If you’re a lover of sweets and saris, this city is for you, but it also has some serious modern issues


MARK TWAIN VISITED HERE IN 1897 and proclaimed: “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together!” His comment was no doubt inspired in part by Pucca Mahal, the nucleus of the modern city of Varanasi which itself fans out over 1,200 square miles and has a population of 1.2 million. Pucca Mahal is adjacent to Panchganga and Manikarnika ghats on the river side. Both Kashi Vishwanath and Annapurana temples are located here. The area is extraordinarily cramped: multi-story buildings front insanely narrow lanes which rarely see a ray of sunshine. There is hardly room for a three wheeler on most streets, let alone a car. Consequently, traffic is on foot, and residents and tourists alike throng the shops which offer food, drinks, saris, books, rudrakasha beads, puja material and anything else you can think of.

Both the intelligentsia and the uber rich used to live in this area; the locals still tell stories of their elegance, élan and style. Now, those better off have moved to less congested areas where they can park a car at their front door. But left behind is this spectacular shopping experience, not the least of which are the sweet shops selling thandai, lassi, kachauris, rabri, malai and more. Here one might wait half an hour to have an order filled.

The paan shops here are extremely popular—the well-known health risks of paan consumption notwithstanding. Umesh Chan­dra Chaurasiya (photo below) is the fifth generation of his family running his shop. He begins every day with an offering of paan at the nearby Kashi Vishwanath Temple. He says they import paan to Varanasi from all over India, depending on the season.

Frequent funeral processions pass through this area, with mourners wailing and loudly chanting “Ram Nam Satya Hai.” Everyone makes way for these processions. Many stand still offering with folded hands a final namaskar to the dead.

Visitors are surprised by the respect accorded the wandering bulls here, all regarded as manifestations of Siva’s mount, Nandi. Should one lie down in a narrow road for a rest, traffic simply adjusts—no one would think of making the Nandi move. These bulls also wander from shop to shop and home to home taking handouts. One famously took up residence in a shop, sitting on the floor hours each day throughout the year.

The city is known for its lifestyle, termed Banarasipan, a key aspect of which is a feeling of equality among all residents. “We do not believe in someone being big and the other person small,” explained Sadhu Bhairon Muni of the Bada Udasin Panchayati Akhara. An equally important aspect of the city’s character mentioned by many people we interviewed is mauj masti, which means literally “fun and bliss.”

Bhang, a cannabis preparation, is a significant aspect of Varanasi’s mellow life in the spirit of mauj masti. Though technically illegal in India it is—inexplicably—sold here by government-run bhang shops. A small tablet costs just two rupees—three US cents—therefore it is within the means of even the poorest of the poor. It is often consumed in the evening mixed with thandai, a cold drink of milk, sugar, almonds and multiple other ingredients. People will then gossip over tea and traditional snacks until well past midnight. This night life is unusual and not something seen in other spiritual cities such as Rishikesh, Haridwar or Allahabad.

Varanasi today is beset with modern problems, largely the result of a threefold population increase since 1947. The most visible is the garbage that clogs the lanes and parts of the ghats. One would think this could be solved with a concerted effort by the municipal government, but for whatever reasons of politics or inefficiency, it has not.

The most serious nuisance is pollution of the Ganga itself by the city’s sewage. We interviewed an unexpected expert on this, the head priest of Sankat Mochan Temple, Dr. Vishwambar Nath Mishra, an electronics engineer by training. The situation, he said, had dramatically changed since his childhood when the river water could be drunk without concern. Now one could catch cholera, typhoid or dysentery from it, according to him. “Ganga is a living Goddess, but we have not given Her the kind of reverence, care and attention She deserves,” he pleaded. He said the 1986 Ganga Action Plan launched under Rajiv Gandhi to address the problem was an utter and complete failure.

The Sankat Mochan Foundation, which manages the temple, has itself investigated the issue and proposed a pipeline to intercept all the sewage now entering the river within the city limits and transport it downstream for treatment. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the member of parliament for Varanasi, and when he visited the city after the elections, he consulted with Mishra during a visit to the temple. “I suggested to the PM,” Mishra recounts, “that he raise the issue at his huge public meeting later that day. To my utter surprise, his entire focus for the 90-minute speech was Ganga. For once, I feel something good will happen in the future.”

Daily Life in the Spirit of “Fun and Bliss”


Inside Varanasi: Paan merchant Umesh Chandra Chaurasiya in his shop; hot steaming milk is served with a variety of Varanasi’s speciality sweets

Just How Ancient Is Varanasi?

VARANASI IS UNQUESTIONABLY ONE OF THE OLDEST INHABITED settlements in the world, and a contender for the oldest in Asia. We put the question of Varanasi’s age to Dr. Vidula Jayaswal, professor emeritus of ancient Indian history, culture and archeology at Banaras Hindu University. It is not possible, she explained, to do an archeological dig on any scale in a living city, so information has come forth piecemeal. When the Varanasi railway station was being built in the 1940s a seal was found with the name “Varanasi” on it, and the level of the discovery dated to 800bce by archeologist Krishna Deva. She herself excavated the nearby settlements of Aktha, which yielded an age of 1800 bce, and Ram Nagar, which dated to 1750bce. It is known that in the sixth century bce Buddha came to Sarnath, which is just a few miles from Varanasi. At that time Sarnath was a major settlement, while Varanasi was a smaller town or prosperous village at the confluence of the Ganga and Varuna rivers. Aktha has been identified by Jayaswal as identical to “Rishipattana” in the Buddhist texts.

We asked Dr. Jayaswal about any relationship with the Indus-Saraswati Civilization, which declined around 2100bce, as it is known that parts of the population migrated east to the Ganga basin. She sees no direct relationship, as there is no evidence in terms of pottery, script, toys or anything else. The pottery of this region is different than that of Indus. But at Aktha she did find ashram-type settlements with kaccha (“temporary”) floors, wooden posts and temporary roofs comparable to the type of construction described in the Vedic texts. There were also fire altars and evidence of Vedic rituals being performed. Over time, she concludes, people moved from the area on the small Varuna River to the banks of the much larger Ganga, which offered long-distance navigation, thus turning Varanasi into a bustling center for trade.


Inside Varanasi: A shop for famed Banaras silk saris; a typical narrow lane within Pucca Mahal.



One of Pucca Mahal’s thousands of Siva Lingam shrines; The “Tilting Temple” in the 1860s soon after it was built, and now, with its shifted and submerged foundations; a roadside food vendor around mealtime.


Scenes from Varanasi


A bull wanders peacefully through the streets; sadhu living at Manikarnika Ghat reading the Ramayana; the betal leaf section of Phool Mandi, Varanasi’s huge flower and vegetable market; a vendor of marigold garlands.