Tourism & Authenticity in Varanasi, India


A review of Sacred Journeys and Profane Travelers: Representation and Spatial Practice in Varanasi (India), by Cristiana Zara.

The city of Varanasi, located on the banks of the Ganges river in Northern India, is framed as ancient, unchanging and eternally sacred in a wide range of academic and popular literature. It is the quintessential Hindu city for eighteenth-century Orientalists as well as for contemporary publishers of coffee-table volumes, tourism blogs and websites. Varanasi is consistently equated with the “authentic” India, one that is supposedly untainted by either Westernization or the sub-continent’s pervasive Indo-Islamic identity, both seen as intrusive and alien to its urban landscape of temples, lanes and riverfront ghats. It is this construction of Varanasi, the ultimate spiritual destination within an Orientalist discourse (that also engulfs the notion of India), that Cristiana Zara addresses. She unpacks the ways that it is actively constructed, represented and lived through the experiences of Western tourists to the city.

In the Introduction and Chapter 1, Zara lays out the theoretical framework of her study. While acknowledging post-colonial critiques of landscape representation, her focus remains on its perpetuation through experiences that are both consciously and unconsciously scripted. Traditional studies and theories on tourism have emphasized the tourist’s quest for the ultimate “authentic” experience. When coupled with an Orientalist discourse, the tourist gaze has also been conceptualized as directed through a lens of difference. Zara acknowledges her debt to these concepts, but pushes her study towards the embodied experience of tourism with a modern, relatively privileged, mobile, yet gendered subject. She also indicates an interest in the Darshana/Karma opposition in South Asian thought as a means of dislocating and enriching the eternal dichotomy of East/West, the scholarly mainstay of an Anglophone academy.

In Chapter 2, Zara describes her ethnographic method that is based on a combination of semi-structured interviews, questionnaires and participant observation directed mainly at Western tourists (from Europe, Canada, South America, and Australia). Of this category, she encountered two sub-groups, the backpackers who largely congregated around the Assi ghat area along the riverfront, and package tourists who tended to stay in groups at the higher-end hotels in the city’s cantonment area. Her interviews (64) and observations were directed at the first group whereas data from the second group were collected through questionnaires (135 completed) that were distributed through local guides. In addition, she conducted interviews with members of the tourist industry (7 interviews with tour leaders, tourist agents, agency branch heads in India and abroad). Conscious of ambiguities in her own position as a Western researcher-tourist, Zara also recognizes that the process of analyzing this data was never strictly impersonal and academic, but deeply inflected with personal memories and emotional ties.

In Chapter 3, Zara analyzes the dominant visual and narrative discourses on the city and their trajectory from nineteenth-century orientalism to consumption within contemporary (largely hippie) culture. Within such frames, Varanasi manages to be “anomalous” and “typical” at the same time, a strategy that is locally re-appropriated. A range of published materials are vehicles for the promotion of a mystical and spiritual Varanasi that acts as a threshold between “the material and the transcendental,” (or simultaneously, in South Asian terms, “bhoga and moksha” [indulgence and liberation]) (p. 146). These are directed at both foreign and domestic visitors. Western tourists who are eager to experiment with their identities actively engage with notions of the city’s timelessness and exotic qualities (often framed as chaotic, disorderly and even repulsive). As one of Zara’s industry informants puts it, “we do not create the imagery, we nourish it…” (p. 151).

In Chapter 4, Zara studies tourist practices in the city and their place within a broad sweep of visual and narrative representations of India. Gazing on Varanasi is often viewed as gazing on the “real India” (non-modern and impoverished). Zara likens such visual production to a “hermeneutic circle of images” that is sensory as well as emotionally charged (p. 185). For instance, gazing on the “Ganga Aarti,” a recently invented riverfront spectacle (sponsored by hotel chains as well as by an organization dedicated to the environmental mission of cleansing the Ganges river) is recounted by tourists as a spiritual experience. Tourists also engage in the telling and re-telling of stories, “Indo-babbles” as Zara describes them, and in so doing replicate behavior and spatial experiences (p. 203). More structured practices include renewals of vows through Hindu marriage ceremonies and taking classes in yoga or classical Indian music. The figure of the flaneur is useful here, but as an embodied subject who chooses the degree of her engagement though numerous sensory and olfactory options that are facilitated by the city and its tourism industry.

In Chapter 5, Zara maps the geographies of Western tourism in Varanasi. Tourists move between “zones” such as the “peaceful” riverfront, the “cacophonic city center” and the “enclave” of the cantonment (p. 248; p. 292). Each zone is defined through particular narratives and frequented by tourists looking for a range of experiences and on a variety of budgets. Besides these zones, Sarnath, the locus of Buddhist archaeology and pilgrimage, provides another experience to a Western tourist in quest of “Buddhist spirituality” amongst the “multicultural architecture” of modern Japanese, Burmese, Tibetan and Korean Buddhist temples and monasteries (p. 286). She concludes however, that despite the tangible prevalence of these constructed geographies, they are ultimately rendered “unstable” (p. 299). Connections to an outer world, that are a sustained world through a network of cybercafés, render such discrete spatial categories meaningless.

Through her analysis of the intersection between spatial representation and embodied spatial practices, Zara demonstrates the ways in which these are mutually constituted and continually reinforced. Yet, if tourist practices reproduce certain essentialized and mainly Western narratives, the category of the “West” itself might be in question. Foreigners, who have lived in Varanasi for many years, increasing numbers of Indian middle-class tourists, and a visiting South Asian diaspora, further complicate the dichotomies inherent to Orientalism and its visual and narrative productions. In sum, Zara presents a comprehensive and powerful picture of Varanasi as a site of on-going tourist consumption. She also successfully interrogates its narratives and their construction within structures of power and representation that have global implications.

Madhuri Desai
Department Art History
The Pennsylvania State University

Primary Sources
Ethnographic fieldwork (interviews, questionnaires, participant observation) in Varanasi, 2009
Photographs and video footage
Tourism promotional materials (CD-ROMs, booklets, brochures, postcards, leaflets)
Publicly posted materials (notices, flyers, posters, paintings)

Dissertation Information
Royal Holloway, University of London. 2012. 367 pp. Primary Advisor: Claudio Minca.

Image: Boat ride at sunrise, on Ganges, Varanasi. Photograph by orvalrochefort. Wikimedia Commons.

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