Varanasi had been fantastically touristy. It had been an epitome of the real “exotic” India and though most beautiful things had come at a price, they had been really worth it. Being a huge trading hub for centuries, Varanasi had evolved into a giant commercial spot and the city had some extremely photogenic wholesale markets. They had been little spots of super busy activities and products like flowers, paan, khoya (dried whole milk), tendua (local cigar leaves), iron goods etc had been stacked, sampled, weighed, bartered and sold. Money had exchanged hands only to be tucked away in grimy cloth bags or baskets and the sellers, buyers and gawkers had made much racket.
I had loved their lazy business, the way the commercial hum had been sunlit and nearly everybody had time to preen and pose for the tourists’ cameras. There had been none of cut throat competitiveness of huge city markets and Varanasi’s bazaars had been colourfully chaotic. We had been a bunch of curious walkers who had joined our guide Anil Kumar one early Varanasi morning and he had shown us the winding trading arteries of the heart of his city. Winters in north and central India are really severe and we had trudged past groups of shivering men, stray dogs and goats in pullovers, huddled around hasty bonfires. The old Kashi lanes had not yet been congested with traffic and even the holy cows had not made their presences felt. A very dim sun had hardly penetrated into the haze wrapped city, yet Benaras had been up and active. The tendua market had already been full of tight, big rolls of addictive leaves and the khoya bazaar had bargaining hard. We had pushed past milkmen on cycles, priests in saffron, men with baskets heaped with lemon and chili (evil eye antidotes) for sale and long lines of fluttering multi coloured freshly dyed clothes to follow Anil on our Varanasi market walk.
After quick strolls to the tendua, spice, iron and khoya market, it had been time for Bansphatak Flower Market and we had smelled it even before entering its periphery. Located inside a small courtyard kind of place, Bansphatal Flower Market had spilled with commerce and hibiscus, marigold, tuberose, holy basil leaves etc had spilled out in glorious colours. They had been stuffed in baskets, strung in lines across the body of the seller, spread on sheet and bought in hordes. The flowers had been as colourful as the people buying-selling them and we had caught a late sun waking up over the floral square. The market had peaked with the strengthening sun and we had watched it get quickly bathed in pure golden light. The quaint but busy paan market had been next on our itinerary and that had been yet another extraordinary space.
Now Benarasi paan had been coveted throughout India for centuries and even Bollywood had dedicated songs to it’s unique flavour. The heart shaped betel leaves which had been mixed with gulkand (rose paste), dry dates, spices and coconut in a real Varanasi style had been considered as delicacy and in Kashi wrapping a good paan mix had been considered an art. Thus it had been no wonder that the city would have a market dedicated to these green heart leaves and the Paan Dariba had been a real eye opening experience. A mind boggling variety of paan had been displayed, inspected and auctioned at breakneck speed and we had watched in awe as hundreds of bales of the produce had been shipped off briskly to be sent across the country and the world. Although, held inside an old building with space no more than a small school courtyard, Varanasi’s Paan Dariba had been one of its most important markets.
To witness so much of commerce and activity concentrated in such small spaces had been overwhelming experience and we had finished the market walk with exhausted feet and cups of delicious creamy malaiyo. Silky smooth saffron and pistachio infused condensed milk, with an extremely frothy top, our malaiyos had melted in our mouths and we had watched in silence at men churning umpteen vessels of milk to get the frothy delights. They had worked silently in a singular rhythm often looking up to inspect the happenings of the world around them and it had been exactly then, that it had struck me hard, the truth behind Mark Twain’s famous quote about Varanasi. “Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”, Varanasi had indeed been a timeless stubborn charmer with lifestyle which had remained nearly unchanged for centuries.
For more posts on Varanasi’s flower market check out Desitraveler
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