Alice McGuinness, Megan Levan, Stephanie Mejia, Peyton ‘Riah’ Newfont and Lucia Hruby visited Varanasi for their annual NSLI-Y project from the 18th to 25th February 2018. NSLI-Y students from USA are on an intensive Hindi language learning program hosted in Indore.
“Many people travel to Varanasi to attain moksha, but our purpose was a tad different—we hoped to use our Hindi language skills to explore in depth the lives and culture of Varanasi people.
Arriving in Varanasi, we immediately were hit with some serious culture shock; not only are the rickshaws of different color, but the golgappa also can’t be compare to our hometown pani poori. At least here we blend in with the soul-searching tourists in their overpriced kurtas and faded tikkas. It’s refreshing to experience the culture of this new city without being hounded for a selfie or gawked at on the streets. Sitting on the steps of Assi Ghat, tourists and locals alike tap their feet to the sounds of the santoor. We enjoyed sitting alongside Varanasi citizens, relishing together the artistry of their beloved musicians. One of our greatest memories from Varanasi will forever be the look of pure passion on Prabhash Maharaj’s face as he created whirring rhythms on his tabla that melded perfectly with the refined sounds of the sarod across from him. Upon his first touch of the drum his face lit up with energy and boundless joy, similar to how one might look after their first taste of Blue Lassi on a warm Varanasi afternoon. Except, for this incredible musician, no lassi was required—just a drum, some calloused hands, and the company of his ever-loving, sarod-playing guru, friend, and father. Of course, our greatest realizations were inspired by a Blue Lassi treat. The fellow foreigners we met in the shop got us thinking of the spiritual richness of the oldest living city. Sure, we may have had to dodge some fairly sketchy surprises on the narrow streets, but where else would we have had the opportunity to see the world come alive on the ghats of the Ganga. Alin Boat-Wale (our rowboat conductor) gave us insight into the pollution of Ganga Mata and taught us how to row row row his boat, while neighboring boaters encouraged us to feed the Siberian birds who, like us, had stopped for a quick trip in Banaras on their migratory path back home.
We were lucky enough to watch the famous Sham-e-Banaras from the water itself, sitting in one of the small rowboats dotting the river. Spread out before us, the aarti was fascinating, a fiery choreographed pooja to lure the Gods to sleep in style. Behind us stretched the body of the Ganga, in Hindu teachings the most sacred river in the world, and one that serves as a life force for millions of people. But even better was being a part of the vibrant crowd, gazing as one at the epic display of devotion. On either side of us, an innumerable fleet of boats stretched from our vision, packed with a lively mix of devout locals, fascinated foreigners, and expertly-maneuvering boat guides earning their living. Whether standing, boating, or walking, the crowd was so massive, it felt as if every country in the world must have been represented, gathered in the night to experience the magic of the Varanasi ghat.
All in all, our trip to Varanasi was a wonderful experience that enriched our entire language and cultural exchange. It’s wonderful to have a support network of AFS volunteers all over India that make these trips possible. A special thanks to our teachers Mrs. Sadhna Bhaya, Professor Mishra and Mr. Parvez Khan. Thank you!”