Varanasi, the oldest living city in the world , city of ancient history, tradition and magic.
as a beautiful person we met here describe it “the city of learning and burning”.
We finally reach Varanasi after 17 hours bus ride from the border of Nepal, almost at midnight. We stuff all our bags and ourselves into a small rickshaw, what reminds me the old joke about how is it possible to place 6 elephants into tiny Fiat 600, answer – 3 in the front seats, 3 in the back seats .
The driver this time is very friendly but try to sell us some hostels that probably he gets commission from ( everyone are middle men of some sort in India ), this will repeat itself from now on with almost every single person in our stay in Varanasi and probably everywhere else in India. We had heard good recommendations about Alka Hotel, located on the main Ghat, but we find out that it is full and we are lead again through the extremely narrow alleys of the old city to the Teerth , another lodge owned by the same owners of Alka.
It is already one o’clock at night, we are very tired after 17 hours on a falling-apart local bus and we are ready to take anything at this point until next day.
We are lucky, the place and the employees running it are very welcoming, friendly, and the rooms are big and clean, with a big communal court yard and roof top full of light, nothing fancy. The roof top definitely need some coloring to make it smile again, but this apply to all Varanasi from top to bottom.
We decide to make this place our home while we are in Varanasi.
Indeed Varanasi becomes our home for the coming few weeks, this city has all the magic you can possibly look for, if you just stop, stay and let the city slowly be revealed to you, behind the tourist traps ( and there are many of them) under the noise, the extreme dirt in the ancient narrow alleys, with thousands of thousands of poor & rich pilgrims waiting for hours to enter into the Golden Temple or any of the dozens temples spread all over the Ghats and old city.
What is the most fascinating about Varanasi is the active, deep connection between past and present, the pride of young people to be the sixth, the tenth or fifteenth generation in the family tradition and skills, whether it would be the family running the Alka & Teerth, owning the lodge where we are staying, announcing with pride that they are the fourth generation running and developing the business the grand father started 75 year ago, a generous and helpful family that make our stay here very comfortable and homey.
Or the loving big family running the Blue Lassi, having by no doubt the most delicious lassies we ever had and probably will have. Thick, heavenly creamy yoghurt served in handmade clay-bowls, with fresh fruits & nuts in endless combinations; The Lassi is made by rolling a thick wooden stick inside a metal bowl with yoghurt, exactly like it was done when grand-grand-grand-father made his first lassi….
A tiny place started generations ago and now the grandson who is a grandfather him self, passing the knowledge to his sons, grand sons & grand-grand sons. We count 4 generations now involved in running the business, changing turns, sitting on the front of their shop making the lassies with love one by one, warmly welcoming their customers in a friendly and attentive way.
The place is crowded all day, but nothing has been changed since the day it was first opened .
An amazing family that welcomed us so beautifully and opened their house & heart for us.Blue Lassi is definitely part of our daily diet through all our stay in Varanasi.
Next discovery is the family running a silk production business; we are invited into their home, front part is the shop and in the back a big court yard, with 3 storage building where all the extended family live together, from the grand father, to father, sons and cousins & their family’s, all sharing same space, their own small family temple is in the cave-like space beneath the building, the place they believe is the source of power and wealth of the family, they maintain and worship it with the highest devotion possible.
We stay with them for several hours to be explained how silk is made, how to be able to recognize real silk and fake silk (real silk when burned will smell like a burning hair, fake will smell like plastic), different qualities, and endless amount of designs.
What is real Pashmina wool and what is fake (real Pashmina is very light and for instance a shawl can be slid trough any normal finger ring, if it stucks it is not real Pashmina). Pashmina is made from the hairs of a special kind of goat living high up in the Himalaya; the most expensive items can cost up to tens of thousands of euros and are made from only the hairs of the beards cut from the very young goats….
Our lesson will end with one of the family members taking us for a long walk, deep into the Muslim neighborhoods, to one of their many family-run silk manufactures. They reveal to us that silk making tradition is solely the property of Muslims, all knowledge and know how is in their hands, again generation after generation of doing, Hindu people will sell and make the business part, but all products are done, by hand, by endless amount of local families in their homes.
We decide to order from them custom-made silk sleeping bags, for each one of us, super light, 2 meter long by 1.10 meter wide, soft and inviting that will serve us anywhere we go as our bed-sheet;, extremely comfortable, practical and useful objects to have when traveling, perfect for any condition.
One of the things you discover here in India as a tourist is that at first sight locals will try to overcharge you because you are tourist ( and because bargain is part of the culture and calculated in the price given to you as part of the communication between people , knowing that the final price will be lower ), but once you return to a place second and third time, with a smile, with open heart to share your story and hear their story, the attitude will completely change, they will welcome you with a big smile, offer you free things and discount you or guide you with free valuable friendly advises.
It happens in the market with the fruit sellers, with the chai stalls in the street, the Masala Dosa makers in the street and goes up to any one we meet a long the way.
Our most valuable lesson in Varanasi where ever we go, either would it be Lassi making, silk experts Ayurvedic oil making or Tabla master that teach us playing the Tabla is, Respect the past, know where are you coming from and what is your responsibility in this life, with your family tradition, do it right, do it with pride, do it with your heart; this is the key to everything you do in life according to Varanasi people.
And much more to learn as we soon discover….