Bursting stereotypes in a city already stereotyped : Varanasi (Part 1)

“In the city of chaos, there are pockets of saneness. They are right in front of you. You must know where to look for it, ” said my walking tour  guide Aayush Rathi , co-founder of Roobaroo walks in Varanasi.

This was my fifth trip to Varanasi and in my head, I laughed at this statement. Here was the loud honking with tuk-tuks and cars moving around  with no lane discipline whatsoever, and the 26-something guy was talking about finding sanity. “Good luck to that, I told myself with a tinge of sarcasm.

Little did I know that not only the three hours would break my stereotypes of the city, my entire trip would turn out about breaking these notions I had formed about the city. Not my fault totally. This is the how the city is portrayed  in the media and the movies glorify it.

We started the walking tour with a 17th-century old church in Varanasi- St Thomas Chruch.  Now, this may not sound odd, but we Indians have always known Varanasi as a center for Hinduism, and starting the tour from a church for the very same reason was my first myth busted about Varanasi.

The group who were along with me in the walking tour of the city

The group who were along with me on the walking tour of the city

Where else would you find a colourful toilet?
Where else would you find a colourful toilet?

I was told Varanasi has about 3000 temples.  I bumped into Tom from  Dublin while I was enjoying lassi in a kulhad. I was surprised to hear him converse in Hindi with the shopkeeper. I think, I was the only one amazed with this. I struck a conversation with him and learnt that he has been travelling to Varanasi for about 5 years. Tom  was working on the cause of human trafficking in the city.  He had enrolled himself for Hindi  tuitions and loved the colours of the city.

He  said, “You see the number of temples here? There are as many pubs in Dublin when compared. I love the insanity of the city. The city has its own rhythm and that is what I like about this place.”

My fascination with the city had just begun where I was still finding meaning in the chaos.  In the same walking tour, when we reached in thatheri gali, I was taken to the house of the revered poet Bhartendu Harishchandra,  the father of modern Hindi literature. The transition from a narrow lane which was dimly light to an ancient house with a pretty looking a courtyard, this juxtaposition was something one should witness when in the city.

Courtyard of Bhartendu Harishchandra

They say, every lane in Varanasi has a story waiting to be heard.  Now I know what it meant. While passing through another lane, we saw a group of old people who had gathered to play chess. Not very far away, I heard the old news being played by All India Radio while  people were busy with their business.  It did seem like I was transported to a different era altogether.  For a city girl like me, these experiences were a rare occurrence.

The men and the barber shop.
The men and the barber shop.
Join them in the game of chess, will you?
Join them in the game of chess, will you?

It is also easy to get lost in the lanes and for someone like me, who does not remember directions this can be one of the biggest challenges.

There is so much to the city and I have not even got talking about the beautiful ghats, the music, art, and food of the city. I need to spend a good one month to just soak and understand the many sides of Varanasi.

A few crazy things to do in Varanasi 

  • Get a haircut from the guy sitting on the street.  (Varanasi is famous for the local barbers on the street)
  • Participate in a local gym called akhada
  • Have bhang, magic cookies and get high as hell
  • Have weed with the babas of Varanasi in one of the ghats.
  • Try playing hide and seek in the lanes of Varanasi Ha-ha.
  • Be-friend a person who has a hand-rowed boat and listen to his perspective of the city.
  • Learn the recipe and make a Banaransi paan at the local paan shops





My fifth visit to Varanasi: On a mission to find meaning to the chaos

Why people prefer travelling to Varanasi

Varanasi, the 3000 -old -city is one of the oldest city in the world. It is known to be the cultural and spiritual  hub of the India with its traditional music, Sanskrit, Ayurveda, Indian astrology, poetry and stories.

The ancient city has the ghats, the river Ganges, the mesmerising sunrise, religion, Hinduism and the Ganga aarti which is artistic and poetic. There is a variety in the cities food,  bhang- the local drink that makes one high as hell, religion, god-fearing people so and so forth. On the surface, this is what someone has an idea when in the city.

Sunrise at Assi ghat, Varanasi



On a mission to like the city

I must admit, I never liked the city. When I had a full-time job, I travelled to this city often.I could not understand the chaos and the contrast the city had to offer. I used to always wonder why travellers who were coming to India for the first time had this city a must visit. This time, I wanted to travel for travel’s sake.

My fifth trip to this ancient city had a mission-  to decipher meaning behind the chaos.  A friend once told me -“A lot of how you see a place depends on how you travel to the place. If you travel by air and are picked up by a cab driver, you will experience the different side of the city.  She added, “If you travel by train, you will see the maddening crowd, the peculiar people of the city. You will observe the narrow bylanes, chaos  more closely” This was true for Varanasi as well.  The mood had already set in with my train travel.

My tryst with a 26-hour train journey from Mumbai to Varanasi

While I love Indian trains and have even lived in a train for 15 days, this was my first time alone in a 26- hour long train journey.  My co-passengers were busy discussing politics and the prime minister of the country. There was a woman travelling with her infant and her husband. The couple had occupied much of my seat on the train as well. When I happened to give them the dreadful looks, they would say- But umm.. we are travelling with an infant. I, who was perhaps the only one in a jeans and t-shirt, was being judged. A woman in her late 50s told me, “You are educated but still, why are you quiet? I smiled and got back to reading a book.

While I was done dealing with this, on the other end of the boogie was a man fighting with a fruit vendor.  The man paid for the fruits but wanted the money back as he felt they were not worth the money.  In that argument, the man started threatening the street vendor and started speaking in broken English. It was irritating  but in hindsight if I look at it this was funny. He started speaking about the country and the problems in India.  Thrice, the railways policemen had come to our boogie. I also experienced this being peculiar to the trains heading to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Well, I do not want to generalise people from few states, I know I am doing this here.

Moving on to booking my stay

In the middle of all of this, while I  observed people and conversations around me, I realised I had not booked my hotel yet at Varanasi. A friend, who was in touch with me, said she had it all sorted!

She put me in touch with a person who ran a travel company- Serenity routes in Varanasi. Now, I have been  away from tour companies, because I have been an independent traveller that way. However, something about serenity routes told me they were different.

My phone conversation with the founder of Serenity routes went like this. “You know, I have been to Varanasi before. However, I have never really liked the place.”

His reply, “Let me show you the city- as never before. Perhaps then, you can decide for yourself. ”

I could rely on them, I thought. They were not the kind of tour company who were trying to sell off a package to me. A few exchange of WhatsApp texts and a backpackers hostel was booked for me and a bunk was booked for me. It was situated 100 mts away from Assi Ghat, one of the places in Varanasi to just be. It is also away from the otherwise chaotic city.

First impressions of the city

While I got off the-the railway station, I had rickshaw drivers or the tuk-tuk as they are called to take me to the backpackers hostel-blox hostel.

The traffic was not moving. Cycle rickshaws were ringing the bells asking the tuk-tuk wallahs to make way.  It was noisy. I wasn’t able to see a traffic signal anywhere! Ah no, being an Indian does not mean one is  used to these things!

This is perhaps the only city where traffic can be caused even while you are walking. As the lanes are narrow and on one end you have two bikes passing by and at other times, you are obstructed by a bull or a cow!

I was asking myself this question- Did I make the right decision to travel to Varanasi? I mean what more the city had to offer?

I saw a religious rally, which had made the traffic of the city slower and chaotic than usual. At the same time, I saw a funeral procession passing by.

Not a little far away, I saw the Taj Hotel in Varanasi.  I just smiled to myself and the delicious ironies the city had to offer. I told myself- This trip would be an eventful one.

To be continued in the next post.


What if the Indian education system appreciated and acknowledged travel

I am a big fan of my country India. As an Indian, I do not know as much about my country as I should.  Not my fault entirely India is vast and diverse.

I am on a mission. To explore every bit about India for a lifetime. However, this makes me ponder on the education I received in school.

Would it have helped if my education system was a bit different? 

When I was in class 4, my first lesson in geography taught me about astronauts, the moon and space. I was  fascinated by it all. I came home and told my mom- Maa- I want to become an astronaut! They are cool people. But then, in my next chapter, I moved to understanding the tidal waves.

After every classroom learning, every chapter had  questions in terms of fill in the blanks, chronological order, brief answers. Those were the easy ones. Some teachers would ask those in the exams. Sometimes, there were some surprise questions that would come from anywhere outside the textbook! Nostalgic about those times. Eh?

The school textbooks of history taught me more about the independence struggle than stories of its people.Patriotism was drilled in me and I loved reading India’s independence struggle. Gandhi and Nehru were my heroes.

How awesome would it been if I understood the meaning of the quote said by Mahatma Gandhi- ‘India lives in her villages while I was still a 10-year-old.

If I were taken to a village would I have understood the issues of the country better than learning from a textbook?

How awesome would it have been if I were taken to the Prince of Whales Museum in Mumbai to understand the Indus Valley Civilisation?

Would it have been nicer if learning happened outside my classroom?

Would it have been better if I travelled to a place, saw the diversity of India while I was still in school?

If this happened in schools in India:-

Perhaps, the myth about India not being safe would have busted.

Perhaps, children would appreciate India more – its culture, art, history and agriculture among other things.

Perhaps, parents would not put their children in coaching classes with the sole mission to enroll them to in an IIT- Indian Institute of Technology to become an engineer.

Perhaps, I would have developed a thought process from an early age and would have seen things from a different perspective.

Perhaps, I would have a better understanding of  the leanings and opportunities in what we called rural India which comprises 60 % of our population.

Perhaps, I would have been better informed and would be able to question the practices in the media.

Learn when you travel through experiential learning. 

Even today, there is limited scope for experiential learning in a classroom environment. How nice would it have been if children were taken to a place where they traveled and learnt through experiential learning.

If there was a School of Travel in our country that would have catered to teaching children while travelling!

Gap Year?

In India, a gap year is  not much appreciated.  A year for travel or to explore yourself? That cost’s so much money! Perhaps, an iPhone would be a better bet. Eh?

We Indian’s do not travel for travel’s sake. Yes, times have been changing.More and more people are taking up travel as a career. Both men and women alike have been travelling. Would have been nicer, if the seeds were sown at an early age.

I only wish I knew about the benefits of travel and experiential learning  when I was a child. the education system will change someday. Maybe, I am an idealist. Maybe, I am an optimist.

However, I will not want my children to fall prey to  the education system and classroom learning which I was a victim of

Who knows, someday I will  have my own travel school.

The world is a classroom.


When doorways and narrow bylanes of Varanasi have a story waiting to be captured

Varanasi,the 3000-year-old ancient city of India has many stories waiting to be heard. The essence of the city can be best captured through it’s doorways and narrow bylanes.

For the first time, I participated in a walking tour that helped me see a different side of the city. I was fascinated to experience what I saw.

Here is the hobo’s attempt to bring to light what I saw.

When the doorways have a story to say.
When the doorways have a story to say.