Varanasi is the civilisational soul of India, yet so much about it remains a mystery for most of us. Especially its popular culture and cuisine.
The mystique of Varanasi, Banaras in popular language, was best expressed by the author Mark Twain, who wrote after a visit in 1897: “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
Fortunately, we are better informed today about this venerated city of “84,000 gods” because of the singular efforts of microbiologist-turned-food writer Sangeeta Khanna, whose “Banaras Ka Khana” blog ventures into its mysterious serpentine lanes and narrates their stories through the cuisines of the many communities — notably Muslim, Gujarati, Marwari and Bengali — that have made Varanasi their home.
More recently, historian Rana Safvi has introduced us to another facet of Varanasi’s social tapestry in a blog post on her mother’s family. It had produced dewans (later, chief ministers) for Varanasi’s Bhumihar Brahmin royal family after Maulana Syed Gulshan Ali, great-great-grandfather of Safvi’s mother and a mujtahid (interpreter of the Islamic law) from Najaf, the Shia holy city in Iraq, donned the mantle during the reign of Maharaja Sir Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh (1835-1889).
The Maharaja, who was then a raja like his ancestors, followed the Maulana’s advice not to side with the rebels during the Revolt of 1857. As a token of appreciation, the British rulers made Ishwari Prasad a maharaja and also knighted him.
Since then, members of this Syed family from Kajgaon, near Jaunpur, have been the dewans of the Maharaja of Banaras and then chief ministers.
When Safvi’s maternal grandfather, Khan Bahadur Syed Ali Zamin, became the chief minister of Banaras in 1939, he had to deal with the death of the then ruler, the childless Aditya Narayan Singh, ensure a smooth succession of the adopted heir, Vibhuti Narayan Singh, the last ruler of Varanasi who was at that time studying at Mayo College, Ajmer.
|Dal ki Dulhan. (Courtesy: Banaras ka khana/Sangeeta Khanna)|
The Khan Bahadur ensured throughout the student maharaja’s stint at Mayo that he was supplied with Ganga water so that he could uphold the family tradition of drinking only the water of the holy river.
The dining tradition of the Banaras royals, in fact, is a story in itself. I learnt from a story on Vibhuti Narayan’s son, Anant Narayan, the present “Kashi Naresh” (Maharaja of Banaras), in an old edition of Upper Crust magazine, that royal tradition demanded that the king should not only stay vegetarian and a teetotaller, but also eat only the food cooked by his hereditary maharaj, all by himself, with not even his wife for company; drink only Ganga jal; and not accept any food offered by others.
Predictably, Varanasi’s cuisine mirrors its myriad kitchens and this diversity has been brought to Pavilion, ITC Maurya’s all-day restaurant, in a celebration of the holy city’s Gannga-Jamuni tehzeeb (culture) by Sangeeta Khanna and Rana Safvi.
The festival spread, which starts with sweet lassi and fermented black carrot juice (kanji), includes typical vegetarian dishes of Banaras — notably, Dal ki Dulhan (lentil soup with lightly fried whole wheat pouches, which when filled with spiced-up urad dal peethi, lends a new name and gender identity to the preparation: Dal ka Dulha); Posta Gobhi (cauliflower cooked with poppy seeds, available in abundance in neighbouring Ghazipur, which was a flourishing opium cultivation centre in the days of the Raj); Baigan Saag (the eggplant of Ramnagar, capital of the old Banaras state, is famous for being green and seedless and it melts in the mouth after being cooked); and Khoya Matar Makhana (dried whole milk, peas and fox nuts, which are grown in plenty in Samastipur, Bihar, not too far away).
To these, Safvi adds her mother’s specialities — Raan (leg of lamb) Mussallam; Murgh Mussallam; Dum ki Machhli (the favoured fish being freshwater rohu); Yakhni Pulao, which is to be had with Dahi Phulki (garlicky yoghurt with urad dal dumplings); and the dessert, Khimam ki Sevaiyyan, like what you’d get at Dalmandi in Banaras, which caters to the city’s Muslim community.
The Gujaratis, who came as textile merchants and set up Soot Tola, and as soldiers of the Mughal army are represented by the Dosti Roti (two thin chappatis joined together by a sliver of desi ghee).
The Rasgulla Rabdi is from the kitchen of the Bengalis of Bangali Tola, who arrived in Varanasi in the 18th century as priests at the Durga temple.
No story about Banaras ka khana can be complete without malaiyyo (saffron-flavoured milk cloud), a winter delicacy that has been prepared early in the morning traditionally by dairy owners / milk product sellers at the Gopal Mandir Wali Gali.
Varanasi is one city with as many food stories as its galis and ghats.
(The Banaras Ka Khana festival at Pavilion, ITC Maurya, will be on till Monday, December 19.)
(Courtesy of Mail Today.)