The Musical Sounds Of Varanasi

Few cities can match the intensity and timelessness one finds in Kashi’s ghats and gullies.  
Kedar Ghat Varanasi Uttar Pradesh
At dawn, before the crowds arrive, the otherwise crowded Kedar ghat takes on a serene, ponderous tone. Photo: Ashima Narain

At five o’clock on a February morning Varanasi is still dark. At six, the smell of camphor wafts out of every house following the morning aarti. On Ram ghat, Laxman Baba lays out his makeshift kitchen and sets about preparing hot chai. Soon after, the mist begins to clear and the sun rises, lighting  up India’s oldest city. I know of no better setting to contemplate eternity.

When I first visited Varanasi, however, I found not a moment to listen to my own thoughts. As I made my way from the railway station to Dasaswamedh ghat, I saw Lord Shiva, clad in tiger skin and holding a trident. He smiled at me and said, “Konnichi wa!”—“Good day” in Japanese. No one besides me seemed surprised by his presence. Apparently the Japanese man was a regular on the ghat. As I walked further into the gullies, there seemed to be an endless stream of madness. Here a group of Koreans ordering paneer-banana dosas, there a sadhu preaching in Spanish. Monkeys above, cows below; don’t mess with either, they say. On that trip, I was accompanied by Eric Newby’s Slowly Down The Ganges. Fortunately, Kashi, as the city is also known, turned out to be more exciting than the book would have you believe. After a particularly exasperating chapter, I considered flinging it into the Ganga, but stopped myself; there are things even gods don’t need to be subjected to. Like other visitors, I jostled my way through queues at the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir and took a sunset boat ride, but eventually I chose walking over being a floating spectator.

I realised the city has its own rhythm, and if you look closely, you too can feel its song. It’s possible to know its local heroes and daily routines, to tell who’s a new arrival and who knows how to navigate the labyrinth. At 4.30 a.m., my neighbour in the guesthouse would begin chanting the Durga Sapta Shloki mantra, making for the most melodious beginning to any day. Stepping out for breakfast I’d pass by the Bihari labourer who is known to Kashivasis for singing old Bollywood tracks loudly through the day as he ferries vegetables and eggs from vendors to shops. Though out of tune, his relentless vocalising makes everyone smile. The evenings would often be lit up by impromptu jamming of anything from the hang (hang drum) or violin to tabla on the ghats, and nights would end with the last aarti of the day at Kashi Vishwanath Mandir.

Varanasi Uttar Pradesh Ganga aarti

Dasaswamedh ghat is the most sacred of Varanasi’s many ghats. Priests perform the Ganga aarti here every evening. Photo: Ashima Narain

From dawn to dusk, there are sitars being tuned, sarods rehearsed, tablas mastered, the nuances of various ragas are being discussed. Here in a music school a woman learns to sing classic ragas, there on a narrow roof overlooking the vast river two dancers fuse kathak and flamenco. I never went for Ganga aarti on the main ghat again, not when there is an offering of art being made to god at every second step.

Classical music echoes everywhere. It reminds me of the city’s heritage that goes far back in time, a living impression of its ancientness. It is in the temples, the weekly music concerts held in restaurants, in the music played on the ghats and rooftops, in the large-scale annual festivals, in the music shops, and in guesthouses. Sarangi, tabla, shehnai, tanpura, sitar, sarod, santoor, and flute form a part of Kashi’s legacy, left behind by virtuosos like Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Gopal Mishra, Ustad Bismillah Khan, and Girija Devi—all previous residents. Here it is possible to listen to the complexities of the Banaras gharana in a divine setting where the guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student tradition) is still alive, and where laypeople have the chance to experience music closely.

Away from the ghats of Kashi lies a neighbourhood few tourists frequent, at the centre of which, 500 years ago, sat a Muslim weaver who wrote poetry that would challenge and alter the city’s religious fabric. He was Kabir, and the neighbourhood where he preached came to be known as Kabir Chaura. Kabir Chaura, along with the nearby Ramapura area, is home to an overwhelmingly large number of illustrious musicians.

This unassuming network of gullies is the very heart of the Banaras gharana; where it was founded, where its greatest musician-families thrived, and where they created their greatest compositions. Kathak storytellers and Kabir Panthis still live in this musicians’ mohalla and keep the centuries-old traditions alive. Pandit Ram Sahai founded the Banaras gharana style of playing tabla in Kabir Chaura over 200 years ago, and his legacy has been carried forward by other tabla virtuosos, such as Pandit Sharda Sahai (his great-great-grandson), Pandit Samta Prasad, and Pandit Kishan Maharaj, who also lived here.

One of Pandit Sharda Sahai’s senior disciples is Tim Richards, who tells me of his first visit to Kabir Chaura back in 1976, when he followed his guruji here from Rhode Island in the US. He recalls a neighbourhood of dark alleys where bullock carts plied and musical notes resounded from nearly every house. For a whole year he lived in this closely-knit community, through foggy winter and sweltering summer, experiencing the delicate guru-shishya tradition first-hand. Today, while he tours the world, he still considers Kashi to be the finest place to play a concert. “It is a pleasure because of the educated audience—everyone understands music. One bad note and people visibly squirm; you are pushed to be your very best for the best audience. It is the acid test!” Richards says.

With Richards, I met Anish Mishra, a young sarangi player from Kabir Chaura, born into a family of musicians. He studies under Pandit Kanhaiyalal Mishra, a disciple of sarangi player Pandit Hanuman Prasad Mishra. The latter’s sons Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra are world-famous for their improvisations, and for their spiritual singing, ranging from the khayal style of the Banaras gharana to bhajans.

Varanasi Uttar Pradesh Kabir Chaura

Tabla player Tim Richards (left) performs with sarangi player Anish Mishra. The duo have toured the country together, and speak fondly of Varanasi’s Kabir Chaura as their favourite place for a performance. Photo: Ashima Narain

Anish took it upon himself to acquaint me with Banarasi mizaaz (temperament), which he insists is unique. Besides recommending the best paanwala in the city (Keshav Tambul Paan Bhandaar), he also spoke for hours about the multiple Banarasi styles of music. When I asked where and when I could find a good concert, his response was poetic, “Is there a particular time to eat really? You feel hungry you eat, we feel like listening to music, we play.”

Some of Varanasi’s musical traditions have faded over the years. Local organisations such as Kashi Sangeet Samaj (which is over 100 years old) and Sangeet Parishad Kashi are attempting to revive the baithak, for instance. Gulab bari is another such dying tradition. It is a musical event that usually takes place in a rose garden during the week following holi. It’s a beautiful setting—men dressed in white, women in pink, thumri singers enchanting the audience as rose petals are showered on them, and paan and thandai served to celebrate the arrival of spring. Anish spoke fondly of the tradition of bajras. Bajras are large boats, on which concerts are held at night during the Dev Deepavali or Budhwa Mangal celebrations. The performances could last all night, often with smaller boats floating alongside.

To the south of Kabir Chaura is the sprawling Banaras Hindu University. It has nurtured a long line of scholars including famously Harivansh Rai Bachchan, and the musician Bhupen Hazarika. It also houses the Bharat Kala Bhavan, a museum set up in 1920 with Tagore as its honorary chairman. Besides objects showcasing India’s archaeological and artistic heritage, it has a gallery dedicated to the Russian artist Nicholas Roerich, who spent many years in this country.

Varanasi Uttar Pradesh Traditional Dance

Banaras Hindu University’s department of performing arts has been training students in traditional dance forms since 1949. Photo: Ashima Narain

Kashi’s annual Dhrupad Mela, which takes place on Tulsi ghat, is an experience no connoisseur of Hindustani classical music should miss. The complex vocal genre of dhrupad is considered the oldest and purest Hindustani musical style. The unique festival preserves a music tradition and showcases the finest dhrupad musicians. Ritwick Sanyal, who trained under the famous Dagar brothers, is a leading dhrupad singer who has performed at the Dhrupad Mela every year since its inception in 1975. He is the former dean and the current head of the university’s department of vocal music and ex-dean of the faculty of performing arts.

I spoke to Sanyal just after he had spent three nights awake, performing and listening at the 2013 festival. He explained Dhrupad’s historical context with the reverence that I recognised as a trademark Kashi trait. “It isn’t just a festival,” he said, “…it is a dialogue between musicians and audience. Kashi is the cultural capital of India and, considering that Dhrupad’s themes mostly revolve around deities, it is only natural that the festival would begin here as an ode to Maha Shivaratri. Dhrupad is vipassana (meditation), performed out of love…the musicians who sing here do so out of generosity and not for money.”

Every musician I met took me deeper into the musical web of Kashi, which defies simple classification. “Good or bad, there is always music in Banaras,” said Tomas Jacquot, a French musician learning sitar. Back home he had played the piano and guitar, but after attending a sitar recital, he decided to make his way to Kashi. That was in 2001. After six years of trial and error to find the right guru, he found one in Ustad Imrat Khan, whose great grandfather Ustad Sahebdad Khan invented the surbahar, an instrument closely related to the sitar. Tomas calls Kashi the “city of music” because, he feels it offers the perfect ambience to practice music.

Ghoda ghat Flute Varanasi Uttar Pradesh

Raju Mishra, a flute seller at Ghoda ghat, says he spends his afternoons teaching foreigners how to play the flute. Photo: Ashima Narain

The presence of the holy Ganga adds to the charm, says Jordi Prats, a 28-year-old Spaniard whom I met on a rooftop overlooking the timeless river. His daily rehearsals gave me a taste of what was to me, the unknown and complex universe of Hindustani classical music. In 2006, Jordi traded his jazz guitar for a lifelong quest for knowledge of the sarod. His guru, Pandit Shib Das Chakraborty, studied under the tutelage of Pandit Jotin Bhattacharya, a leading disciple of the legendary sarod maestro Ustad Alauddin Khan of the Maihar gharana.

Jordi spoke passionately about the intimate relationship between guru and student, built over years, transcending all monetary and cultural differences. He is somewhat sceptical of some of the music schools in the city that tend to dilute quality with “shortcuts” that he believes cannot exist in learning classical music. He returns to Varanasi every year, knowing his pursuit is endless, knowing that his guruji who has been playing for over 40 years still does not take on the title of Pandit before his name. “This music isn’t for everyone; one can’t just start jamming in the living room with classical instruments… this isn’t the Beatles,” he said.

There are stories of profound relationships with Varanasi’s music at every step. Veli Peltonen, a musician from Finland, told me of Gianni Ricchizzi, an Italian who has been studying the vichitra veena and coming to Kashi for 35 years. He is one of few  people who still play the ancient instrument. Veli himself is a blues guitarist who has been coming to India for decades to learn the sitar. Another musician I met in Varanasi was Colin LeBlanc, who came from Turkey in search of an instrument that creates the Middle Eastern spiritual sounds he so likes. He takes santoor classes in an ashram in the winter, and retreats to a Buddhist monastery in Sikkim in summer. Kono Maremoto, on the other hand, is a flautist from El Salvador who lives in Rishikesh but visits Kashi every year to buy what he swears are the world’s finest flutes.

On one hand, it is a pleasure to hear a distinctly classical sound defining a city, on the other there is the fusion of the classical with foreign influences that many musicians bring. “Fusion is unavoidable to a certain extent, every famous classical maestro has done it at some point,” says Ravi Tripathi, a tabla player and Kashi resident who runs the Baba School of Music. At a concert by the violinist Pandit Sukhdev Prasad Mishra, I met didgeridoo player Eliah Jasper from Holland, who has travelled to India especially to record with local musicians. All the different musical sounds of Kashi that I had experienced drew me back to the city much after I left it physically.

Varanasi Uttar Pradesh Ganga Diyas

Pilgrims light thousands of diyas on the Ganga’s waters every day. It is believed that the ritual can make wishes come true. Photo: Ashima Narain

I returned to Kashi at the end of last year, this time with Premchand’s Sevasadan, and a different city emerged—one of courtesans with lilting melodies, a city with a tangibly humane, contradictory side to it. The story’s social context remains true of Kashi even today.

It was New Year’s eve and there were at least six Hindustani classical concerts in progress, open to anyone with even the slightest inclination for deeply meditative music at midnight. Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito was being screened at several guesthouses; it is something of a rite of passage here and rightly so. Black-and-white images projected on the rooftop tank evoke an emotional connection with the most seasoned of travellers. The film makes a deep impression simply for its beautifully poignant portrayal of Kashi’s gullies and ghats which, 57 years on, remain largely unchanged.

There are nearly 100 ghats in Kashi and I love to walk from end to end, with many chai breaks in between. The city is thought to be more than 2,500 years old, and many travellers feel overwhelmed upon arrival. Kashi is older than Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata. It looks its age despite its changing cityscape; the architectural and cultural texture of the narrow gullies inspires time travel. In one of those gullies in Bengali Tola I stop at the New Millennium World Class Bidi Shop. On their extra-large bidi packs are printed words of wisdom that Varanasi as a city articulates: “Smoking and any bad habit is injurious to health but when you reach the heart of life you shall find beauty in all things.”

On these ghats, the great poet Mirza Ghalib, who arrived by boat from Allahabad, wrote Chirag-e-Dair, a lyrical ode to Banaras. Allen Ginsberg wrote many poems about Dasaswamedh ghat; Jorge Luis Borges wrote about Kashi without ever visiting the city. In another century, Mark Twain commented on its incredibly antiquity, and Kashi’s own sons like Premchand, Kabir, and Tulsi Das narrated tales of the city’s cultural, religious, and social milieu.

Kashi’s spirituality blends with art and knowledge, its learned atmosphere attracts storytellers and students. Sanskrit scholars, enchanted poets, sitar maestros, silk weavers, social workers, documentary filmmakers, musicians, painters, and graffiti artists merge with crowds of pilgrims. Every few ghats, I see a painter attempting to capture Kashi’s sweeping panorama.

How can there be such a flood of intensity in one place? That’s what I like about Kashi— it inspires. Every traveller wants to be surprised, and Kashi doesn’t disappoint. I don’t think it is possible to be mildly accepting of Kashi: it’s either love or loathing all the way. If I had a single musical bone in my body, I too would be a student of music here, but for now I satisfy myself with riverside ramblings. On the ghats of Kashi I can sense all the creative gods it has nurtured.

During my month-long stay I learnt the art of kite-flying and got to know the postmaster fairly well. I became a silent companion to Laxman Baba’s sunrise chai ritual.

I’m wary of revisiting places I’ve loved in the past, scared that the mayhem of progress will have spread its tentacles deeper. But it looks like Varanasi will outlast this era too. It seems impervious to the multitudes that pass by enroute to earthly or heavenly destinations.

Appeared in the April 2013 issue as “The Musical Sounds of Kashi”.

Shivala ghat was built by Raja Balwant Singh in honour of Lord Shiva. Along with bathing in the waters, the chief attraction is a wonderfully-maintained 19th century palace constructed by Nepalese king Sanjay Vikram Shah. Photo: Ashima Narain

The Guide

Follow The Music 

There is live music throughout the year in Varanasi, but October to April is the peak season, when concerts are held nearly every week.

How To Find A Concert 

• The frequency of concerts in Kashi is very high, but not all of them are planned in advance and advertised. Inquire with locals or plan your trip during the bigger festivals.

• Barring a few exceptions, all concerts are free, especially the best ones.

• Check the local newspapers for announcements of bigger concerts. In narrow gullies, keep an eye out for posters advertising smaller ones at music schools.

Main Festivals  

• Dhrupad Mela: Celebrating the nuances of one of the most ancient forms of Hindustani classical music, the famous festival is held annually over three nights around Maha Shivaratri at Tulsi Ghat. It is attended by music aficionados from around the world.

Sankat Mochan Music Festival: Concerts held across five days and nights at the Sankat Mochan Temple feature many accomplished musicians. This one is the oldest music festivals of Kashi.

Ganga Mahotsav: Organised by Uttar Pradesh Tourism Department, Ganga Mahotsav is held during Diwali over five days and features many local classical music maestros.

Smaller Venues

Kashi Sangeet Samaj, Sangeet Parishad Kashi, Kala Prakash, Jnana Pravaha, Nagari Natak Mandali, andPandit Ram Sahai Foundation are all organisations of repute that put in effort into organising concerts on a regular basis and also keep traditions such as gulab bari alive.

Banaras Hindu University organises concerts every Thursday from August to February, providing a platform to its students as well as inviting visiting musicians to play.

• Memorial concerts are common in Kashi, such as the Annual Ashu Babu Memorial Tabla School Concert held in March as a tribute to Pt. Ashutosh Bhattacharya, a tabla maestro from Kashi.

Ganges View Hotel in Assi Ghat is a heritage hotel that organises quality weekly concerts and music lectures between October and March. Most music schools and local restaurants also organise small-scale concerts through winter.

International Music Ashram near Dasaswamedh Ghat is one such popular institution that has concerts every Wednesday and Saturday.

• Many long-term music students stay in and around Assi Ghat, so concerts and spontaneous jams are common in the guesthouses here. 


    Simar Preet Kaur is a Himachal-based writer. Her work has been published by media houses including Commonwealth Writers and COLORS.


    Ashima Narain has worked as a fashion, wildlife, wedding, and ngo photographer. She has also directed and shot award-winning wildlife documentaries, “In The Pink” and “The Last Dance”.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?