THE CHAI WALLAH’S KITCHEN

Along the sandstone terrace beside the Kali temple and out into the sunlight beside the Ganges…

Dawn on Manikarnika Ghat. A cold breeze blows down the Ganges, chopping the water of the river with tiny wavelets and flapping the orange triangular flags adorning the riverside temples. It eddies around the funeral pyres burning down at the water’s edge, wafting the smell of woodsmoke up into the steep terraces of buildings stepping back and upwards from the river. A few bathers wash themselves in the sluggish water; a few cows mooch in search of breakfast. And in a tiny stall, the chai wallah is preparing his first brew of tea.

The Chai Wallah’s Kitchen.

I have walked down the labyrinth of narrow alleys to the ghat for my morning cup of chai. It’s become a ritual since I arrived in Varanasi. Wake up, check my social media, dress, walk down the six flights of concrete stairs to the alley outside the Shanti Guest House, avoid the cow and monkey shit on the flagstones as I descend to the river: right, left, left, down alleys cut like canyons between the overhanging houses. Down past the piles of firewood stacked up ready for sale to the body-burners. Along the sandstone terrace beside the Kali temple and out into the sunlight beside the Ganges.

The chai wallah has milk boiling in an aluminium pan over a little diesel burner. He stirs in sugar and a handful of tea leaves. He is sitting cross-legged on the worn wooden step of his little stall. He takes a small piece of ginger and grinds it to a paste on a flat stone with a stone pestle. The ginger goes into the milk which is now frothing up as it boils. The chai wallah tidies his work area and arranges five little cups made from fired Ganges mud: the ultimate disposable containers. 

The tea boils for a minute or two. I chat to the four other patrons, all local men, waiting for their chai. One man speaks a little English and I tell him that I will pay for their chai. A small boy arrives, a collection of coins jingling in his hand. I tell the man that I’ll buy his chai as well and that he can keep his change for pocket money.

The chai wallah pours the milky tea through a sieve into another aluminium pot then pours it into the five cups. I hand him a hundred Rupee note. The tea is hot and sweet and spicy, just the thing for a cold Varanasi morning. The chai wallah begins brewing his next batch of tea. Out on the river, the sun comes up through the fog. Another day begins on Manikarnika Ghat.

The Chai Wallah at work.

THE GRAND TRUNK ROAD

“Such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world.”
– Rudyard Kipling

On the Dufferin Bridge I was standing on the Grand Trunk Road. Formerly known as Uttarapath, as Sadak-e-Azam and as Badshahi, the Grand Trunk Road is one of Asia’s oldest and longest main roads. Its route from Chittagong in Bangladesh to Kabul in Afghanistan has spanned the subcontinent for at least 2,500 years.

The Dufferin Bridge at Varanasi

The original route of the Grand Trunk Road was mapped out by the Mauryan Emperor Chandragupta Maurya in the 3rd century BC. The route spanned his entire empire: from the mouths of the Ganges, now in modern day Bangladesh, to the north-western frontier of the empire in the wild, lawless valleys of the Hindu Kush. His grandson, Ashoka, made improvements to the road. In his edicts¹, Ashoka recorded that he had planted trees along the route, built wells “every half KOS”² and constructed “nimisdhayas” or rest houses along the route.

Over successive centuries the road was re-built many times: under Sher Shah, the Moghuls and the British. Sher Shah Suri (who controlled the Mughal Empire from 1540, when he usurped power from the second Emperor Humayan, until 1555) straightened the route and widened its breadth. Fruit and shade trees were planted and at intervals of 2 KOS a “serai”² was built.

In the 1830s, the East India Company began a programme of metalled road construction from Calcutta to Peshawar (now in Pakistan) at a cost of £1,000 per mile. By the end of the century the Grand Trunk Road was India’s busiest thoroughfare, inspiring Rudyard Kipling to write:

“Look! Look again!…at chumars³, bankers, tinkers, barbers and bunnias, pilgrims and potters, all the world going and coming. It is to me as a river from which I am withdrawn like a log after a flood. And truly, the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle. It runs straight, bearing without crowding India’s traffic for fifteen hundred miles – such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world.”

On the Dufferin Bridge, that warm afternoon, I listened to the roar of engines, the screech and blare of horns, the shouts of taxi touts and the rumble and clank of the steel deck plates as the river of life flowed out of Varanasi on the Grand Trunk Road and on into India.     

On the Grand Trunk Road.

¹The Edicts of Ashoka were a series of stone towers erected across Ashoka’s empire outlining the Emperor’s goals and decrees. The first years of Ashoka’s reign as emperor had been characterized by violent wars and brutal cruelty to his people. But after a particularly violent period, Ashoka had an epiphany and decided to abandon violence and become a benevolent ruler. To this end he decreed that his rule would now be characterised by fairness and compassion for his citizens and that a set of edicts (guidelines for living a just and compassionate life) would be inscribed on towers across the empire for all to see. They included rules about food safety, weights and measures, marriage, the ownership of property and the right of animals to be treated kindly and without cruelty.

² A serai is a guest house. The word caravanserai expands on this to include lodging for animals.

³ Untouchables 

INDIAN RAIN

Suli Ram. Evening is near.
Soon the clouds will cool the earth with showers…

– South Asian Lullaby

It was winter in India. The dry, cool season. The earth lay parched and brown under the sun. The rivers, full-bodied and fierce during the Monsoon, lay flat and lifeless: muddy trickles between their banks of clay.

Even Mother Ganga, bringer of life, destroyer of men, curled meekly through the landscape, her waters brown and shallow. On either side of her, wide reaches of bare, grey silt stretched away into the haze. In places, the people buried their dead, garlanding the graves with  rectangles of orange and yellow flowers. In time, with the coming of the Monsoon, Mother Ganga would come down in spate and carry the dead away into eternity.

Varanasi lay under a pall of smokey haze. The ghats stepped back from the river in steep, crumbling, ancient layers, each layer built on the remains of others. Boats plied to and fro on the wind-chopped water. The sun rose scarlet across the river, casting a ladder of gold across the Ganges, then dissolved into the opaque sky.

I walked the day away, lost in the crowds of pilgrims celebrating the festival of Shiva, then climbed the sandstone steps above the Meer Ghat to a bakery where I drank coffee and watched the procession of colours go by outside.

And as I stepped from the  cafe, it began to rain: cool, sweet-smelling rain. Indian rain. The clouds were cooling the earth with showers.