Muslim Varanasi

Alamgir Mosque, rising above the ghats on the right. The mosque is said to have been built by Aurangzeb on the site of a former Hindu temple and so is a point of contention–police guard the building against attacks. The minarets have been shortened in order to reduce the building’s profile.

Varanasi is of course one of Hinduism’s holiest cities, and so nearly all of a visitor’s time in Varnasi is spent in marvel at the Hindu activity in the city–navigating the chaos surrounding the Golden Temple, watching the morning bathers on the ghats and listening to the nightly puja. Stay for slightly longer in Varanasi, however, and one quickly comes to realize that the city also has a substantial Muslim population (one estimate is one third of the city). Muslims can be seen around Munshi Ghat and the neighborhood nearby as well as in other distinct Muslim neighborhoods not far from the Hindu core of the city. Given the general theme of our trip, we wanted to seek out the Muslim population of Varanasi, and so spent an entertaining afternoon chasing skullcaps and mosques.

The Muslims of Varanasi are often seen around town, riding rickshaws and at Muslim restaurants.

Munshi ghat

This mosque is not far from the heart of the old city.

Weaving in Varansi–of the famous Baranasi saris–is a Muslim domain, and somewhat inland is an entire Muslim neighborhood dedicated to weaving.

Note the decidedly “Muslim” door–not dissimilar from ones you would find in Central Asia or the Middle East.

The banner advertises a Muslim school named after famous Indian Muslim leader Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of Aligarh Muslim University.

As in many other places in India, one is left to wonder what Muslim Varanasi was like before the Partition. Were there substantially more Muslims? Was it the better educated or more well-off who left? Was life more difficult for those who stayed behind, or worse for those who left? Muslim India, and therefore India as a whole, is in many ways only a fragment of what it was, because it was so abruptly and cruelly divided. What would peaceful coexistence, if possible, have looked like?

Shanti Guest House Menu

We do consider ourselves backpackers, but we usually don’t stay at the most backpacker-y hotels–they just seem too much of a foreigner ghetto, too full, especially in India, of a type of person with whom we just don’t feel like we identify all that well. However, when our lodging plans were seriously disrupted by unforeseen low vacancy rates at certain Varanasi hotels (oh, there is a Varanasi hotel room that is so dear to our hearts, but I dare not identify it here lest it become yet again impossible to obtain in a future Varanasi visit), we ended up at one of Varanasi’s backpacker classics, the Shanti Guest House near Manikarnika (the Burning) Ghat.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with Shanti Guest House. The pricing is competitive, the rooms comfortable if a tiny bit spartan (our first room was essentially windowless–just two laptop-sized openings in the wall for ventilation), the staff quite friendly and totally nonsense-free, and the location fairly prime. A nice feature, although one we did not take advantage of: They offer two free boat rides a day. But to give you a sense of how backpacker-y it is, there is a pool table and travel agency-cum-currency exchange at the rooftop restaurant, and English and Hebrew are the preferred languages of the guests.

But I’m not doing this post to review a hotel that is perfectly acceptable and nothing particularly outstanding. No, I’m writing to review its restaurant, which I found astonishing (although, to be fair, it could be one of many such establishments in India, just the only one we’ve come across). What was so special about this restaurant was the range of cuisine. Not only did it offer the usual, meaning Indian, some Indian-Chinese and some “western” (i.e. Italian/American-Italian) food, but the highly developed menu had extensive offerings in Israeli/Mediterranean (not uncommon in India), Japanese, Korean, Mexican and Spanish food. And I’m not talking just the odd spaghetti and falafel and instant noodles–no. The menu included an extremely wide array of dishes from all of these cuisines, and an excellent range of desserts to boot.

Large JPEGs of the menu: pages 1-2 (breakfast, pancake / deserts, omlates, chips & pakora, burger, cutlets, rolls, soup), pages 3-4 (korean & japanese, mix, pizza, cho-cho rice, bake food, italian food), page 5 (israeli and spanish)

Now, you may wonder about authenticity. In our experience, the hotel batted around 0.500 or so–not too bad, right?


Of all of the offerings, Korean was the best. Not only was the Korean food bizarrely authentic (who makes the kimchi?), but the Korean menu was written in Korean script, along with a signed endorsement by the Korean backpacker (a Mr. Park Jong-Ik) who helped put it together. Of all of the Korean dishes, of which I tried several, the most puzzling was the jjajiangmyeon. Now, I know instant Korean-style jjajiang sauce is available but, given the prices, I think Shanti Guest House must make it from scratch–how is this possible?? (Also, given that the restaurant is supposedly open 24 hours, how is there someone always on hand who knows how to cook all of the dishes?)


Next best, I think, was the Israeli/Mediterranean menu. As anyone who has traveled in India knows, the country attracts a huge number of Israeli backpackers. Even outside of the Israeli mini-neighborhoods of cities such as Pushkar and Udaipur, it sometimes feels like the Israelis outnumber all other tourists else combined, which is pretty astonishing considering how small a country Israel is. Anyway, Shanti’s shashuka, an egg-based dish, was just as good as we had in Tel Aviv. The hummus, however, looked very, very odd.

We only tried one Japanese dish, but it didn’t seem promising; the vegetable tempura came out surprisingly like vegetable pakora. Good enough pakora, but pakora (perhaps we shouldn’t have been too surprised).

The oddest? The Mexican menu. Now, they clearly got parts of the idea of an enchilada right, and the final product was tasty enough (and certainly huge enough), but all the Americans who were around, perhaps cruelly, laughed when we told them that what was on our plate was supposed to be an enchilada. There were some Mexican guests in the hotel, too, but we don’t know if they tried the dishes of their homeland, and if so, what they thought.

Enchilada and burrito

Finally, two nice surprises.

The macaroni in cheese sauce, with mushrooms or not, is an incredibly delicious and rich concoction, with a creamy oniony sauce that would be considered tasty anywhere in the world, let alone a Varanasi backpacker restaurant.

And, as any traveler knows, lack of tasty desserts is a great hardship of travel in much of the developing world. Shanti Guest House goes a long way to filling this gap with the “banana filter chocolate with ice cream.” (I imagine they must mean “profiteroles.”) As good as it looks (and better than the also acclaimed “Hello to the Queen”).


The first impression that a traveler is likely to have of Varanasi, one of the holiest cities of Hinduism and Buddhism, is its filth and congestion. A relatively new traveler to India might wonder, “How do they live like this? If this city is so important, so holy, why isn’t it better maintained?”

But the more time you spend in Varanasi, the more you realize that using normal metrics to appraise a city like Varanasi is totally misguided. Varanasi is a city apart, one that is not bound to rely on such modern banalities as hygiene and plumbing. The beauty of Varanasi, its history and its mystery, are on full display–worship, death (including open-air cremations on the burning ghats), incredibly jubilant festivities. Despite all of the surface grime, the sunrise view of bathing pilgrims and the sight of the ganga aarti puja in the evenings, the ancient and chaotic structure of the old city and its ghats, are so majestic and otherworldly, that one almost wishes one could discard everything else and stay here forever, wondering why in the rest of the world we are always forfeiting history and authenticity for false sheen and the disposable.

Some pictures from perhaps the most exotic city in the world:

Few travel experiences are as rewarding as a morning boat ride on the Ganges.

A reminder that the city is also important for its connections to the life of the Buddha, Thai script and Thai pilgrims.

It is equally hard to tire of the evening puja, with its music and repetition.

Not least, of course, some of India’s most colorful characters and faces.

Travel tip: Oh, do I have some hotel advice for you–but I don’t want to spread the information too widely. If you email me, I’ll let you know!

Fatehpur Sikri (and Similar Ventures)

Doorway of the Friday Mosque, Fatehpur Sikri

In my previous post, I briefly described the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar, who is widely considered to be the greatest of the Mughals and is celebrated today even in popular culture (as in the 2008 movie Jodhaa Akbar). Akbar’s claims to fame are many–he first incorporated Hindu Rajputana (now Rajasthan) into the Mughal Empire, established a system of taxation that was widely seen as being more fair to the peasantry and instituted a religious tolerance that lasted until the reign of Aurangzeb.

For the tourist, however, and architecturally, Akbar’s greatest contribution is the city of Fatehpur Sikri, some 40 kilometers outside of Agra.

Sikri was the abode of a sufi saint named Salim Chisti, to whom Akbar had prayed for an heir. When a wife bore son Jahangir in 1569, Akbar built a tomb in honor of the saint and decided that he would built a grand new capital for the Mughal Empire in Sikri, to be called Fatehpur Sikri, to rival then capital Agra. In doing this he was following many precedents, particularly in the Muslim world, of new utopian cities built by leaders. (Other Muslim examples that come to mind are Hyderabad in India (started 1589), Babylon in now Iraq and the Medina Azahara near Cordoba, Spain (see below), but I’m sure there are many more.)

The city failed and was abandoned as a capital within fifteen years–perhaps due to the lack of a good water supply–but the remaining buildings are as spectacular and evocative as any in India, and help visitors envision Akbar’s ambitions and idealism.

Fatehpur Sikri’s Friday Mosque is perhaps the grandest in all India, including Delhi’s Friday Mosque. The longer you spend inside, the more you come to appreciate and see around you the Muslim Indian life that continues in Fatehpur Sikri, a continuation of the Mughal tradition despite the recent turbulent centuries and the failure of Akbar’s vision for the city and for India.

The rituals of worship, from ablution to study to prayer are laid before you in as grand a setting as any, but one more intimate and welcoming than Delhi’s Friday Mosque.

At the heart of the mosque is the beautiful marble tomb of sufi saint Salim Chisti. Both Hindu and Muslim worshippers seem to frequent this chapel, to pray for a child just as Akbar himself had, and Sufi qawwali music is often played in the direction of the saint.

Behind the mosque are some of the ruins of Fatehpur Sikri, including a large caravansaray and a tower said to be dedicated to Akbar’s favorite elephant.

In front of the mosque, the ruins of a grand hamam, now a pigsty (literally). From what remains, it seems that the hamam in its day would have matched, in grandeur, any other in the Muslim world.

And perhaps most evocative of all, nearby are the ruins of Akbar’s palace.

A mural said to depict one of Akbar’s wives

The Diwan-i-Khas is said by some to have been designed to allow Akbar to participate in debates with Muslim, Hindu and Christian theologians, with Akbar in the middle.

Walking through the palace in the quiet late afternoon, it is easy to imagine yourself as Akbar, with enough power and ambition to build an entire city, a new religion, an ideal framework for an empire to last the centuries. And, knowing how the city failed so quickly and how later Moghul rulers abandoned Akbar’s ideals and eventually lost control over India, it comes to mind that often the loftiest ambitions are the greatest of follies. India, far from being united, would collapse into three states, with religion to blame.

But even if the Fatehpur Sikri failed as a great capital, it lives on as a peaceful, largely Muslim village sitting underneath the great Akbar ruins.

In alleys and side streets, small glimpses of Mughal grandeur

Entrance into town

Travel tip: When visiting Agra/Fatehpur Sikri, sleep in Fatehpur Sikri at the Hotel Goverdhan, and do your Agra sightseeing by car. As great as Agra’s sights are, the city is crummy and doesn’t come anywhere near matching the relaxation and peek into small town life that Fatehpur Sikri offers. The Goverdhan has good rates and pretty good food, is an ideal base and can help with car hire. Take your time enjoying Fatehpur Sikri and make a special effort to be in the mosque around sunrise and sunst, when the mosque at its most quiet and beautiful (even the boy salesmen will let you be after a while) and you can learn to appreciate the continuity and serenity of life in the town.

Some pictures from Medina Azahara near Cordoba, Spain, also a failed Muslim new capital. Built in the late 10th century by an Umayyad Caliph and destroyed less than a century thereafter, it was said that the city was one of the grandest and most dazzling ever built. It has only recently been excavated.

Mughal India

To call India a subcontinent feels right not only because the South Asian peninsula forms a tectonic plate that was at one time separate from the greater Asian landmass, and still moves separately from it, pushing up the great Himalayas, but also because it encompasses a level of cultural diversity that justifies a supranational characterization. Perhaps more than other places, India has adopted a stream of outsiders, and outsiders who came to conquer the realm: the “Aryans” who are said to have subdued the existing dark-skinned Dravidians and established the Hindu religion, the Persians and Greeks who controlled the Kingdom of Ghandara in now Pakistan, the Persian-cultural Muslims who established the Sultanate of Delhi and Golconda/Hyderabad (see post of 2008.03.28), and most recently the British who through the East India Company made India part of its great nineteenth century empire. [This is not even including the numerous minority groups who have settled in India–see posts of 2008.03.02 and 2008.05.14 on the Jewish and Parsi communities of Cochin and Bombay.]

The legacies of each of these on what constitutes India, Pakistan and Bangladesh today are many. The “Aryans” (who may be only legendary, as an outside conquering force) provided many of the things that we consider most Indian, such as Hinduism, the caste system and the Sanskrit classics. The earlier Muslim Kingdoms introduced Islam to India and established such great cities as Delhi and Hyderabad. The British are responsible at the same time for Indian unity and the ultimate three-way division of the subcontinent, and arguably for the modern democratic Indian state, including the metropoli of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta.

But none of these matches, in the imagination of the tourist, the Mughals, who ruled much of India from 1526 to 1857 and left behind such great monuments of their rule, monuments which are now some of the greatest tourist attractions of India.

Friday Mosque, Delhi

The founder of the Mughal Empire, Babur, came down from Central Asia to India when he was defeated by Uzbek opponents in now Uzbekistan in the early 16th century. He was ethnically Turkic/Mongol–descended from Tamerlane and Genghis Khan (“Mughal” means “Mongol”)–but built up his forces and power through Central Asia and now Afghanistan before taking Delhi and the rest of northern India (not including now Rajasthan) from the Delhi Sultanate which was then dominant in the region.

Sadly, the most famous Babur-built edifice was destroyed in 1992 by a Hindu mob (post to come), because the Babri Mosque was believed by some to have been built on the site of an important Hindu temple that Babur had destroyed. (Babur was also known to demonstrate respect for his subjects, among other examples, telling his son Humayun that he should “refrain from the killing of cows, which will help obtain a hold on the hearts of the people of India.”)

Humayun briefly lost his empire to Muslim rivals and sought refuge in Safavid Iran (see post of 2008.5.19), but returned to India to successfully re-conquer and expand the Mughal Empire.

On right, a mural inside Esfahan’s Chehel Sotun Palace showing Humayun seeking the assistance of the Iranian Safavids, who had their capital at Esfahan

Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, which was built by his widow and is widely considered the model for the Taj Mahal

Humayun’s son Akbar, also (somewhat redundantly) known as Akbar the Great, is considered the greatest of the Mughal emperors. Akbar is famous not only because he was able to greatly expand his realm, in part by establishing suzerainty over the Rajputs in now Rajasthan (for a dramatization of this, see the 2008 film Jodhaa Akbar), but also because he was famous for his tolerance and pan-theism, eventually even trying to create a new religion (focused on himself) that would supplant the subcontinental rivalry between Hinduism and Islam. In keeping with his idealism, he built an entirely new capital for the Mughal Empire at a site just outside the city of Agra, called Fatehpur Sikri (post to come).

Akbar’s tomb at Sikander, near Agra

Akbar’s son, Jahangir, ruled the Mughal Empire from 1603 to 1627 and is most famous for his patronage of the arts and his wife Nur Jahan, or “light of the world,” who held great power in the court.

The Itimad-ud-daulah’s tomb was built for Nur Jahan’s father. Popularly known to Agra tourists as the “Baby Taj,” it is a gem of a building, with exquisite marble inlay.

Jahangir in many ways continued the brand of enlightened idealism fostered by Akbar. At the Red Fort of Agra, Jahangir is said to have installed a golden chain of justice, reaching from inside the court to outside the walls, which could be pulled by anyone in order to have an audience with the Emperor to address an injustice.

Shah Jahan’s rule (1628-58) is the architectural height of the Mughal Empire. He built the Red Fort and Friday Mosque in Delhi–indeed Old Delhi is also called Shahjahanabad–expanded Agra’s Red Fort and also built the most famous tomb in the world for his favorite wife. Shah Jahan is now also buried in the Taj Mahal.

The incomparable Taj Mahal, from the river side

Shah Jahan and Nur Jahan

Shah Jahan’s Red Fort at Delhi. What is now known as Old Delhi is Shah Jahan’s creation, including not only the Red Fort (first two pictures) and Friday Mosque (third picture), but also the city’s walls and gates and the great boulevard now known as the Chandi Chowk.

From Humayun on, Mughal culture was greatly influenced by Iran. Persian design is particularly evident in the Chini Ka Rauza, an Agra tomb for Shah Jahan’s prime minister, who was from Shiraz, Iran.

Ganj Ali Khan Mosque, Kerman, Iran

The last of the great Mughals is known for being the worst, in many senses. Although Aurangzeb, who ruled until 1707, much expanded Mughal control to include most of the Deccan in southern India, and even moved his court south to a new city called Aurangabad, his relatively harsh treatment of non-Muslims and puritanical orthodoxy mark him as a sort of villain (for example, he is said to have banned music in the empire). Perhaps because of the overextension caused by Aurangzeb’s conquests, or the failure of his successors, the Mughal Empire retracted considerably after his rule, dwindling to essentially only Delhi by the time the British rose to power in the subcontinent.

Aurangzeb’s tomb in Khuldabad, near Aurangabad. His piety dictated that his tomb be as modest as possible–the relatively simple marble enclosure is a modern addition.

The Bibi Ka Maqbara in Aurangabad, a poor imitation of the Taj Mahal, was built by Aurangzeb’s son as a tribute to his mother and shows the relative lack of attention to the arts during Aurangzeb’s reign compared to his predecessors.

One can detect a certain schizophrenia in the treatment of the Mughal Empire by modern India. To a certain extent, India was de-Muslimized by the Partition–although historical Muslim rule and the present Muslim population are very much core aspects of Indian history and identity, the existence of Pakistan (and to a lesser extent Bangladesh) as an heir to the Muslim tradition accentuates the “foreign” aspects of the Muslim rulers of India, including the Mughals. Indeed, the very name–Mongols–suggests that the Mughals were a foreign power, an alien race exercising dominion over the native (Hindu) Indians. But this is of course inaccurate. First, when the Mughals arrived there was already a substantial and long-established Muslim population in North India. Also, it is important to keep in mind how long the Mughals ruled India–almost three hundred years. Even if the Mughals first thought of themselves as ethnically Turkic or cultural Persian, the fact that they lived in India for hundreds of years, and mixed readily in marriage with local women, meant that they were in actuality as much Indian as not. At a genetic level, Mughal emperors and nobles a couple generations after Babur must have been largely Indian, and the eventual lingua franca of the Mughal Empire, Urdu, is closer to Hindi than it is to Persian or Turkish.