Varanasi, 1978: I was in the silk district. Late evening. The power went out. Candles and kerosene lamps replaced electric lights, and what had already seemed a wildly exotic stage was plunged backwards in time. I walked medieval alleys lined with open stalls where merchants sat cross-legged on raised platforms surrounded by bolts of silk, brass goods, stationery, bags of grain, and barrels of spices. The combined odors of incense, cumin, and shit filled the air; it was a good smell. Every stall was a dimly lit vignette from a Fellini movie. A donkey leaned drunkenly against a lightpost. Monkeys dropped out of the shadows on raiding expeditions. Sadhus sat chanting, begging bowls at their feet. Sometimes I talked with people. Sometimes I just gaped.
I came to an open area, a crossroads, as a wedding procession emerged from another alley. Drums beating, curved trumpets blowing up a cacaphony, a crowd of revelers tossing marigolds into the darkness, and behind them, a white horse painted pink and sporting feather plumes. That would have been enough to send me into a kind of exotic rapture, but behind the horse came a more astonishing sight: an elephant painted white, draped with bangles and bells and brocade. On his back was a large glass howdah lit by tiny electric lights, in which sat the bride, alone like a museum artifact, like a temple idol, a dazzling image of colored silk and gold jewelry high above the crowds. The procession streamed noisily through the open area into another dark alley, and vanished. The street crowd flowed back into place as if nothing unusual had happened. The last thing I saw was the glowing howdah casting dim light on second-storey balconies.
It was my first trip to India. I had no idea how rare such sights were becoming. I thought everything in India was rare, and accepted the painted elephant as just one more delight in the garden of the East.