January 03, 2019
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Varanasi: Through the eyes of an historian

uestions, asking them and lots of them. When we visited Varanasi as a part of our study tour, we're encouraged to ask locals questions and conduct interviews. I'm glad I could muster up the courage to take one such interview. And I'm glad I did. Here's the interview, redacted to prevent privacy of those concerned.

How did you actually make plans to come to Varanasi? Is it the place itself, or is it the kind of work that you do?
A: It’s actually related to my research because I’m working on temple architecture. So, for my Ph.D., I looked at the temples in Delhi, and then I got a chance to come to Varanasi by finding a residency so now I’m looking at the temples in Varanasi.

That’s so nice. So since you’ve lived a Delhi for quite a long time, could you tell us how do you find the culture of Delhi different from the culture of Varanasi?
A: Oh, it’s very different! Delhi is a metropolitan city. There are lots of people coming from different places, lots of facilities are available and the city itself is much bigger than Varanasi. The way people move and live in Delhi is very different than they do in Varanasi. In Delhi, people are very busy and concerned about their own work.

There aren't many rituals happening. I mean, there are rituals happening but they aren’t deeply rooted in the city unlike they are here, in Varanasi, I won’t talk about the very old Islamic parts of Delhi, they’re different. In Varanasi, people in a family have been staying together for generations, so there are things like food, power, culture, and music which have very old cultural roots in the city.

As an architectural enthusiast, can you throw some light on the underlying layers of fabric that intricately yet beautifully weave the city of Varanasi?
A: Although I’m not really sure about what is it that you’re referring to, but yes, this is also a difference between the city of Varanasi and Delhi. In Delhi, especially the southern parts of Delhi have very wide and paved roads. So the urban fabric is very different from the fabric that you have in Varanasi. Most of the city, at least the old parts of the city is small galis, so you can’t actually move through the cities with cars, you’ve to walk through the galis.

The first time you change cities of residence, you find yourself in a cultural shock, which can be either due to a difference in your expectations of the place and reality or in the lifestyle being different from your former place of residence. What were those shocks, and how did you manage to cope with them?
A: At first there was a huge difference, coming from a very small village in Germany, which had 500 people living in the village, so the difference was not only, like a change of country, or a change of setting, but generally, coming from a village and moving to a city where there are millions of people was a big change.  In Delhi, everything is within a walking distance.  In terms of living, I used to live in a hostel, which means the facilities I had were very basic, I didn’t have my own kitchen and I had to share my bathroom with 30 to 50 other girls. I wanted to do my Ph.D. so I couldn’t complain!

Coming and staying in Varanasi, of course, is very different because here I have two rooms, my own bathroom, there’s a kitchen where the cook prepares food every day, I’m not used to that kind of luxury, even in  Germany I don’t get to stay that comfortably.