Travel: Silken threads in the city of the dead

In the latticework of alleys behind Varanasi's burning ghats, Rhiannon Batten meets a tailor who became a superstar

To appreciate the drama and intensity of Varanasi you need to feel part of the scene, even if that means getting your feet dirty and abusing your nose. The group of European tourists I saw wending their way from the Manikarnika Ghat to their air-conditioned bus were missing out. The wriggle through the labyrinth of dirty alleyways from the burning ghat to the main road is tricky at the best of times, but especially so for anyone trying to ensure that their pale suede designer pumps remain clean while keeping half their face - hence their vision - obscured by an expensive, odour-screening handkerchief.

Passing the group, I was thankful to be almost at the sanctuary of my guesthouse and, more important, the pleasures of its cold shower. The windows of room 55 in Shanti Guest House open out directly on to the flat rooftops and golden-spired temples of the city and hang so close to the burning ghat that the smell is all-pervasive. The ghat is one of the most auspicious places a Hindu can be cremated, and a pall of vapourised humankind hangs over this most ancient of cities.

Straggling along the edge of the Ganges, Varanasi's ghats are places of pilgrimage both for the tourists, who come to peer at early-morning bathers, and for dedicated Hindu families to say goodbye to their dead with expensive cremations. The ghats can be a disappointment. As with much of India's architectural heritage, the only signs of maintenance on the neglected buildings are bizarre, Costa-style extensions and garish adverts for guesthouses.

It seemed so obtrusive to step into a boat and row so close to those constitutionally strong enough to bathe that they had to duck the oars. It was not much more fun to wander along near Dasaswamedh Ghat to the vocal stabbings of "Hello madam, where you from?", "Hello madam, you want boat trip?", "Hello madam, you look for rickshaw?", or even a grinning "Hello madam. You are beautiful girl, me strong man, we go have good sex?"

The latticework alleyways of the old city are a much more fulfilling area. Ever-present policemen with truncheons patrol the dung-covered pathways, while men in shiny shirts and pleated slacks stand around nonchalantly readjusting themselves. More energetically, from every doorway and hole in the wall seep the sights and sounds of industry - hot, greasy snacks being fried up in enormous black pans, barbers flamboyantly lathering up their clients, a group of children crammed into a minuscule room to fight for a view of an equally pint-sized TV screen, sewing machines and handlooms busily whirring in unison across an alley.

Further in, a stench of cheese rolls out from one alleyway and, from another, a solitary shaft of sunlight picks out two cows lazily propped up against one another in the gloom. An impatient mother shrieks from an out-of-sight courtyard and flip-flopped children run past like pinballs bouncing from one side of the alley to another.

It was here that I met one of Varanasi's superstars. Baba Katan is the golden child of an extraordinarily extended Varanasi family. In a city known for its silk, it is no surprise that he comes from a family of silk- shop owners but it seems that his parents' business really took off only when Baba Katan was old enough to start trading. Small in size but big in business sense, he learnt fluent Hebrew so quickly (he calls it "knowledge without college") from haggling over the price of silk with his numerous Israeli customers, that his reputation soon spread. In a country where most tourists end up speaking English, trade flourished - with Israelis glad to talk money (and vital statistics) in their own language.

Soon Baba Katan had made enough money for a foreign holiday - a sign of extremely good business in a country where a small-time shop assistant could earn just Rs500, or about pounds 7 a month - and he decided to visit his new-found friends in Israel. As his plane landed on Israeli soil, though, it seemed that his reputation had gone before him; an invitation to appear on one of the country's favourite talk shows was immediately thrust his way. The chance to discuss life in India was happily exchanged for the opportunity to stock up on gossip about the programme's host, to impress his customers back in Varanasi.

The TV coverage was good for business and these days Baba Katan is happy to be back in his parents' shop selling silken sheets and satin pyjamas by the rucksack-load to any self-respecting Israeli tourist. All business is done on an enormous squishy white mattress where customers can loll around on giant cushions and get themselves tangled up in rolls of fabric. With so much trade, there's no need for him to barter, so his prices are fixed. Even so, the goods are cheap by Western standards (at current prices, silk trousers cost pounds 7, cotton trousers pounds 1, silk pyjamas pounds 4) and if you are in a hurry, you can get them made up while you wait.

This was put to the test at 10pm on my last night in Varanasi when I suddenly decided I had to have a pair of bright red silk trousers made up. True to his word, Baba Katan had them ready in time for me to catch the train to Dehra Dun the next morning. And, if you're not happy with this service, head off deeper into the old city, past the Golden Temple and the alley full of pungent cheese shops. There is a great little tailor here who will knock you up a pair of silk trousers for pounds 3. He hasn't been on TV yet, but his English is excellent. Just be careful you don't get them grubby on the way back from the ghats.

Baba Katan (00 91 542 321643) can be found (with a bit of perseverance) near Vishalakshi Temple at Vishalakshi Silk Industries, D3/96 Meer Ghat, Varanasi 221 001, Uttar Pradesh, India.

Indian Departures: How to Get There, Where to Stay

Getting there: Rhiannon Batten paid pounds 323 for a special offer return ticket from Heathrow to Delhi on Scandinavian Airlines from Oxford Flight Savers (01865 201849). Annoyingly, this offer has now expired. The cheapest flights to Delhi are generally on airlines from the former Soviet Union. You can expect to pay around pounds 300 return on an airline such as Armenian Airlines via Yerevan, booked through Classic Travels (0171-499 2222), or on Georgian Airlines via Tbilisi through Worldwide Journeys (0171-388 6000). Aeroflot comes in at about pounds 350.

For more familiar airlines, you can expect to pay rather more. For a return trip lasting a fortnight at the beginning of November, discount agents are quoting fares of around pounds 400 for travel on Emirates from London or Manchester to Delhi via Dubai, or around pounds 500 for the non-stop flight on BA. All these fares include pre-payable taxes.

Reaching Varanasi: the overnight train from Delhi to Varanasi in a second- class sleeper costs Rs630 (about pounds 9), but Rhiannon Batten warns that she was obliged to share the berth with "about three other people".

Staying there: a double room with a view of the Ganges, but no attached bathroom, at Shanti Guest House (00 91 542 22568) cost Rs 100 (about pounds 1.50). The real Shanti Guest House is very close to Manikarnika Ghat - there's a scam going in Varanasi at the moment where less popular guesthouses are trading off the success of the more established ones by using the same, or a very similar, name, and the rickshaw drivers direct you to the wrong place for commission.

Reaching Assam: there are no non-stop flights between the UK and Calcutta, the gateway for Assam, though British Airways (0345 222111) has a one- stop service to the city.

A useful agent for flights to various points in India is Welcome Travel (0171-439 3627), which is a leading discounter for Air India. For travel from Heathrow to Calcutta in the first two weeks of November, the company is quoting pounds 484 plus a pounds 10 weekend supplement if you travel outbound on a Saturday or Sunday.

To reach Majuli river island, the best place to start is Calcutta then transfer to an Indian Airlines flight to Jorhat. From Jorhat, the embarkation point for Majuli takes 45 minutes by car.

Staying there: the only hotel with air conditioning in Jorhat is the Hotel Paradise; on Majuli, it is worth trying the Circuit House.

Visas: British passport holders need a visa to visit India. The system has now changed so that all tourists are issued with a six-month, multiple- entry visa, which costs pounds 19.

If it is convenient, you can apply in person to either of the following: High Commission of India, India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA; or Consulate- General of India, The Spencers, 19 Augustus Street, Jewellery Quarter, Hockley, Birmingham B18 6DS.

Rhiannon Batten reports: "Arrive early with the exact money (pounds 20 instead of pounds 19 won't be accepted, but you can pay by cheque) and two passport photos. Take a queue number ticket from the outside booth and fill in the application form while you wait for your number to come up. If it is a straightforward application: your visa will be ready in 15-30 minutes. You will be called out like a bingo number when it is ready and meantime can watch a screen which tells you when the holidays are during the year."

If applying by post, first send a stamped addressed envelope for a visa application form to the Postal Visa Section at either address above. Once completed, send the form with three passport photos, passport, and the fee of pounds 19. "You are advised not to finalise your travel arrangements until your visa has been issued," says the High Commission.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone