People Watching in Varanasi 1

What is people watching?

Well, Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines it as “the act of spending time looking at different kinds of people in a public place because you find this interesting”.


I stumbled upon this long-known, but undiscovered term through a friend’s mail about his indulging into the activity in his visit to a country in South-East Asia. I was acquainted with flânerie and drifting due to my interest in psychogeography, Baudelaire and the Arcades Project, but not with the new rage of the new age. I researched a little and reached to the link between flânerie and people watching. An article I particularly  liked was about people watching in Paris.  

Not only was I excited as I read more about it, I could actually see how visitors to my city have been people watching since they started visiting it. From Ralph Fitch, Tavernier and Bernier to Pierre Loti and Hermann Keyserling, visitors to the city wrote paragraph after wonderful paragraph of description that amounts to the central activity of people watching much before the term was used and acknowledged.

Here’s an example from a work of non-fiction from early twentieth century, from E. B. Havell’s Benares: The Sacred City:

It is amusing to see sometimes at Mogul Serai, the junction for the East Indian line, how the up-to-date Indian arriving from Calcutta, Bombay, or some other large Anglo-Indian city, will in an incredibly short time divest himself of his European environment and transform himself into the orthodox Hindu. You will see him first stepping out of the train, dressed in more or less correct European garb, and smoking a cigarette. He is accompanied by a servant, who deposits a steel trunk on the platform in front of him. Then, coram populo, but without the least suggestion of impropriety, he proceeds to take off coat, waistcoat, trousers, and boots, and taking out of the trunk a collection of spotless white drapery, speedily arrays himself in puggaree, dhotee, and the rest of the becoming costume of an Indian gentleman, while the cast-off garments are stowed away until his next return to European society.

Pierre Loti’s India is full of such examples. This one is from the beginning of his visit:

A young fakir, whose long hair falls upon his shoulders, stands by the abode of the dead in a rigid attitude, with his head turned towards the smoking heaps of wood and their gruesome burdens. Though covered with white dust he is still beautiful and muscular. His chest is decked with a garland of marigolds, such a garland as the people here cast upon the river’s breast. A little way above the funeral heaps some five or six persons crouch upon the frieze of an old palace, which fell into the river long ago. Their heads are wrapped in veils, and, like the fakir, they stare fixedly at their kinsman who is being burned.

Here’s another example of people watching, this time, from fiction, from Shivprasaad Singh’s Gali Age Mudti Hai (The Lane Turns Ahead):

 [Varanasi] is a strange city. There’s not enough space to walk in the lanes, not enough even to pass if one person stops walking, yet, if a performer starts performing, people forget all work and problems and assemble to watch what he has to show…

Two mahuar players were competing against each other: moving in circles, challenging, taking stances with mouth full of air. They appeared to be from Rajasthan. They wore narrow cut, tight trousers and dirty vests. Both wore patterned headgear. One was young and the other older… They played the same tune from a very famous Hindi film, “Mann dole, mere tan dole…”. 

The novel presents many paragraphs of equally rich description as the hero goes on his way and watches people.

In addition to modern English and Hindi prose, people watching is ever present, in one form or the other but not as the central concern of the piece, in Sanskrit writing on the city. 


The Rhythm of Life in Kashi

DSC04323An hour before sunrise deep within the labyrinth of lanes near Kedareshwar Temple and Ghat, the movements of life start to register their presence. Although the lane had not gone to sleep before one very late at night, it started stirring by four in the morning. It leads to the temple of the central deity of the section, Lord Kedareshwar. Devotees of Lord Kedara and of Mother Ganga are men and women of confirmed habits. Change in seasons affects the rhythm of the life of the regulars only a little bit. They move through the same lanes to complete the same circuit with a constant rhythm throughout their life. Nothing can alter that, be it of personal, local, regional, national or international consequence. Life comes back to its norm-al self with a certainty that would make the poet who wrote the following lines proud:

Happy the man, whose wish and care 
   A few paternal acres bound, 
Content to breathe his native air, 
                            In his own ground. 
Blest, who can unconcernedly find 
   Hours, days, and years slide soft away, 
In health of body, peace of mind, 
                            Quiet by day, 
Sound sleep by night; study and ease, 
   Together mixed; sweet recreation; 
And innocence, which most does please, 
                            With meditation. 
Thus let me live, unseen, unknown; 
   Thus unlamented let me die; 
Steal from the world, and not a stone 
                            Tell where I lie.
(From “Ode on Solitude” by A Pope)

Father and Sons

I have two black and white photographs of a father posing with his sons in my family collection and one of them is older than I am. The first photograph has my grandfather and his four sons in it. In the background you can see the old and still functional dressing table at our ancestral house in Varanasi. My grandfather holds my youngest uncle in his arms. My eldest uncle, the one younger to him and my father stand from right to left. Look at the posture and the eyes of the three boys. They stand almost at attention and their eyes are locked with the lens of the camera. Probably that was how people responded to such a strange black box at their place or, they were told to look into the lens and stand in that manner. I’m sure there’s a story about the marigold garlands the three boys wear.

Baba n Sons

In the second photograph my eldest uncle poses gracefully with his three sons. Allow me a digression here. I think that my eldest uncle was the most handsome man in our family, his younger brother, my father, was a close second in his youth. We, the sons, got some of their features, that’s all. I can recognize the smile at the face of the eldest cousin of mine. He smiles like that even today, nearly forty years later. The boys at the front are at ease. Although they are very much conscious of the camera, they have not forgotten to smile. They are in a public place and not at their house. Probably that has reduced their camera shyness. They are mentally more prepared for the camera than the three boys of the previous photograph.

Bade Ch n Sons

Where are the girls of the family? Well, my uncle has no daughters. That explains their absence from the photograph. My grandfather had two daughters, both elder than my youngest uncle who is right there, in the photograph. Then why are they not there? Before we proceed, here’s another photograph of the same family. In this photograph my grandmother poses for the camera with her eldest and youngest sons, and her two daughters.Yes, they are fully conscious of the camera. And yes, this photograph was definitely taken at a studio. I’m sure you have marked the absence of shoes at the feet of the two aunts of mine. Why have they not worn shoes or slippers while posing for the camera?

Dadi n Children

Moving on from the black and white photograph of an era long past towards the coloured family photograph, we reach my youngest uncle’s family.

Chote Chacha n Family


Rauza Laal Khan, Raj Ghat, Varanasi


There is a little tomb in Varanasi that Banarsis like to call the “Taj Mahal of Banaras”. It’s not a great tourist attraction as the well known circuits of the city don’t take one beyond the routine ghats, lanes, temples and Sarnath trips.  The tomb of Lal Khan, or Lal Khan’s Rauza, is a late eighteenth century structure that stands by Shershah Suri Road near River Ganges at at Raj Ghat.


The famous Dufferin or Malviya Bridge can be seen at bottom left of the image above. This tomb is in an enclosure that also houses the excavation site of the ancient city of Kashi. There is a central building with a large dome and four minarets at the four corners of the structure. When the sun rises from behind the eastern minaret of the tomb, the view is full of peace.


The area around the tomb is full of greenery. Well maintained lawns and well shaped shrubs characterize the view. From near the eastern boundary wall one may have a glorious view of the river below and the complete view of the bridge with its shining girders to the south. The tomb’s walls and dome have patterns in glazed tiles that have lost their sheen in two centuries and more since the tomb was made. Just like the pinnacles on the minarets of the palace of King Chet Singh at Shivala Ghat, the pinnacles of the central structure of this tomb are in very bad condition and need care and repair.


The aura of the place is such that people are drawn towards it. In the morning one can see people walking the length of the pedestrian path all along the boundary wall, laughing, practicing asanas, or simply lounging on the grass. Rauza Lal Khan is a place worth visiting. More than that, it’s a place worth spending some time in introspection at.


Poetry, me and Kashi

I write in prose and verse. I like writing. It gives me pleasure and a sense of direction and being. It took me time to realize that I was born to write. Just as it took me time to realize that poetry is my mode of self expression and creative expansion. I had not written anything on my city for many months. I had not been there for many months. I had started marking that the posts of my facebook groups from Varanasi stopped appearing on my timeline as the number of posts of poetry and writing groups of mine increased in volume.

Then, this afternoon, I went to my Varanasi groups and looked a their posts. It was unplanned. So, is this post. Varanasi made me write this post here. The posts I shared were about Dev Deepavali, Launglata or Lavanglata, Sankatmochan Temple, Jalebi and Wall Paintings in Varanasi.


I had done a post on Launglata at:

In the image above you can see my neighborhood Bhaiya who had been making wonderful Jalebis and Launglatas for the neighborhood for at least three decades.

I had mentioned the traditional wall paintings here:


Jalebi is a sweet popular in Varanasi. It is a convoluted closed spiral tube of fried maida filled with sugar syrup and is served hot. It’s a perfect partner of Kacaudi and Pumpkin-potato curry. Shops and stalls selling this perfect Banarsi breakfast can be found at any street or lane corner. The shop in the image above sells them in the morning. The evening is for selling another variety of snacks.


Chittoranjan’s Shop, Hararbagh, Varanasi

Chittoranjan, my old friend from my school days sells these deep fried magical dollops popularly known as pakodas. Starting from the left on the tray can be seen Malgaja, Chilli Chap, Daal Bada, Aloo Chap, Tomatar Chap and Vegetable Cutlets. These mouth watering (mine is watering while I type) snacks are made of various seasonal vegetables dipped in besan (powdered chickpea) batter and then deep fried twice. The vegetables used, from the left are eggplant, chilly, potatoes, tomatoes and peas. Lentils and soy bean is used too.

Sankatmochan Temple is a centuries old temple dedicated to the great devotee of Lord Rama: Hanumanji. I had written a post partially on him here:

I have not captured Dev Deepavali with my camera yet.  When I do, I’ll upload images here.

Now, here are some of my shorter poems on my city:

Shadows LaidBamboo StripsRows of steps

Here is a longer poem:

Row after row, steps rising from the river,
Row after row, steps falling to the same,
Rising, going westward, falling, coming – a game
Words play on life; and life, a little later
Shells the words all down, and leaves
Just the strong impressions, firmly etched,
Deeply carved, with colours true, fetched
From the days of old, when life was lived.
The game, when it’s over; whistles blown,
Feet when tired come over the falling steps,
Tracing back the same old worn out stone –
Steps at the end of a summer-day-long run,
Over them of a never-resting sun –
Lead them gently riverward, down the steps.

[Originally published at:

Here’s another, this one on filth and faith:

Time and Life to Death

Filth, they call it ubiquitous;
obnoxious. On streets,
in heaps, in lanes, scattered.
Life goes daily, usually on,
oblivious of filth,
or death,
goes on with ease.
Unfettered feet, undaunted –
of pilgrims, of people,
with purpose, or strollers
The timeless lanes,
narrow, space ample
for all who come,
who live and die there.
Disgusting, the filth,
reflected sometimes, on faces.
Cow dung, house waste,
refuse and grime,
Scattered, removed,
then scattered again,
repeat performance,
seen and felt
on skin, in nose, on feet through eyes.
Yet feet go on,
undaunted, eternally,
as time and life run to death,
from flesh to fire to ashes.


New Bread of Life Bakery and Restaurant

And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.

John 6:35

It all began with the coincidence, or not, of one of the most famous places that serves choicest bread in the city of Varanasi, deep in the heartland of northern India, bearing a name that comes straight from the Bible. The owner Mr. Ashish Chakraborty, is a Hindu and an Indian, and the name of the bakery was given a long time ago and a Christian friend of his. I know of at least two more places in Varanasi that bake well but this bakery is in a league of its own. 


Mr Chakraborty’s story is not very long and it’s unique only towards the end. His story  is half-common, with an uncommon post-mid part. As the only, and the eldest, son of the family there was the responsibility of carrying on his illustrious father’s name over his shoulders. The beginning of his story, like that of many of his contemporaries and juniors in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, is simple: one solid postgraduate degree from one of the best universities of India, i.e. Banaras hindu University, followed by a long and dry spell of preparation for competitive examinations for jobs in the public sector. He spent a golden fraction of his youth preparing for a job he could never get, and finally, decided to be self-employed. He started the New Bread of life Bakery and Restaurant (NBLBR) and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, he gives jobs to many.


How does one reach the New Bread of Life Bakery and Restaurant? Google Maps helps:

What’s the specialty of the bakery? They bake and sell the finest range of breads (remember the name!) and bakery products there. Take a look:

That’s not all. They serve meals: Indian, Chinese, Western and Continental, and are open from 11 AM to 10 PM.

Their platter has food that satisfies taste buds, and their range is wide. They serve vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, snacks and bakery items. Their prices are reasonable and ambiance just like home’s. The owner is almost always around and his smile a definite add-on to the welcoming embrace of this place.

Ganga Silk and Art Gallery is a sister establishment of the NBLBR. It’s in the same building as the bakery and specializes in unique silk and gift items that bear the scent of the soil of Varanasi.  

GSAG (2)My detailed knowledge of Mr. Cahkraborty’s life and work can be explained by the fact that he is my uncle. Wait. Did I say he is my uncle? Yes I did. “Ah! That explains why he’d write this post on him!”, say you. Well, not actually. Long before I decided to write about the bakery, it was praised and recommended by many independent players, with real customer reviews too:





Shri Krishna Janmashtami in Varanasi

Varanasi, the City of Lord Shiva, celebrates the days associated with the birth of Vishnu’s incarnations Ram and Krishna with love and devotion. [I’d love to to know whether Shiv Ratri is celebrated in such manner in Ayodhya and Mathura.] The first celebration (Ram Navami) comes in the month of Chaitra, and the second one (Krishna Janmashtami) in the month of Shravana of the Hindu Calendar. The main attraction of Sri Krishna Janmashtami celebrations, the one that leads to a visual spectacle, is the main theme of this post.

It’s said that Varanasi is on the trident of Lord Shiva. There are three hillock like ascents in the city and the one with the steepest gradient has its summit located at the place called Bans Phatak near Adi Vishweshwar Temple. It is for around two hundred metres on both sides of the summit that one may find hundreds of small, road side, temporary stalls that sell materials that go into the making of the spectacle of Janmashtami.  They mushroom (and during monsoon!) just a day before the festival and vanish once the celebrations are over for the day. Although, the marks remain on the city for nearly a week. The distinguishing landmark of this place is the facade of Satyanarayan Temple (image below).

  DSN TempleSC06419

The stalls run from that temple downwards up to the Bans Phatak branch of the one great Varanasi traditional institution called Ksheer Sagar, and upwards nearly up to Chowk Crossing, near Chitra Cinema Hall  that’s closed now (image below), and Motilal Banarsidass Publishers (


Now, that I’ve fixed the central location in your mind, let’s look at the stalls, and also talk a little about what they sell and what is done with it then. Gods and goddesses wear clothes: rich, little, beautiful and colourful clothes. Lord Krishna likes yellow clothes, it’s said. The range of colours from which his devotees can choose start from blue, goes to green, yellow, orange and red and then to silver and golden. Small skirt like clothes with shining border are displayed all over the region.

Now, that our Lord has worn right kind of clothes, he must have the right throne to sit at. As our lord is a little child many a time, he is given a cradle instead of a throne. He is rocked in that cradle during worship. The cradles may be made of plastic, wood, mica covered with metal foil or various kind of plated metals. The place for the baby Krishna to  lie upon is generally covered with velvet or some kind of soft cloth.

Jhoola Silver

There are two very important elements of Janmashtami decorations in the images below. The gentleman wearing a newspaper hat is selling coloured saw dust (called burada) in sacks, the same thing in sacks and packets is what the lady in sari sells. What is done with the coloured sawdust? It stands variously as green grass, sand, black street, or multi-coloured floor of a palace or jail. The green grass is for cows to graze on, and Krishna to do raasleela with his gopikas, the sand is for wrestlers to practise on, the black streets coming from four directions and more come to meet at a strategic point where a traffic signal and a crossing are decorated. The palace and the jail are for Krishna’s parents. The second important thing is the black pumice like thing (called jhaama) in heaps extreme left. It is used to construct a temporary hill that’s taken as Mount Kailasa on which Lord Shiva lives, around it a steam engine may chug, dragging compartments behind.  

The foundation of my love for this literally spectacular festival was laid in my childhood. In fact, I believe that’s the age when the foundation of love for all festivals are laid. Who has time to let the spirit of a festival enter their system and lead them and their subsequent actions by  the rhythm of seasons? Shri Krishna Janmashtami, the festival that celebrates the birth of a god as child is celebrated most enthusiastically by children. The rituals and worship are for the elders of the family. Children decorate a room, or one corner of a room in house with clay, wooden and plastic toys. 









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The Tradition of the Poetry of Exile

The poet in an individual is of a later birth than the exile in him. At first he does not know the name of his affliction, but gradually becomes aware of his un/dis- ease being neither new nor unique. It is the pain of exile. The word exile carries with it the historical association of persecution and uprooting. The tradition of the literature of exile is older than history. The theme and poetry of exile are found in the Old Testament of the Bible (ergo in Koran):

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

(Psalm 137; King James Version)

The poetry of exile is found in the Hindu purans. Given below is Shiva’s yearning for the city of Varanasi (Kashi) from which he was exiled:

What all the ice on this mountain is inadequate to do,

That burning will surely subside

If even the breeze coming from Kashi touches my   skin,

Once I was separated from my wife- Sati

That pain was allayed when she came back as Parvati.

Alas!the pain of separation from Kashi torments me more.

Ah Kashi when again shall I get thy soothing touch,

When will thy cooling touch cure me of this fever instantly?

Oh Kashi, who wash the sins of men, the fire of separation from thee

Has made the moon at my head burn like fire with ghee                                                            

It took the daughter of the Himalayas to cure my previous separation

If I don’t get your darshan o Kashi I shall always be tormented.

(Kashi Khand, Skandmahapuran, 44.14-19)

[Translation from Sanskrit by Rajnish Mishra]

The theme of exile is found in poetry from all over the world. Poetry of the pain of separation from one’s place of origin has a rich tradition. It entered the stream of modern poetry during the transition of the socio-economic systems from agrarian to industrial. The hunter-gatherer had less opportunities of getting rooted to his place. A farmer could stay rooted to a place from his birth to death and roots, once sprouted, went deep into the soil and connected the man to his place. The strength of his bonding was such that uprooting could only be effected by a natural or geopolitical change of extreme nature. So, the exile, uprooted and pining, is not commonly found in poetry of that time. As the Industrial Revolution altered the socioeconomic structure of the European (and later world) societies, brought in its wake urbanization and rural emigration, and the literature of exile was born. The most well-known example of this genre is from nineteenth century England, John Clare.

May it be mine to meet my end in thee;

And, as reward for all my troubles past,

Find one hope true—to die at home at last!


An equally well-known example from Urdu poetry is his contemporary Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’, the last Mughal Emperor who spent the last years of his life in exile in Burma wrote a moving ghazal in the memory of his home (land).

Nothing appeals to my heart in this deserted land.

How can it find peace in these times on this land?

O my yearnings go, dwell elsewhere,

Where’ll you live in this besmirched heartland?

I was given four days of life to live. Two were

spent in yearning for, two waiting for my land.

O Zafar, the unfortunate for your burial,

Two yards were not to be had in your beloved land

[Translated from Hindi-Urdu by Rajnish Mishra]

Clare and Zafar, both died in 1860’s. The theme of exile lived on. In fact, the twentieth century saw the number of artists in exile increasing. Bertolt Brecht, a German exile, beautifully captures the irony of hope in transience of the state that ends up being permanent in his poem ‘On the Term of Exile’:

No need to drive a nail into the wall

To hang your hat on;

When you come in, just drop it on the chair

No guest has sat on.

Don’t worry about watering the flowers—

In fact, don’t plant them.

You will have gone back home before they bloom,

And who will want them?

If mastering the language is too hard,

Only be patient;

The telegram imploring your return

Won’t need translation.

Remember, when the ceiling sheds itself

In flakes of plaster,

The wall that keeps you out is crumbling too,

As fast or faster.

Translated from the German by Adam Kirsch, quoted fully from <;

The twenty-first century did not witness any change in the geopolitics of the world, hence in the state of the exile. The same pain is found in poems of exile from Tibet, Kashmir, Albania, Afghanistan, Sindh, Bangladesh, Greece and the list goes on. Let’s talk about Aga Shahid Ali, the Kashmiri poet in exile in the United States. His poems of exile have a haunting simplicity of images.


We shall meet again, in Srinagar,

by the gates of the Villa of Peace,

our hands blossoming into fists

till the soldiers return the keys

and disappear. Again we’ll enter

our last world, the first that vanished

(‘A Pastoral’)

It is this tradition of poetry to which many contemporary poems belong. We now find poets in exile, but unlike in most of the poems mentioned till now, not from his nation but from his city of birhth. His poetic oeuvre and imagination are shaped by pain and separation. His poems show his place and times very vividly and clearly yet his city is not restricted to one place or time. He writes:


My city, is your city, and theirs.

My city is stuck with what it’s given.

My city as shown, as true, as real,

yes it is all,

and not.

The spirit, the life,

the transience, the sorrows,

the joys, the filth of flowers,

and all that’s seen or not, at all hours,

For the world to see, is my city simplified,

palatable, presentable, made easy.

Multifaceted? Never.

Simply, ‘city for dummies’.


His devotion to details, and his transcendence of the same make for a curious combination of contraries:

Disgusting, the filth,
reflected sometimes, on faces.
Cow dung, house waste,
refuse and grime,
Scattered, removed,
then scattered again,
repeat performance,
seen and felt
on skin, in nose, on feet through eyes.
Yet feet go on,
undaunted, eternally,
as time and life run to death,
from flesh to fire to ashes.

His time is not here, and his place is not now.


Modified from:





Kashi: A Mandala Poem

Professor Charu Sheel Singh’s Kashi: A Mandala Poem is the only epic in English language on the city of Kashi (Varanasi, Banaras or Benares). It falls in the tradition of the puranic praise literature or mahatmyas. It applies the structure of mandala to delve deep into the eternal enigma called Kashi. It has been called variously as path breaker, ahead of its time, apoetic, bombastic, visionary, erudite  and a display of intellect and scholarship. Whatever one says about it, the fact remains that there is a large number of poetry books on Kashi in Sanskrit and Hindi but there are only a handful of poetry books on the city in English. To be precise, there are only two other  poetry books on the city other than this one: Where Even the Present is Ancient: Benaras by  Maitreyee B Chowdhury and Kashi: Sonnet Series on Varanasi by Rajnish Mishra. Kashi: A Mandala Poem is the longest work in verse in English on the city of Kashi, and that is surely an achievement.