By E. Emmet Brady
“It is one of the most holy places in India, a place of pilgrimage for all Hindus” my host Puneet explained to me. “It is where many Hindus wish to die.”
A captivating idea, for certain, but I was hoping this was not the purpose of my visit.
I was heading to Varanasi to offer a business lecture at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), the largest residential university in Asia. Puneet and I were sitting in a cold dorm room in Lucknow, which is the capital of Uttar Pradesh. The city – located 4 hours by car from Varanasi – had been blanketed in fog for the week I was there. Puneet prepared me that Varanasi would be much different – and much more engaging.
The cab ride to Varanasi was pure adventure. I paid $30 dollars (almost 2000 rupees) to the driver, who got us comically lost, and then got mad at me for doing so.
Upon arrival, the charm of the mystical city was apparent right away – matched by its chaos. Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the oldest in India. For over 3500 years it has been referred to as “the city of lights”, “the city of learning” and “the oldest living city on Earth.”
So, it is an appropriate setting for an esteemed institution such as BHU.
The town of Varanasi was dustier and more intense that I expected. The reason was simple: logistics. Varanasi is designed where all the roads radiate from a center. However, the creators had not the automobile in mind when the made them. (Imagine rush hour in London on dirt roads with cars passing amidst throngs of cows and hundreds of bikes and rickshaws. That’s Varanasi.)
The locals have the briskness typical of anyone who lives in a place that attracts a lot of tourists – domestic and foreign. But they also posses a gentle pride and sincerity that is unique to Varanasi. They have a long tradition of hosting and caring for beleaguered travelers. After all, their home is the “religious capital of India.
BHU is consistently ranked as the top school in India, especially in biotechnology and engineering. The proscenium arch that gates the campus serves as a barrier to the considerate chaos of the marketplace. During festival season it is brightly adorned, similar to an amusement park, with one main exception: the people on the inside are the elite, the most sophisticated minds in the country.
I was greeted by the Dean of Public Relations and immediately taken on a tour of the campus, which is open to guests and tourists with approval from the administration. The remarkable buildings on the campus are a blend of traditional and modern, among them the Kashi Vishwanath Temple – the most famous Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva.
Another compelling part of the tour includes the Bharat Kala Bhavan, an art and archaeological museum established in January 1920 by India’s Nobel laureate in literature, Rabindranath Tagore. The museum has a diverse art collection, including a famous triptych by Alice Boner, the famous Swiss artist who brought the mythology of Hinduism to western art aficionados.
There are the standard throngs of hustling entrepreneurs, eager to sell the wares and shuffling to attract the attention of onlookers. It was in Varanasi that I first tasted paan, the tasty, almost creamy treat of a small amount of tobacco and areca nut wrapped in a betel leaf. This stimulant combo seems to drive the working class Indian economy. The small booths are operated mostly by men; the more artisanal among them are called paanwala. There is a sweet version and a more potent pungent style, and you will pay about $3 for a single serving. But be careful – paan is one reason many Indians have stained teeth.
Editor’s note: Original World offers cultural immersion experiences across India, including several North India Journeys that take you to the sacred Ganges River and holy city of Varanasi, the Chandella Temples of Khajuraho and the exquisite and romantic white marble Taj Mahal.