May 17, 2020
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Benares Diary

Though our PM is known more for his fasting than his feasting, he has brought his star power to bear on Varanasi’s crafts and food

Benares Diary
Photo by Amit Haralkar
Benares Diary
Wearing down an ideal
At last month’s centennial convocation at Benares Hindu University (BHU), Prime Min­ister Narendra Modi faced protests from Dalit students alleging discrimination on the campus. Unseemly as it was, it only followed a long tradition at an institution right in the citadel of Hinduism and on the edge of modernity. The inauguration of BHU, in 1916, was marked by a blistering speech in which Gandhiji chided the maharajas who funded the university for their excesses and spoke of the lack of cleanliness around the Kashi Vishwanath temple.

Madan Mohan Malaviya founded BHU to help bring ‘modern’, ‘scientific’ and ‘rational’ thought and research to traditional Hindu ideas. This was evident in the campus itself, which is part transplanted from the first world, with its neatly laid out roads and trees, and part celebration of the city’s past, with gates that echo temple spires. And it may be most evident in the women’s college, where my grandmother taught and my mother graduated from. So I grew up with stories from the 1950s, of teachers who brought alive the wonders of Sanskrit literature and played tennis in white sarees, and of the first women to drive around the city.

The protest created the usual uproar online, but the Dalit students needn’t have looked farther than the founder for a touch of reformism becoming absent now. In his essay on devotion, Malaviya says it’s the duty of all Hindus to work for the uplift of Dalits because they have stayed within the fold of Hinduism despite the discrimination they faced. He even congratulated Gandhian industrialist Jamnalal Bajaj for allowing Dalits to enter his family temple and digging wells for all castes to draw water from. Bajaj’s actions, wrote Malaviya, would please the gods.

Devanagari meets Kanji

The PM’s constituency headlines the Kashi-Kyoto project, one of the main aims of which is urban renewal while retaining the city’s heritage character. A friend who visited Kyoto recently said it was chosen because more than 2,000 of its temples have been impeccably restored, along with their picture-perfect gardens. In Benares, on the other hand, administrative involvement is restricted to the heavy security around the Kashi Vishwanath temple. The ancient township of temples that lies between Kashi Vishwa­nath and the ghats along the river is still reigned over by gods in precariously perched temples. There are goddesses who resolve local disputes, gods who protect the city gates or cure illnesses, and temples where shehnai legend Bismillah Khan honed his skills. There are temples so old they are nearly buried under layers of concrete and can only be seen using reflecting glasses. But if you could look up there are Bengali quarters, Nepalese hospitals and Korean hotels. Locals believe this town is best left untouched and viewed instead on a boat ride, which largely happen around sunrise or sunset, when the stink and filth of the city are eclipsed by the glory of an ochre sun shimmering on the Ganga.

I took a boat ride on the city’s newest and now best-known festival, Dev Diwali. The ghats are lit up with diyas, fairy lights and even an Eiffel Tower to commemorate the Paris attacks! Amid all the light and splendour, there’s finally a sign of the Kyotoisation of Kashi—Japanese-looking graffiti among the religious murals on the ghats. It is the facade of a guesthouse owned by an Indo-Japanese couple, Kumiko and Shanti, and has housed Japanese and other tourists for decades. The guests are known to sing Japanese songs and chant Sanskrit mantras on the adjoining ghats. They also paint quirky graffiti.        

Paan-tastic twist

A previous diarist wrote on these pages about the Banarasis’ love of food. And though our PM is known more for his fasting than his feasting, he has brought his star power to bear on Varanasi’s crafts and food. At the Make In India event in Mumbai, top fashion designers showcased creations in fabrics from the ancient city. Accompanying the ‘Banarasi’ suits and minidresses was Banarasi street food—kachori, sam­osa, nimona and tamatar ki chaat. The previous diarist had voted for nimona (mashed green peas curry) as his version of heaven. My vote for Banarasi heaven would have to be an invention to surpass the Banarasi business suit! In the heaving Thatheri gali, Shree Ram Sweet House has been making a dessert version of what could arguably be called Benares’s greatest symbol for decades—paan. Called malai gilori, it’s a triangular sweet. The encasing is made with sweetened malai and varq and it carries a filling of green pistachios. The sweetened, melting malai yields to crunchy pistachios and leaves behind the sweetest taste of the city—without the paan stains!

Last month

I learnt that ‘Kartik Purnima’, the day Banarasis light lamps in memory of their ancestors, has become a glitzy festival. For effect, this year, a sighting of Sonam Kapoor was thrown in.

A former Outlook corr­espondent in Mumbai, Saumya Roy is now a microfinance banker

E-mail your diarist: roy.saumya [AT] gmail [DOT] com

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