Locked down in Kashi: Foreigners' tryst with ghats comes to a halt

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The raging coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak has been a dampener for itinerant foreigners, who are attracted to Varanasi, a melting pot of pristine Indian culture and traditions.

Varanasi, one of the four oldest living cities, including Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem, in the world, is known for its iconic ghats -- steps leading to the banks of the Ganges river -- serpentine lanes and by-lanes celebrating the mysticism of Hinduism.

This is what had attracted Sarah Wackernell, an Austrian national and a social worker, to Varanasi on March 20. She had chalked out elaborate plans to soak in the sights and sounds of the ancient city upon her visit.

Alas! Her plans remained a non-starter amid the viral outbreak that led to a day-long “Janta Curfew” on March 22, which was a precursor to the nationwide lockdown restrictions that were enforced three days later to contain the pandemic.

Wackernell remained cooped up in her room at a guesthouse in a narrow lane near Rana Mahal Ghat for over 70 days during the lockdown restrictions. There was a sameness to her daily routine during the lockdown, when the hustle and bustle of the ancient city, which is never known to go to sleep, came to a standstill.

In the morning, she would sit on the staircase at her doorstep and stare at the empty lane in front of her guesthouse as the pandemic-scarred world went by, while she would spend hours on the rooftop at night and gaze at the benign sheltering sky.

“All my plans were dashed because of the lockdown restrictions. I had no option but to be confined to my room at the guesthouse. However, local people and the guesthouse owner and his family were all very kind to me. They took care of me during the lockdown restrictions and are doing so even now,” she said.

The viral outbreak hasn’t ebbed her wanderlust. She wants to explore Varanasi and wants to keep her tryst with iconic ghats and mystic dingy by-lanes, as and when an opportunity arises, as the social distancing norms have made these places off-limits for now.

She will decamp to Rishikesh in neighbouring Uttarakhand once she has a fill of Varanasi.

Ryan G, an American national, who, too, arrived in Varanasi and got stranded because of the lockdown restrictions, however, doesn’t share the same experience as that of Wackernell.

He alleged that the police were selective in enforcing lockdown restrictions, as they discriminated between locals and foreigners.

“We’re asked by the police to stay inside the guesthouse. However, I saw several locals were roaming on the streets in violation of the lockdown restrictions,” the American tourist alleged.

His only attempt to visit the ghats was thwarted by the police, he further alleged.

While Nita C, a Dutch national, who arrived in Varanasi four days before the lockdown restrictions were imposed, had a mixed experience.

“The locals are very cooperative. They helped us. But the guesthouse staff wasn’t supportive. I was asked to cough up an unreasonable price for four chapatis,” she said.

Nita whiled away her time during the lockdown by immersing herself in yoga and meditation sessions daily. She is planning to leave for Delhi soon amid the easing of lockdown restrictions.

Spaniard Virginia Tolls, too, reached Varanasi a few days before the lockdown. She had a pleasant experience with her stay. “Locals people are good. They did shopping for me, as I couldn’t venture out of the guesthouse during the lockdown,” she said, while she’s still undecided when she would like to leave Varanasi.

Portuguese tourist Alexandre Afonso made good use of the downtime because of the lockdown restrictions. “Personally speaking, it was a life-altering experience for me, as I could indulge in an inner journey to explore who I’m. I may have been born and brought up in Portugal, but I’m a global citizen,” he said.

Afonso, who too missed visiting the ghats, one of Varanasi’s star attractions, blamed a section of guesthouse owners for many tourists’ unpleasant stay during the lockdown restrictions.

Kirtiman Srivastava, regional tourism officer, Uttar Pradesh tourism, made the ground rules clear.

“Owners of hotels, lodges, and guesthouses were clearly instructed to take care of foreigners and provide them with good food during the lockdown restrictions. We’ve taken care of them well, despite the pandemic,” he said.

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