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.

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