in India with trams which make a colourful addition to the streets, many of which are lined by British era stately buildings, now crumbling into decay due to rent controls that make repairs totally uneconomic.


Across the river over the bridge that has become something of a trademark for the city is the railway station. Sleepers run even in the daytime west to Varanasi (Benares). They are a great way to meet local people and try the food hawked up and down the carriages at every station. Little of this prepares you for Varanasi. Called ‘the religious capital of India’, it is permanent home to holy men, sacred cows, and funeral pyres. And temporary home to millions of pilgrims who come to bathe in the Ganges.


The town is on just one bank which is lines with ghats (large stone steps), allowing access to the river. Behind those lie temples and palaces constructed by devout rulers, each one trying to outdo the last. And behind them is a warren of tiny streets, too narrow for even an autorickshaw. Aside from the press of people, the only other wanderers are the cows whose holy status means they cannot be moved on – thus preventing me from entering this restaurant for more than 15 minutes…

There are a multiple burning ghats where the faithful dead are cremated. That, I have to say, is quite a challenging sight, given there are no coffins and the dead are transported on an open bier carried by male family members. There is a ratio of wood needed to body size and the wood is paid for by volume. After the wood has burned down, the remaining ashes are carried into the Ganges to be washed downstream (where people may very well be bathing). I was told that male ribcages and female hips are the last to burn through and quite often make it semi-intact into the river.

Incredible India – indeed!

Take a look at all the photos here




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