Week 34: Varanasi

February 18-25

In late February, the five of us NSLI-Y girls headed to Varanasi, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. AFS and NSLI-Y, our hosting organization and scholarship, sent us to complete Hindi research projects and their accompanying interviews. Varanasi, sitting on the river Ganga, is also known as the holiest city in India. It was teeming with delicious street food, classical music and lots of interviews to take!

The city is made up of very narrow connecting lanes. As we trekked through in our single file line, my eyes couldn’t settle on where to look- mountains of sweets on display, colorful sarees made of Banarasi silk, funeral processions squeezing by, or at my feet for the abundance of sleeping dogs and cow pats. Our wonderful guide and AFS volunteer, Saurabh, expertly navigated us. After twisting and turning, occasionally seeking advice from a food vendor, we would be planted in front of a new tasty food. After waking up at 4am for Subah-e-Banaras (more on this below), we stopped for a classic Banarasi breakfast of jalebi and kachori. Kachori is a circular samosa sort of snack, with a pulses filling. Jalebi, I have now heard, is a specialty of both Indore and Varanasi. As far as I can tell, both places’ jalebi is fried flour soaked in a very sweet and sticky orange syrup. At the beginning of the year, I was opposed to super sugary and non-chocolate Indian desserts. This time I even went so far as to favor the jalebi over the kachori. Progress!


We arrived just in the nick of time for malayyio, which is exclusively available during Varanasi winters. (As I wrote about our winter coming to a close, I received a news notification about a winter storm in the US.) Malayyio is a dairy based sweet, which tend to be my favorite, and it did not let me down! It is puffed up and flavored with saffron, topped with almonds and pistachios. It melts in your mouth, the closest texture I can think of is a mix between Yoplait whips yogurt and coffee foam. Despite my failed attempts to describe it, it was delicious! I especially enjoyed having my tiny clay pot filled with saffron milk from the bottom of the huge serving bowl at the end.


Traipsing through the gali (lane in Hindi), I discovered possibly the best thing I have ever tasted. I even managed to have it twice in two hours, just to be sure. Blue Lassi is not off the beaten path. It was filled with tourists, and we all enjoyed conversation with a fellow tourist cohort from Canada, Ghana and Thailand. As you might be able to tell from the photo below, the lassi was really my focus here. After ordering from the lassi-wala’s (lassi man/maker) window perch, I got to stand and watch the lassi crushed and mixed, adding curd (yogurt) to the top and garnishing with assorted nuts and extra fruit. The lassi-wala did not seem too unnerved by me, almost in tears, jumping up and down and very intently watching him work. The two lassis I drank that afternoon, strawberry and guava, I can confidently say I could eat for every meal. One of my many pre-departure initiatives is to expand my Indian cooking repertoire beyond chai. My lassi has yet to compare to Blue Lassi’s but I am hoping to practice lots and then survive on lassi in college.


With our stomachs full, we made our way to the Ganga. Living in land-locked Indore, I always enjoy seeing large bodies of water. The Ganga, as the most sacred river to Hindus, was of course especially exciting. The 80 or so ghats welcomed lots of travellers, both Hindu pilgrims and international tourists. We were able to see the Ganga aarti (prayer) just after sunrise and sunset. The huge crowd was mesmerized as we all watched Ma Ganga honored with gorgeous chanting, incense and diyas (candles). After both prayer times, we took a rowboat ride along the river. I got to show off my Southport rowing skills! Hindus believe that a bath in the Ganga, or Ganga Snan, purifies your body and soul. I desperately wanted to bathe in the river, although I was met with a firm no, no matter how many of our new vocabulary words I used while asking. We did make it into the river up to our shins, and my Hindi teacher sprinkled water over my head.


Traveling with our research projects in mind enabled us to have a closer look at parts of the city. Although Lucia’s Ganga pollution topic prevented our bath, Riah led us to some delicious chai and samosa through her discussions with street vendors. Stephanie’s project was on classical music, which has a very strong presence in Varanasi. This is especially true in the musician’s gali, where the walls are literally painted with music notes. Steph interviewed Pandit Vikash Maharaj, who fought against the boundaries of the caste system as a Hindu Brahmin musician playing the Muslim sarod. We were treated to a one song private concert by two-thirds of the Maharaj trio. I was entranced both by the music (the song they played was dedicated to the Ganga), but also by the connection between the father and son. Through exchanged smiles and the tabla (name name) and sarod, they were able to complement each other perfectly. We all walked out of the musician’s gali with huge smiles on our faces, clutching our new copy of their CD!

Pandit Vikash Maharaj with his sarod


Megan’s project evoked a similar level of a emotion, although the feeling itself was much different. We walked through the lanes to the Manikarnika ghat, where it is believed that Hindus cremated achieve moskh- final salvation. The ghat has three or four levels of funeral pyres, which run 24 hours a day. Chanting “Ram Naam Satya Hai” (Lord Ram’s name is the truth), bodies wrapped in colorful fabric are carried to the ghat. With a scarf over my mouth and nose to ease the smokey air, I got to listen as Megan interviewed a funeral pyre worker. Never mind foreign non-family members, women are not allowed near the process. However, from our perch and from Megan’s interview, I felt a better sense of understanding of the Hindu belief in reincarnation, and our bodies and souls as separate beings. As I often feel here, I was grateful for the chance to learn and be included.

My project on the origins of Buddhism took us 40 minutes outside the city to Sarnath. As marked with a descendant of the tree at Bodh Gaya, Sarnath is the location of the Buddha’s first post-enlightenment sermon. We spent our first morning touring the site. It includes a Buddhist temple with 80 year old frescoes of the Buddha’s life, huge relic-holding stupas, and the Ashoka pillar (from which India adopted its national symbol). As my Hindi teacher loved to have me repeat in Hindi, it felt very meaningful to stand at Sarnath after first learning about it in the ninth grade World History class that made me want to do an exchange here. The morning before our departure, I got to return for my interview with a Buddhist monk and leader of the Dhamma Learning Center. I decided to ditch my list of prepared questions, which made for some slow and simple Hindi on my part, but a very interesting and fruitful conversation. Some of the religion-related vocabulary was hard to understand, but I could always muster an understand smile and nod, or “haan, haan, theek hai.” (Yes, yes, okay.) Upon arrival in Indore, I re listened to the interview and combined with my pre-visit writing, ended up with my first essay in Hindi! In addition to the sights and sounds while on the trip and the new lassi-sized hole in my heart, it feels good to have reached this Hindi benchmark as well. Check out the photos page for more. Until next time!

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