Top 11 things to do in Varanasi – from the eyes of a local!

The first things that come to mind when you hear the name Varanasi are – Ganga aarti, Kashi Vishwanath temple, and Paan. And while these are certainly phenomenal, they’re also just the tip of the iceberg! Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world and has much to show for it. It has a unique vibe which facilitates spiritual explorations and arts learning. Its spirit of carefree and festive lifestyle is exemplified by the popular phrase: “Kashi mein 7 vaar 9 tyohar” (9 festivals for 7 days of the week). Here, we have tried to put together a list of experiences to explore all the ras’s (juices) of Banaras!

 

1. Perform Yoga with the locals at Assi Ghat

  

The best way to know any city is to interact with its locals – even better if you can learn something in the process. Every morning at Assi Ghat, free guided yoga sessions are held on the banks of Ganga. Most of the participants at this event are locals and the best part is that anyone can join – no registrations are required! All you need to do is show up – even mats are provided. The 40 mins session has both – Pranayams (breathing exercises) and Asanas (postures). Stay till the end for the most fascinating Hasyasana (laughing exercise) 🙂

 

2. Witness Kushti at an Akhada

Kushti is a traditional wrestling practised in India, and an Akhada is the place where people learn and practice Kushti. Instead of plastic mats, there are pits of dry mud softened with curd, and with added herbs for faster healing. In Varanasi, Kushti is a way of life. While there are several Kushti Akharas scattered across the city, our favourite is the Swaminath Akhada at Tulsi ghat. You can even try your hand at Kushti here under the guidance of Siyaram Ji – a veteran Pehelwan. This 60-year-old is no less than a 30-year-old guy when it comes to strength and fitness. And filled with humility and wisdom, he’s a gem of a person to meet!

 

3. Enjoy a performance of live Hindustani Classical Music

If you enjoy music, Banaras is the best place for you. Awarded the “UNESCO City of Music” status in 2015, Banaras is 1 of the 5 Gharanas of Hindustani Classical Music and famous for both – Singing and Instrument playing. Every morning, artists perform at the Assi Ghat in Subah-e-Banaras during Sunrise and you can witness it for free! You can also hear the music emanating from every nook and corner of some neighbourhoods such as Bengali Tola and Kabir Chaura. Some famous music schools are also found in these areas. The International Music Ashram in Bengali Tola organizes performances every Wed/Sat evening.

 

4. Try the Banarasi paan and other street food delicacies

 

A visit to Varanasi is incomplete without trying some of its iconic delicacies – some of the best street food in India. Famed all over the country is the Banarasi Paan which you can find everywhere in the city. Paan helps you step into the carefree state of mind that Banaras is 🙂
Thandai – a mixture of cold milk, sugar, almonds, fennel and rose is another local favourite. Head over to Pathak Thandai in Thatheri Galli for the best thandai. Kachori-sabzi and Jalebi are Banaras’ staple breakfast and too good to be missed. Ram Bhandar in Thatheri galli and Madhur Jalpaan near Gadowlia are our favourite. Other must-haves are Chaat, Lassi, Laal peda, and Baati Chokha.

 

5. Discover the once lost temples of Kashi Khand

Yes, you heard that right! It’s possible to invoke the Indian Jones within you here in Varanasi, and discover lost treasures. During the 13th-14th centuries, when the city was facing a series of invasions, some scholars decided to pen down the coordinates and stories of some of the important shrines in a book named Kashi Khand. Several of these temples were destroyed over the course of the invasions and their shrines forgotten as the city kept reinventing itself. When peace was restored in the 18th century, several of these temples were traced back and restored – thanks to the book. All of them bear the inscription “Kashi Khand Sthit” and there are more than a hundred of these scattered across Varanasi. Given their importance, most of them are beautiful temples with exquisite carvings. One great example is the Gautameshwar Mahadev temple near Gadowlia.

 

6. Step out of your comfort zone – invoke the Shiva inside of you!

When in Banaras, push yourself to do something you usually wouldn’t. Try some bhang with your lassi or thandai, lose yourself in the labyrinthine gallis, take a dip in the Ganga, strike a conversation with a sadhu about life and beyond, try your hand at Kushti at an akhada, sing at the top of your voice at the Ghats. Invoke the Shiv within you and discover yourself, which is a key essence of Banaras.

Don’t worry about being judged, or getting lost. The locals will go the extra mile to ensure that you’re looked after, especially if you’re living the spirit of their city 🙂

 

7. Make peace with death by spending time at cremation Ghat – Manikarnika

A lot of people come to Kashi to spend their last days here or to perform the last rites of their loved ones, for Kashi is believed to be the gateway to Moksha (salvation). Even death sheds its usual cloak of goriness here. There are hotels here called Mukti Bhawans (Salvation homes) where people check-in to check out! Just like beauty parlours, we have cremation parlours! The main cremation ground – Manikarnika Ghat, is located smack in the middle of the city, on the banks of Ganga. Seeing bodies burning into ashes gives people the chills, and yet at the same time, it can be a profoundly enlightening experience. All that one accumulates in life gets left behind at the pyre. Death is also a strong reminder to live each moment to the fullest.

 

8. Treat yourself to some local handicrafts

Having been a hub of both arts and commerce, Varanasi has an amazing legacy of beautiful handicrafts. There’s of course the world famous Banarasi brocade and Sarees – which can be bought from Chowk, or one of the many famous emporiums. Besides that, there are also colourful Wooden toys, Glass beads, undercut stone work – all 3 can be bought from the colourful markets in Vishwanath Galli or Bengali Tola. And there’s also Gulaabi Meenakari work – which can be bought directly from the artisans in the Gaay Ghat area. Also, you can buy some beautiful paintings of Banaras at the Ghats.

Besides getting yourself fantastic souvenirs, you will also be providing a much needed boost to the local economy and help promote sustainable tourism which benefits the local community 🙂

 

9. Get inspired, create something!

 

Don’t stop at just buying some local art. Go ahead and create some yourself! Varanasi’s soulful vibes have inspired many artists throughout history such as Kabir, Tulsidas, Amrita Sher-Gil, etc. Create something using this city as your muse – it can be a photograph, a painting, a beautiful song; anything that you feel inspired to create.

 

10. Ride along the Ganga during Sunrise:

Sunrise and Sunset anywhere is a marvellous experience. But in Varanasi, they’re exceptional, especially the Sunrise. As the Sun rises over an empty horizon (Varanasi is exclusively on the western bank of Ganga), the colour palette of nature is mesmerizing and makes each Ghat and the Ganga glow. The myriad rituals of the bathing and chilling locals on the Ghats are a sight to behold. Witnessing all this from the middle of Ganga in a boat is like seeing the most beautiful painting being created in front of your eyes!

Boats can be hired from any of the Ghats. For a guided experience with the stories of Ganga, Ghats, and the bond between the river and the people, you can also check out the boat tours at Roobaroo Walks.

11. Darshan at Kashi Vishwanath

Kashi Vishwanath temple is 1 of 12 Jyotirlingas in India, and with 25 million devotees annually, it’s the most visited one! It’s a great place to see the hustle bustle inside Hindu temples, and while the atmosphere can often be chaotic, you can find immense peace by sitting in an empty corner. The present structure of Kashi Vishwanath was built by the Maratha Queen Ahilyabai Holkar in 1771 and has beautiful carvings.

The temple opens at 2:30 am every day. There are 5 aartis conducted through the day – of which the Mangla Aarti between 3 am – 4 am is a highlight. The chanting of mantras, lamps, amidst playing of huge damroos creates a spellbinding experience. If 3 am is too early for you, then you can visit any time before 6:30 am is still great for a peaceful visit. VIP passes can also be obtained near Gate no. 4 to avoid the queues.

Are you planning a trip to Varanasi? If you have any questions related to the experiences shared above or otherwise, do let us know in the comments below. And if you’ve already visited, let us know your best memory of Varanasi 🙂

Roobaroo’s Delhi Bucket List: 10 Places to Visit in Delhi

Delhi has a rich cosmopolitan culture of its own that has something for everyone. The city’s roots go back more than a thousand years and the number of monuments here is comparable to Rome. Because of its political importance, Delhi has always received a large number of migrants who brought along diverse cultures that found a home here. Thus, even long term residents of the city constantly discover unfamiliar places and experience a thrill of discovery.

We have put together a list of our top 10 things to do to get a flavour of Delhi’s soul while having insane fun! ☺

 

1. Explore Mehrauli Archaeological Park

Spread over 200 acres and dotted with more than 100 monuments from India’s medieval history, this park is one of Delhi’s best-kept secrets. While most people who visit Delhi go see the Qutub Minar, very few of them make it to this place which is right next door! In fact, it wasn’t until 1997 that formal excavation work started here!

 

Our favourite spot is Balban’s tomb, the way to which is through the ruins of a 16th-century neighbourhood – a fresh change from the usual forts/havelis! Ghiyasuddin Balban was Delhi’s Sultan from 1266-1287 AD. Part of the Slave dynasty, he ruled Delhi with an iron fist, but also strengthened the empire and warded off Mongol attacks. It was here in this tomb that the Indian artisans perfected a true arch for the first time!

Other highlights of the park are the Jamali Kamali Mosque, Mughal General Quli Khan’s tomb, Rajon ki Baoli, Gandhak ki Baoli, and Sohail Wali Masjid.

For more about the monuments in the park, you can read this beautifully written blog. If you’d like to have a guided tour of the place, check out our ‘Origins of Delhi Walk’ here.

 

2. Meet the Djinns at Kotla Feroz Shah

 

Delhi is called the ‘city of djinns’ for a reason. The Kotla Feroz Shah Fort complex is believed to be haunted by djinns. Visit it on a Thursday afternoon to see people praying to these invisible beings, leaving letters full of wishes to be fulfilled and lighting diyas and incense for homage. Who needs Aladdin’s lamp when you can have a fort full of a ministry of djinns?

 

3. Have a gustatory adventure at Majnu-ka-Tilla

 


Officially called New Aruna Nagar Colony, Samyeling and Chungtwon, and known popularly as ‘MKT’, this is a Tibetan colony on the banks of river Yamuna. The narrow alleys lead to a colourful courtyard and a Buddhist shrine, various restaurants, cafes, shacks and shops selling everything from little trinkets to clothes and woven bags. You can pick from a variety of cuisines including Tibetan, Nepalese, Chinese and Korean. And while you’re there, don’t forget to try laphing: a spicy and mouth-watering cold Tibetan snack!

 


There is also a gurudwara of the same name in the vicinity. Interestingly, ‘Majnu’ was a Sufi mystic in the 15-16 th centuries who ferried people across the Yamuna for free. Impressed by his service, Sikh guru, Guru Nanak stayed in this area for a while. It is after this Majnu that this area is named. 🙂

For more about this place, you may like this article on LBB.

 

4. Witness a mesmerizing qawwali evening at Nizamuddin Dargah

 

 


Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah is the shrine of one of the most beloved and revered Sufi saints of the city. The throngs of believers and a number of hawkers selling their wares make it a very lively place. In the Sufi tradition, devotees often express their love for God through lyrical songs called qawwali. You can go listen to this beautiful music from 5 PM to 9:30 PM on any day except Thursday. The timings tend to change sometimes, so we recommend checking their website before you go.
Also, amazing and cheap food like kebabs and biryani is available in abundance around the dargah for a different kind of sensory stimulation. 😉

 

5. Lose yourself in the gallis of Shahjahanabad

 

The walled Mughal city built by Shah Jahan is more popularly known as ‘Old Delhi’ today. It has two major areas – Chandni Chowk and Jama Masjid. Both offer a motley of cultural phenomena including architecture, food, and lifestyle. Having been constantly inhabited since it was built and transforming into a burgeoning commercial centre, Shahjahanabad offers a fascinating mix of both history and modernity.

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While the main street at Chandni Chowk is interesting, have you ever explored some of the lanes inside? One of our favourites is Kinari Bazaar. Walking down the main street with the Red Fort behind you, take the second left next to the ‘Old Famous Jalebi Wala’ (we recommend trying out the samosas and jalebis here). Walking straight from here, take a right and you’ll enter the Kinari Bazaar. This is one of the most colourful streets in this area with shops selling a wide array of trinkets.

Within this bazaar is also a heritage street called Naughara that has nine old havelis with beautifully painted doorways. At one point, the Kinari Bazaar converges with the Paranthe Wali Gali where the Mirchi Parantha is to die for!

 

 

The Jama Masjid area has a unique vibe with the mosque being a centre of both architectural magnificence as well as social life. Here, you can also witness the fascinating sport called ‘Kabootarbazi’, unique to the walled city. You can watch people make domestic pigeons fly in formations from the rooftops and compete to keep the flock together.

Sign up here for a walking tour of the old city with us.

 

6. Cycle around in Lutyen’s Delhi

 

Designed by Edwin Lutyens in the early 20th century as the political and administrative capital of India, New Delhi is home to imposing British-style structures in lush green open spaces. One of the best ways to see this place is on a bicycle – which can easily be rented from the parking of Patel Chowk Metro station. The rent is about INR 10 per hour and you will need to deposit your ID card as collateral.

 

 

You can then cycle your way to monuments like the Rashtrapati Bhavan and India Gate. The area also has many cool museums and galleries. The National Gallery of Modern Art has a collection of more than 14,100 works of modern and contemporary art from India. What’s more, the gallery is never crowded and gives a very serene vibe — we especially recommend it during the hot summers. After this, you can head over to Andhra Bhawan to try some lip-smacking South Indian food and filter coffee, at dirt cheap prices!

Another must-visit-place is the beautiful Agrasen ki Baoli, a historical stepwell, made rather famous after Aamir Khan’s PK was shot here!

You can also sign up for an e-cycle tour with us here.

 

7. Go for a jog or a picnic at the Lodi Garden

 

 

This is a lush-green and well-maintained park dotted with a few Lodi-era monuments that give it a unique character. You can do a nature walk to spot the different varieties of plants and trees, have a jog or a nice game of frisbee. The Lodhi Garden also has some amazing picnic spots if the weather is pleasant. There are also special gardens like the Herbal garden and Bamboo garden, as well as ducks and ponds. The squirrels and dogs are quite friendly and you can bring your own pets. The park also attracts a variety of birds.

 

8. Jazz it up at the Hauz Khas Village

 

 

Boasting of a deer park, a lake, a medieval monument and a street full of fancy cafes and restaurants, this place is perfect to spend a lazy day strolling around. The architecture and history buff in you can admire the ruins of a madrasa built by Firuz Shah Tughlaq next to an artificial lake dug under the reign of Alauddin Khilji. This used to be a world-renowned institution of higher education. The complex also has some pavilions for small groups in a garden, which would’ve made it a very lovely place to study at!

Besides this, you can have a nice walk in the deer park if the weather is good. The park is great for photography and bird-watching—aside from the deer, of course. You can also head over to the Kunzum Travel Cafe to meet other travellers and exchange stories over coffee.

 

9. Serve and eat in the langar at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib

 

 

Located in the centre of the city, this large white marble building with distinct golden domes is one of the most prominent Sikh shrines in Delhi. Apart from the tranquil atmosphere and large Sarovar (water reservoir with lots of koi fish!), the Gurudwara also has the largest community kitchen in Delhi that serves around 25,000-30,000 people every day! What’s more, most of the food preparation and service is assisted by volunteers. We recommend volunteering here to experience the making of humongous amounts of food while being useful to the community. After you’re done serving, have a seat and enjoy the meal yourself. 🙂

 

10. Experience tranquillity and beauty at Humanyun’s Tomb

 

Everyone knows about the Taj Mahal, but have you ever seen this lesser-known ancestor whose design the Taj Mahal borrows from? You heard right! Humayun’s Tomb is an older monument of love, made uniquely beautiful by its red and beige sandstone, white and black marble and blue glazed tiles.

 

 

The monument is surrounded by a Charbagh (quadrilateral garden) imitating the concept of paradise. It has some extremely old and huge trees, perfect to sit under and admire the architecture as well as the noticeable absence of city noises.

The complex also has other architecture, notable among which is Isa Khan’s Tomb with distinct blue chhatris and a pretty garden around. What’s more, Humayun’s Tomb is one of the best-preserved monuments in the city, with its restoration story being no less fascinating than its origin.

You can also tune into an audio tour while exploring the complex.

 

We would love to hear your experiences at these or other interesting places in Delhi in the comments below!

Kumbh Mela – a confluence of people and ideas

My association with Kumbh began in 2013, the year of the Maha Kumbh at Allahabad (now Prayagraj). That was also about the time when I had first begun actively exploring India for her history, culture, and people. To say the least, it was a moving experience that changed how I viewed the world.

I was planning to visit 3 days after the Mouni Amavasya shahi snaan which had broken the world record for the largest congregation of humankind ever, anywhere on Earth, with a whopping 30 million people! The bridge at the Allahabad railway station had collapsed, causing a stampede. I had been home then for my brother's wedding, and was trying to hide the newspaper on the following day 🙂 Thankfully, amidst the wedding glee, nobody noticed the news, and 2 General dubba train journeys, a walk through a village, and a tempo ride later I arrived at the Kumbh Mela!

Living on the banks of Ganga, I observed and participated in the snaans (ritual baths) at the Sangam, met a whole range of different people whom one doesn’t find in the cities, attended theatre performances on social issues, had conversations with several Sadhus to get acquainted with their diverse views. Kumbh was like a fruit of travel, packing within it the juices of several different parts of India! Those 3 days, more than anything else had reinforced the idea of Roobaroo Walks.

I later went back to Allahabad for the Magh Mela in 2016. There, I met an articulate Pandit Ji and soon found myself engrossed conversing with him about the Mela and his experiences with the place and the people. Half an hour into the conversation, I asked him about Sangam, the name of the place we were at, which is supposed to be a confluence of three rivers. "We can see the rivers Ganga and Yamuna, but where's the third river, Saraswati? How do you see it or its relevance?" I asked him. To which the man replied: "Look Aayush, half an hour ago, we didn’t even know of each other’s existence, but now we’re talking about all things sundry. We’ve developed an acquaintance, a sort of friendship. What is this conversation between us, if not the Saraswati?" His answer was like the most incredible light bulb moment. It made perfect sense. After all, Saraswati is more than a mythical river; she is the goddess of wisdom! The amazing thing is, Kumbh provides numerous opportunities for such enlightening moments 🙂

And now the Kumbh is back again! I'd been long awaiting it, mostly from another fulfilling personal journey point of view. However, around November, we started receiving offers from the government to organize heritage walks there. A friend who worked with The Department of Culture, UP, also got in touch encouraging us to do something there since the govt too was looking to promote the place. Incidentally, a friend I had made at the UP Travel Mart earlier in August 2018 happened to be setting a large tent city there and told me how even his guests had started enquiring about the walks. Further, while we were doing our ad campaigns for our event in Lucknow, we were contacted by a woman from Allahabad who organized heritage walks there, proposing that we work together for Kumbh.

There were too many signs to be ignored. It seemed like providence, and as someone who likes to go with the flow, I decided to explore this path and the wonders it holds! My recent 4-day visit to Kumbh has reinforced the idea that we can string together a worthwhile experience there.

The Sangam at the Kumbh is not only that of rivers but also that of people, ideas, and perspectives. And we would love to help people experience this gala gathering in all its glory, all its richness, and the whole breadth of its potential. So stay tuned for 3 2-day events at Kumbh coming up soon 🙂

Phool Waalon Ki Sair: How Delhi’s history continues to enrich its present

13 November 2018. 3 PM. It is a beautiful afternoon with enough clouds to soften the sun. Delhi’s pollution doesn’t seem very harsh either. Walking towards the India Gate on Rajpath, you see a line of barricades, which is not usually there. Spread out on the left-hand side pavement are fans, kind of like the big hand-held fans from the medieval era swayed by two courtiers on either side of the king. On them is written “Phool Waalon Ki Sair 2018”, with two photos below: the first one, an image of the Hindu goddess Durga, next to a photograph of the Green Dome at Medina, which houses the grave of Prophet Mohammed.

 

 

Before you even turn to the front, you hear drums, along with the murmurings of the crowd. You turn, and there is a bright splash of yellow moving amidst the crowd. Drawing closer, you see a band of old men playing the drums in sync and dancing with dandiya, dressed in bright yellow.

 

 

You are not quite done appreciating this tableau when another sound elsewhere beckons. Follow the strains of shehnai and you reach another band up ahead! These men add another visual and auditory element with their red turbans, cream coloured sherwanis and shehnais. The music from these two bands comes together, even as another set of people picks up those fans mentioned above and themselves fan out in a semi-circular formation. Then the procession begins, with white-clad nagada drummers leading, followed by the drummers and dandiya players in yellow, then the shehnai players, and then finally the fan-bearers. The procession gradually moves around the India Gate, all the while stopping at intervals to play newer tunes and engage the crowd with different theatrics. There is an occasional shower of rose petals. Everything looks very colourful and visually appealing. This is proven by the curious onlookers who cannot help but be drawn to the festivities.

 

 

The scene described above is from a day in the week-long festival of “Phool Waalon Ki Sair”. This event traces its history to the late Mughal Period when emperor Akbar Shah II(1808 to 1837) picked his son Mirza Jahangir as his heir, rather than his elder son Sirajuddin 'Zafar'. India was under the British colonial rule at that time. The British resident in the Mughal Court, Sir Archibald Seton, was not happy with Akbar Shah’s decision because Mirza Jahangir was an insolent young man who had insulted Seton in the royal court. A few days later, Mirza Jahangir was frolicking on a rooftop when he saw Seton passing from below. The former fired a shot at the latter. Seton barely managed to escape and one of his orderlies got killed. Incensed by this, Seton exiled Mirza Jahangir to Allahabad.

 

Distraught by her son’s absence, Mirza’s mom, Mumtaz Mahal Begum vowed that if her son were to be allowed to come back to Delhi, she would offer a chaddar at Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki’s dargah at Mehrauli. Her son did return after two years. Mumtaz Mahal Begum went to offer the chaddar at the dargah and the whole court moved to Mehrauli with her for a week. People celebrated with games like wrestling, cockfighting, kite flying and others. Considering that it brought together people from different faiths and communities, the secular-minded king ordered for a flower pankha (fan) and chhatra (canopy) to be offered at the ancient Jogmaya Temple, also in Mehrauli.

 

After this, the event came to be celebrated every year, becoming a symbol of communal harmony. Bahadur Shah Zafar was the last Mughal king to celebrate it in 1857. However, the tradition was continued by the British Deputy Commissioner until the Quit India Movement in 1942 when the British stopped it under their Divide and Rule Policy.

 

After independence, in about 1962, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru revived Phool Waalon Ki Sair. After its revival, the festival has been organised every year by "Anjuman Sair-e-Gul Faroshan", a society registered under the Societies Registration Act, enjoying the patronage of Delhi’s former Lt. Governor Najeeb Jung.

 

Today, Phool Waalon Ki Sair remains an iconic festival of Delhi. The annual week-long festivities range from processions, offerings at the temple and the dargah to qawwalis, wrestling, dancing and kite flying. Members of both the Hindu and Muslim communities also visit the Delhi’s Lt. Governor and Mayor, as well as India’s President and Vice President to seek their blessings and to invite them to the festival. This event is a beautiful example of Delhi’s living history.

 

4 PM. On the way back, another colourful sight treated the eyes. It was also the day of the Chhat Puja festival. People populated the banks of the water tanks surrounding the India Gate and began their prayers and customs.

 

 

Diwali – the festival of lights, and more!

It's that time of the year again! Diwali, among the most brilliant festivals of Indian culture, is here 🙂

Celebrated on the darkest night of the year - the Kartik Amavasya, this festival of lights is celebrated as the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, and as a harbinger of the NEW! The common story surrounding the festival is that it marks the homecoming of Lord Ram to Ayodhya after defeating Ravan, but there's so much more to this interesting festival!

Origins

Celebrated between the monsoon harvest and the sowing of the winter crop, Diwali is quite likely a fusion of ancient India's harvest festivals. One of its earliest mentions is in the Skanda Purana (1st century AD). By the 7th century, it had become a popular theme for plays (Nagananda composed during King Harsha's reign). The famous Persian traveller, Al Baruni, who visited India in the 11th century even mentions Diwali in his travelogue!

Did you know it's actually a 5-day festival!?

Generally speaking, Diwali is celebrated on the no-moon night of the Kartik month, but the festivities usually start 2 days before and continue for 2 days after (talk about festival hangovers!). Here are the different events celebrated over the 5 days -

1. Dhanteras (the day of fortune) -  Dedicated to the worship and celebration of the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity - Lakshmi. This is considered to be a particularly auspicious day for buying new stuff! (metal and shiny is better :))
2. Naraka Chaturdasi/Chhoti Diwali Tied with the story of Lord Krishna slaying the demon Narakasura using his smarts, this is also celebrated as the day of knowledge!
3. Diwali - The main day! Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha are worshipped big time. The idea is to thank for the monsoon harvest and pray for another bountiful produce for the winter crop and the new year!
4. Govardhan Pooja/Annakut - To reinforce the gratitude towards the Gods - by remembering them of their heroic feat (lifting a mountain to protect the devout!)
5. Bhai Dooj - The last day of the festivities is the Rakhsabandhanisque festival - of the sibling love. On this day, brothers visit their sisters and perform a 'tilak' ceremony.

The living part of the festival

Besides the Godly association, there are several practical applications of Diwali. For instance -

1. The annual clean-up festival! Most days of the year, we are very busy with our regular routines and tend to overlook the cleaning chores. Diwali gives us an excuse to clean up the entire house, repaint things, and also do away with things not needed anymore. You can also donate things and bring a smile on the faces of the less privileged 🙂

2. Community bonding - It is customary for people to visit each other’s homes during this period. A thorough home cleaning ensures your home is always ready to receive your Atithis 🙂
3. Art exhibition - What with so many visitors, it's a great time to showcase our arts - be it the Rangoli, Diyas decoration, Culinary (yummy daal ka halwa, gujiya, and more!), or even new clothes!

 

Varanasi special 

Being the city of 7 vaar, 9 tyohaar (9 festivals for the 7 days of the week), Varanasi has its unique way of celebrating even Diwali. 5 days are too less for this city crazy on festivities. As such, Banaras celebrates Diwali for the entire month of Kartik - with Akashdeeps (Skylanters) lighting up the Ghats for the whole month. And it culminates on the last day of the month - the full moon of Kartik Poornima with Dev Diwali - Diwali for the Gods when the entire 7 km stretch of the ghats is lit up with diyas even as Gods descend on the Earth to watch the lovely spectacle 🙂

Beyond all of this fun and frolic, Diwali is also a time to reflect on life and make changes for the upcoming year. So gone - make your resolution. And let us know about it in the comments section below!

Wish you a very happy Diwali 🙂

Ramlila of Ramnagar

It's that time of the year again - when the biggest broadway play in India, is played out at Public spaces with audiences spanning several thousands! The Ramlila at Ramnagar kicked off 5 days back, across the Ganga from Varanasi.

About 400 years ago, while living in Varanasi, Tulsidas composed Ramcharitamanas - translating Ramayana from Sanskrit to Avadhi, the language of the masses. His prime objective was to increase the accessibility of God to people once again by circumventing the priestly route. Infact, he did not stop just at the translation itself. In order to reach out to people who could understand the local dialect but not necessarily read the script, he also started the tradition of enacting the story of Ram in a play format - something that could be enjoyed together by the communities! And thus began the tradition of Ramlila 🙂

Since then, several Ramlilas have been enacted in different parts of India including several ones in Varanasi itself. One of them especially - the Ramlila of Ramnagar, is by far the biggest, where over 31 days, the story is played out at several shifting venues. The scene of Vishnu lying on his coiled Serpent, Sheshnag, is depicted in a pond while the Ayodhya palace scenes in the Ramnagar fort. The best part is perhaps when Ram and Sita get married in a colony which is decorated like Janakpuri, and half of the city joins in the Baarat (wedding procession) that is taken to another part in the city called Ayodhya, where the other half patiently waits for welcoming the Baarat 🙂 

Started in 1830 under the patronage of the Kashi Naresh, this Ramlila continues in the traditional ways even today. There are no mikes used here as thousands of people watch in pin-drop silence. For most characters, actors from the same families have been playing the roles for generations now! The only exception being the roles of Ram, Seeta and Lakshaman that are played by the young kids still to hit adolescence. And for the 1 month that the play lasts, these actors are perceived by the city's people as being the characters they play. Really old people can be seen seeking blessings from the kids as they believe them to be the very incarnation of Gods themselves! 

Come, witness the magic of this grand celebration of life! Plan a trip to Varanasi soon. 25 days to go 🙂

Here are some of the highlights from last year's Ramlila 🙂

Pustak Samvaad – Book Club Meet-ups

A friend of ours in Varanasi, Gaurav Tiwari, is a big-time reading enthusiast. Reading, Learning and Exchange of Ideas are things close to our hearts as well. So when Gaurav proposed the idea of a Book Club in Varanasi, we were totally in! 

Pustak Samvaad started with a small base of 5-6 people, meeting once every 2 weeks at Roobaroo House, and discussing the books they'd been reading. Even today our gatherings are a humble 10-12 members large. However, the quality of discussions has definitely more than doubled! We have come to put some structure to the meetings and in every session, one person comes prepared (sometimes even with PPTs!) for presenting a book from a certain theme that's decided in the previous meeting. Post the presentation, the floor opens to discussions on the topic in general, and then of course takes tangents!

 

It's now become one of our better habits. Not only does the book club keep feeding you with a list of interesting books to read, you also tend to make better mental notes while reading a book if you know you might have to present it at some point 🙂

Lately, we have been meeting at the South Point Cafe in Lanka, although sometimes the venue changes basis availability of the cafe. Please check the facebook page of Pustaak Samvaad for the next meeting time and place. Do join us if you're around!

Ethnographic Documentary Film Screening and Discussion

In India, knowledge, values and wisdom have been transferred orally from one generation to the other using folk songs, tales, legends and myths. Even the Vedas, the most ancient of Indian literary texts, existed for many centuries in the oral form before being written down!

In modern times, some of these traditions have become rare and are slowly fading away. Espirito Kashi is a team of ethnographers and sociologists who create experimental films aimed at giving a new life to India’s folklore. We were introduced to them by a common friend, and with a shared love for Indian culture, we hit it off right from the first interaction itself.

We screened 2 of their films at our Cultural Centre, Roobaroo House. And post the screening, the floor was opened for questions with the Espirito Kashi team. What ensued was a healthy discussion on diverse topics - from the relevance of folk lore in today's society to reasons for its decreasing popularity, ways for its revival to the process of film making, ethnographic studies and even ideas for plausible new films 🙂    

Here are the 2 films that were screened -

 

Architecture Tour – ‘Outside the Classroom’ Learning

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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 🙂 

Photography Workshop – with Nat Geo Fame Harry Fisch

Living in one of the most photogenic cities in the world makes you want to pick up the Camera and start experimenting yourself. Such was the case with us, and a lot of our friends living here in Varanasi 🙂 

Last year, sometime around Aug 2015, while trying to research online on some tips and tricks, we came across the name of Harry Fisch, a National Geographic Fame Photographer who has been deeply interested in Varanasi and often visits the city to capture her diffferent charms. Out of wishful thinking, more than anything else, we decided to write to him about the possibility of conducting a workshop for us enthusiastic newbies, the next time he planned on visiting here. And to our delight, not only did we received a reply, he also shared told us about his next visit which was scheduled for December later that year. Needless to say, we jumped on the opportunity and requested him to block 3 hours of his time 🙂

Social media helped rack up a decent number of sign-ups. Cometh the date, we were all ready to learn from the much acclaimed photographer. And Harry did not disappoint! Quickly skimming through the basics of Shutter Speed and Exposure, he spent most of the time giving us guidelines for picture composition - Diagonal lines, Empty and Full spaces, Points of Focus and much more! His friendly disposition meant we got to ask all the questions we had in our mind. He also provided several anecdotal references from his expeditions to the jungles of Africa and Indian cities. 

 Above all he said, play around with the rules - create your own ordered disorder, and think of every picture as conveying a story, and not just capturing a memory!

Thank you Harry, for the highly informative and super-fun workshop. We will look forward to your next trip to Varanasi 🙂