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June 23, 2020 / catherinebwrites

India 20 VARANASI

Sunny at his friend’s sweet naan shop – delicious

Harish, our host in Varanasi Homestay, insisted that we would enjoy the walking tour of Varanasi old city. It lasted five hours. Five hours! Five hours walking through crowds, animals, broken pavements and uneven steps…yikes… Our hips were complaining at the mere thought of it. But Harish said we’d see aspects of Indian life that we’d otherwise miss and, if we got tired, we could always just stop. So off we went with two Brazilian guests Eduardo and Wilton and Sunny as our guide .

Our first stop, Sunny said, would be an Indian sweet shop. “Not like any sweet shop you know.” he promised. He was right.

They’ve been growing sugarcane in India for thousands of years and the English word ‘sugar’ comes from the Sanskrit sharkara. So Indians know about sweets. But, Holy guacamole, I’ve never seen anything like it. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the range and variety.

The shop was doing a roaring trade. The display cases were packed with sweets made from every fruit, nut, pulse, cereal and vegetable you can think of and many you’ve never heard of. Some sweets were baked, some fried, frozen, roasted, boiled and jellied. Many are made specifically to serve with a meal, or for weddings, certain festivals, for celebrations, as religious offerings, as gifts. The variety is endless.

We ate some in the shop and wow, they were so sweet you could feel your teeth cringing! But unlike the rather dull sweets you get here, you couldn’t scoff a whole box full. You could only manage one, maybe two. We bought a large box of mixed sweets. We intended to invite family around for a meal to hear of our travels and share the Indian sweets. Covid 19 put paid to that but, they sure sweetened our lockdown!

Then we headed into the ancient narrow alleys of Varanasi. We stopped to watch a baker slap dough into the sides of a tandoori style oven in his work counter ( see photo above) and minutes later he brought out sweet naan and gave us some to try – yum, double yum.

We wandered on. Sunny pointed out several factories. Not the big industrial buildings we associate with the word ‘factory,’. These were tiny dark workshops where people made things. Like this shop below. The owner made highly ornate badges with raised gold and silver wire embroidery, the kind you see on military uniforms and the blazers of expensive golf clubs.

Badge designer and embroiderer

We saw this woman going from house to house collecting old clothes and exchanging them for new saucepans. A man on a bicycle cycled by tooting a tin flute to rustle up business. We walked through the lanes where the “Untouchables” live. Many are laundry workers who wash clothes in the Ganges and iron them in the street using ancient irons filled with hot coals. Do you get extra blessings if your clothes have been washed in the sacred Ganges?

Any old clothes?

We passed by the building where the Sadhus hold their parliament. The place where they discuss and decide whatever it is that concerns the lives of Sadhus. It is also where stay when they come to Varanasi for religious festivals or when making a pilgrimage.

Sadhu’s Ashram
Entrance to Sadhu’s Ashram.

We saw where they make paneer, a printing press, several sari wholesalers, tailors and a Government bhang shop selling balls of dope the size of a tennis ball. I thought dope was illegal in India but I know Sadhus use it in their ceremonies.

Everyone In India, Sunny told us, wants to own their own business, no matter how tiny. Everyone wants to be their own boss. And that was clear to see in the alleys of Varanasi.

Printing press

Alley Varanasi

Some alleys are as wide as the one above. Others just wide enough for two people to pass. Some so narrow that, when two people meet one has to stand aside to let the other pass. Our way was blocked by a cow now and then. There were plenty of placid dogs, the occasional goat and when you looked up you might see a couple of monkeys scurrying about or watching you from a high niche.

Alley Varanasi

Then we came out on the ghats and sat on the steps and had tea while a goat ambled by and some children gathered to giggle at the strangers. By now we were fading rapidly but Sunny assured us that once we’d drunk tea flavoured with sugar and spice we’d be ready for more. We were… but not too much more. We visited the one of the burning ghats but I will write of this separately in my next blog

The Ghats
The Ghats and the goat.

We went back into the alleys and passed a dark gym where handsome young men with amazing physiques were training with indian clubs. Sunny pointed out the remains of several ancient temples. Then finally we came out into the main street, noisy and busy with tuk-tuks, motorcycles, bicycles and crowds of people. A bit of a shock after the quiet of the alleys.

Sunny led us through an entrance and into the flower market and we watched the long-winded haggling and the buying and selling of flowers. Eventually we got to sit down in a lassi shop where the owner served the most delicious lassi I have ever tasted. It came in unglazed earthenware cups. Behind us, hundreds of these cups were stacked high against the wall. These cups are broken immediately after use to ensure that no high caste person will ever drink from a cup previously used by someone of a lower caste.

FColourful alley
Entrance to a restaurant
Remains of temple with washing
Another corner
Haggling in the flower market

By the time we got back to our Homestay we were hanging in threads. We felt like our feet were bloody stumps- they weren’t- and that our knees were pushing up through our hips – they weren’t. But we had lasted the whole five hours and a bit more besides. Harish was right, we wouldn’t have missed it for worlds.

If you go to Varanasi do take this tour. You will see things you would otherwise miss and learn so much about the city and its people. Afterwards the you can always go back wander the alleys by yourself.

Contact Harish at Varanasi harishrijhwani@gmail.com

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