Varanasi may be best known for its ethereal ghats and boat rides on the River Ganga, but its svelte lanes are brimming with culinary specialities and unique silk saris. On a fine morning, our writer samples these and discovers just how much the pandemic has affected the local businesses. By Taruka Srivastav
My first trip after the lockdown lifted was a road trip from Lucknow to the holy city of Varanasi, also known by its ancient name of Banaras. Needless to say, I was excited to usher in ‘Subah-e-Banaras’, the local term for experiencing ‘morning in Varanasi’, which starts with the Ganga Aarti at Assi Ghat, followed by a boat ride on the river considered holy by Hindus.
The quickest way to immerse yourself in Varanasi is to sample the local cuisine. Street food is hard to beat, especially when it is breakfast time. There are many hotspots around Assi Ghat, but these aren’t the most accessible parts of the city. Driving a car is hard work, and the abruptly ending pavements make the area less walkable than other parts of the city.
No matter where you are in Varanasi, you are never too far from a stall of kachori, the city’s ubiquitous street food. But there is one place that everyone gets directed to, my guide DK Pandey tells me. In the bustling market of Luxa Bazaar is our destination: Deena Chat Bhandar, surrounded by a gaggle of eager, mask-wearing customers. Named after its owner, Deena Nath Kesari, who started selling tamatar chaat in the late 1980s in a khomcha (a moveable stall), this shop is run by his grandson Atul Kesari. “The tamatar chaat is the most popular dish on our menu, and people from all over the world have praised our preparation. The recipe is decades old,” boasts Kesari, quickly adding a clarification over the footfall. “What you are seeing isn’t even half the number of what we normally have in our shop; it’s due to COVID-19. Thankfully, things are improving and we hope to welcome more locals and tourists.”
I sit on a low seat and watch samosas being plunged into a wok of hot oil. They are served with sweet tamarind chutney and taste surprisingly good; not as greasy as I had expected. After devouring a samosa, I tuck into the shop’s popular khasta kachori (a fried puffed pastry with fillings) and chooda matar (flattened rice with peas and condiments), both of which are specialities of Varanasi.
No Banaras breakfast is complete without dessert. And there are few things more indulgent than the winter speciality of malaiyo. It is basically flavoured milk foam served in earthen vessels and garnished with finely chopped almonds and pistachios. The milk foam is like a cloud that diffuses in your mouth, leaving behind a lingering sweetness. But you must eat it before 10 am, while the weather is still cold because the foam doesn’t last at higher temperatures.
After the sumptuous breakfast, I dive into the making of the famous Banarasi silk sari, which carries a Geographical Indication (GI) tag. Its origins can be traced to the early 1600s when a number of skilled weavers migrated to Banaras and designs from both the Muslim and Hindu communities intermingled on the canvas of the city. This is when Banaras became a popular centre for silk weaving in gold and silver threads (local brocade called kinkhwab). It is also believed that Varanasi flourished as a textile centre when it was the capital of the Kingdom of Kashi, which included Sarnath—the place where Gautam Buddha delivered his first sermon.
We go deep into the narrow lanes of Bajardiha, where a large silk weavers’ community resides. As soon as we enter, we’re surrounded by a cacophony of looms, their clickety-clack redolent of train engines and typewriters. Weaving a Banarasi silk sari is an act of precision, skill, and a lot of patience. Weavers work for eight to nine hours a day in their pit looms, I’m told.
But even this centuries-old business has been hit badly by the pandemic. “We are just about managing to survive,” says Abdullah, 56, one of the masters of the craft. He was trained by his father since he was a child. “First it was the power looms that were taking away our business, and now it is the pandemic. It is only very recently that we have started getting orders again to make the saris,” he adds.
Traditionally, every weaver household lives on the first floor of the structure, while the ground floor functions as the workplace (pit looms). It takes 25 to 30 days to weave one sari, according to Abdullah. Prices can vary significantly depending on the intricacy of the design, with more complex patterns like the classic Mughal-inspired jangla—with its meticulous zari work and meena flowers—often costing four times as much as the simpler ones. You can find the fabric in the local markets and retail or wholesale stores anywhere in the city, but buying directly from the weavers is a win-win. This way they reap all the benefits of their hard work, and you are ensured an authentic silk sari for nearly half the price (when compared with the market price). The one I buy for my mother costs me INR 15,000.
In 2018, the state government introduced the ‘One District One Product’ (ODOP) initiative to raise awareness about handloom weavers and to help them sell their products online. It has encouraged traditional craftsmen and a wave of designers to revive ancient crafts. In the wake of the pandemic, ODOP is connecting artisans with shoppers around the world, eliminating the need for middlemen or extensive travels. Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been one all-consuming question for the weavers and shop owners of Varanasi: “When are people coming back?” With proper precautions in place and the start of vaccination in India, we can now thankfully say, “Soon.”
The Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport is well connected to other cities of India. The Varanasi Cantt. railway station is within the main city.
Taj Ganges: This five-star property offers an ethereal stay experience to travellers, marrying old-world charm with modern luxuries. From INR 5,300.
Brijrama Palace: Perched on the river bank, on the Darbanga Ghat, Brijrama Palace is one of the oldest landmarks in the city. Tracing its history back to 1812, the palace offers a royal experience to its guests. From INR 13,500