How is life at Banaras Hindu University

Hindi in Varanasi

Report on the cultural excursion "Exploring Language, Literature and Culture from a Banarsi Perspective" funded by the DAAD initiative "A New Passage to India"

New Delhi and Varanasi, 02/12 - 02/28/2015
Lisa-Marie Reuter, Chair of Indology

In February 2015, a group of seven students from the Chair of Indology in Würzburg traveled to northern India with an accompanying person to get to know the literary and cultural life of the city of Varanasi as part of a cultural excursion. The 12-day stay was financed with funds from the DAAD initiative “A New Passage to India”.

Preparation in Germany

In preparation for the excursion, the students attended the seminar “Four Hindi Authors from Benares. Prose literature from 1880 with reading examples ”, in which they dealt with Benares as the center of a developing Hindi literary public. In the classroom, selected texts were used to trace the intellectual history of today's Varanasi. The students acquired a profound knowledge of the city, as well as the discourses and events that shaped its recent history. Topics such as the life and work of the bhakti poet Kabir, the discussion of social issues in literature and the importance of Varanasis as one of the religious centers of Hinduism were taken up and deepened in the excursion.

Program in New Delhi

The participants came on the morning of February 12th. in Delhi and used the day to familiarize themselves with the local area, to exchange money and to get Indian telephone numbers. The actual program began on February 13th. with a visit to Jawaharlal Nehru University. The students got to know the infrastructure of the campus before a festive welcome event took place at 3:00 p.m. at the Special Center for Sanskrit Studies.

The visit of the Würzburg, which the supervising lecturer Dr. Barbara Lotz followed up with numerous guest visits from JNU lecturers at JMU Würzburg, including Prof. Anvita Abbi (Center for Linguistics), Prof. Janaki Nair (Center for Historical Studies), Prof. Valerian Rodrigues (Center for Political Studies), Prof. Amitabh Kundu (School of Social Sciences) and Prof. Ummu Salma Bava (School of International Studies). The host at the Special Center for Sanskrit Studies, Prof. Girish Nath Jha, had also taught in Würzburg for a few weeks beforehand and was delighted to meet familiar faces among the students. Other professors from JNU who were on exchange with Würzburg, such as Prof. U.S. Bava, to the event at short notice.

Prof. Jha and other speakers from the faculty expressed their joy at the productive cooperation with the JMU Würzburg and expressed the hope that they will soon be able to welcome German students to their institute. The subsequent get-together offered the students on both sides the opportunity to get to know each other on a personal level. The relationships established here were partly followed by further visits after the excursion was completed, as well as a return visit by an Indian student in Würzburg.

On 02/14 An alternative city tour through Old Delhi took place, which was organized and carried out by former architecture students of the Delhi School of Architecture. In addition to the well-known “highlights” Jama Masjid and Chandni Chowk, the varied program also led to places less frequented by tourists. The walk covered through the traditional Mohallas of the old town included stops at the memorial for one of the most important Urdu poets of the 19th century, Mirza Ghalib, at the Fatehpuri mosque built in the 17th century, at the spice and flower markets and at Nayi Sarak Street, known for its numerous Hindi bookstores.


Detailed explanations of the population structure and urban planning by the committed city guides, interactions with the shopkeepers and a taste of the local cuisine left a lasting impression on the participants. The unique cosmos of Old Delhi was able to open up to them in all its dynamics on a new level.

Program in Varanasi

On 02/15 The group flew to Varanasi, where on February 16. the actual excursion began. The program was supervised and carried out by the Varanasi-based organization INLANSO (Center for the Study of Indian Languages ​​and Society), consisting of the founders Dr. Mirja Juntunen and Prof. Deepak Malik as well as teachers employed by the organization. External experts shared their specialist knowledge with the students in lectures and discussions. The organization provided the participants with accommodation within walking distance of the Program House, which is located near the well-known district of Assi, where the lessons and lectures accompanying the excursion took place. The contact with INLANSO came about in 2012 during an international workshop in Würzburg organized by the Chair of Indology and organized by Prof. Anvita Abbi, JNU, as part of the “A New Passage to India” guest lecturer. The great experience of the organizers in the field of cultural exchange made it possible for the course to be tailored directly to the needs of the Würzburg students.

The twelve-day program was divided into six thematic blocks, in which the students dealt with various aspects of contemporary India (detailed schedule in the appendix). At the beginning of each lesson there was an introduction to the topic by the teachers. The students received basic information that enabled them to gain a deeper understanding of the complex of topics, and prepared themselves for interaction with experts and for interviews as part of outdoor activities.

At the heart of a block were the lectures by well-known writers, scientists and social workers, who shared their knowledge and wealth of experience with the participants. Here the students had the opportunity to get first-hand information on the various topics. Most of the teaching units were completed by activities that took place outside the Program House. During guided tours and discussions with those directly affected, the participants had the opportunity to apply and deepen the knowledge they had acquired. Finally, in the follow-up, the findings were discussed, bundled and systematized.

The topic “Marriage in India” coincided with the Hindu holiday Shivaratri, the mythological wedding of the god Shiva with his wife Parvati, as well as a real wedding in the vicinity of the organizers, which the students were also able to visit. In order to draw attention to the difficult situation of widowed women, a visit to an ashram for widows followed the next day, in which women live whose families they no longer want or can no longer support after the death of their husbands. In one-on-one discussions, the students heard stories from the lives of women and asked them about their everyday life in the ashram.

Two lectures by the writer, English professor and LGBT activist R. Raj Rao from Mumbai, who had come specially for his contribution to the course, formed the main part of the subject area "Everyday Hindi". He gave examples of the mixing of Hindi and English in his novel The Boyfriend and in the spoken language of Mumbai and Northern India, and also commented on the position of homosexuality in public discourse in India.


The students were able to familiarize themselves with the Hindi of the rickshaw drivers from Varanasi when they interviewed them about their living conditions as part of a project affiliated with INLANSO. The participants got to know the literary side of Hindi during a poetry reading by the award-winning poet Gyanendra Pati.

“Caste and untouchability”, still a pressing topic in Indian society, brought the Dutch clergyman Father Francis closer to the students. He has lived in Varanasi for many decades and has dedicated himself particularly to improving the living conditions of the Dalits, through whose housing estate he guided the students after his lecture. Many participants appreciated this opportunity to gain insights into a world that had previously remained hidden from them.

Prof. Ranjanna Sheel from Banaras Hindu University informed about the problem of dowry. After the lecture, the students met women from different social classes and had their stories told. The next day they drew a comparison with the situation in Germany with the teachers in class.

The participants got to know the Muslim community of Varanasis using the example of weavers who produce traditional silk saris that are well known throughout India. In the lecture, Abdul Bismillah from Delhi spoke of the time when he lived as a young man in a weaving family, and of their worries and needs, triggered by the rapid disappearance of traditional crafts and the associated loss of livelihood. His experiences found their way into the novel Song of the Loomfrom which he read to the group. The legendary Bhakti saint Kabir, who lived and worked in Varanasi in the 15th century, also came from a weaver family. Today his memory is kept in the Kabir Math, a monastery-like facility, which the participants paid a visit after the lecture. In an open exchange with the residents, they were able to get an idea of ​​life in math.

In addition to conveying the individual specialist areas, the organizers also tried to give the students a comprehensive picture of Varanasis as a living, constantly changing living space. At the beginning of the course, Deepak Malik dealt with the historical development of the place, its dimension as one of the spiritual centers of Hinduism and the multi-religions lived in everyday life. By staying in the centrally located, dynamic Assi district, the participants also had the opportunity to go on a journey of discovery at any time and take part in people's lives. The organizers organized a boat trip along the world-famous Ghats, took the students to lesser-known places and always encouraged them to approach the diverse residents of the city and learn more about their culture, way of life and language.