The best learning, it's said, happens outside the classrooms. Listening to a teacher talk about the fundamental concepts in a closed room setting, while useful, is no match for the fascination that seeing subjects come to life can draw.
It was therefore heartening to see a teacher of Architecture taking the effort of visiting distant cities to chalk out a field trip for her students. We met Ms. Mona Chandra, from Delhi's Bhagwan Mahaveer School of Architecture, when she arrived in Varanasi to get a sense of what learning could be drawn by the students from this Cultural Capital of India, well known for her architectural gems.
She got in touch with us for a walk around the old city to see if we could help organise the trip. We explored a mix of Ghats, Gallis, Temples and old monuments discussing the possibilities of places that could be covered and hit it off fairly well on the lines of how the city's unique culture had inspired an amazing architecture. Eventually, she asked us to not only help in planning for places to visit and the logistics, but also in providing the students an overview of the city's History, Geography and Culture to feed into their understanding of its typical architecture.
It was going to be a challenging task for us, for our groups before this had never exceeded 12 people. And this was going to be about 50 students! But the process of learning has always been very close to our heart, and we were not going to let go of an opportunity to play the part of teachers, in whatever little capacity!
On the morning of their arriving in Varanasi, we met the students at Stops hostel, where more than half of them were put up (the rest were put up at another hostel - Zostel, for no one hostel in the city could accommodate all of them!). Despite Varanasi being the last leg of their trip, the enthusiasm in their faces showed. We caught up with a few of them over breakfast and learnt that the trip had been a great experience thus far. With some of the ice now broken, we felt much more at ease 🙂
We were to start with a boat ride covering the Architecture of Ghats and the buildings thereupon. Along the way, we passed through the twisting and turning gallis, teeming with life. We discussed how their narrow and labyrinthine structure had been introduced by design as a means of fortification against the invasions. Ms. Mona also threw light on how the maze helps in reflected people's energy back on to them, thereby adding to the spiritual experience.
On the boat, we discussed the role of ghats as community spaces and how that'd inspired their architecture. Students were shown live examples of concepts such as Open and Closed spaces, Focal points and Fractal spires derived from nature. Getting down at one of the ghats, we enjoyed sitting under the shade of a Peepal tree that had been strategically planted to provide shade even in the hottest of days. And how small boundaries had been raised around balconies overlooking the Ganga to filter out noise & give a perception of infinite space extending in the front. Next up, we went over to the other side of the river to get a panoramic view of the city and also grab some chai! And then headed to cover the remaining ghats. Towards the end of the boat ride, sailing peacefully in the middle of Ganga, we discussed a historic overview of the city.
After getting down from the boat, we headed for an early lunch break, post which we were to explore the North - the oldest markets, temples and a palatial building. The second half was just as interesting as the first, as we zig-zagged through gallis, weaving in and out of interesting structures and discussing their architectural nuances.
The day ended at about 6pm as the students disbursed - some for watching the evening Ganga Aarti, some for shopping and others for just chilling by the Ganga. It was an absolute pleasure to share the story of this magical city with them. A lot of architectural nuances were new to us too, making it a great learning experience as well. The joy of having helped the students soak-in lessons from teachers across the ages gave a great sense of satisfaction 🙂