Photo by Azza Cohen
Photo by Azza Cohen

“There is a BMW dealership in Benares now,” I tell a friend over Skype, “just outside the airport.”

Varanasi has returned to its name: in 1956, a newly independent India renamed her cities according to their Sanskrit pronunciation. The city had been previously referred to as “Benares” by colonial officers who could not pronounce “Varanasi.” Its other name, Kashi, “city of light,” is a dot on maps drawn by the original Buddhists documenting where Buddha gave his first sermon. Varanasi, arguably the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, has certainly gone through changes in its 4,000+ year history. It’s seen the rise and fall of emperors and empires: the Mughals, the English, the tearing of Independence, and India’s current iteration of democracy forming and crumbling and rebuilding.

Varanasi has swayed with the changes of these political winds, but it has also largely stayed the same. The man who sells my favorite lassi (sweet or salty yogurt drink) claims the bacteria in his recipe are at least a thousand years old—one takes a spoon of yogurt at the end of each day to start the next morning’s batch, so presumably, each spoon contains a taste of thousands of spoons past. One priest at the Durga (female Hindu deity) temple claims at least ten generations of his forefathers having occupied his holy job. A young boy who sells floating candles on the ghats (stairs) leading to the river declares the water is as old as the city because neither can exist without the other. At least his father tells him so.

As I walk the narrow streets, I like thinking that for thousands of years, someone else’s feet have paved the path for mine today. I wrap myself in the comfort of ancestry, although it is not mine to claim. I wonder:

Must there be destruction within such richness? Is the world changing faster now because of certain technologies, or am I just getting smarter so I notice it?

Why was I so surprised by the friendly BMW dealership? He is, after all, a symbol of economic empowerment. is only trying to gift the intangible essence of luxury vehicles to the elite still living in an ancient place. He is not paving the roads to erase the city’s history; he is only trying to pave them forward. And I wonder if anyone else has noticed the crude irony of the advertisement for “real leather” seats. (Cows are sacred in the Hindu tradition, and it is illegal under state law to kill, eat, sell or use the flesh of the animal.)

Maybe I’m the biggest problem with “development” studies. Maybe I’m the greatest example of an ugly American who goes abroad to increase my worldview but ends up back home with the arrogant mentality that things should stay the same over there because it’s history, it’s tradition, it’s beautiful. It’s tragic.

When I arrived in 2011, there was an airport. There was a McDonalds. There were three movie theaters. There was Wi-Fi, if you wanted, in hotels or cafés if you paid an extravagant price for an unlikely cappuccino. There was a lavish hotel where you could swim or order alcohol in the famously dry town. This “progress,” as we call it, seems as inextricable from and inevitable to this old place as it is to the newer ones. But the city’s infrastructure is still tied to its ancient, religious, colonial and recent history: the king’s fortress is still named for the hero of an Indian epic tale; the train station is still named for the English cantonment; the brothels have remained contained in the same exiled edge of the city since they first “bloomed,” as written by 19th century Hindi writers.

Varanasi is giving birth to itself as it always has, just as Tokyo has, as Cairo has, as Rome has, as I have. It’s not the only old place in the world, and it’s not the only living thing to reinvent itself. But the BMW dealership cut me in some different way. It resides in a place I love and admire (albeit through a foreigner’s eyes) for its living history. It is beginning to reflect what I worry about in myself.

Are we becoming more distant as development through increased technology governs more and more parts of our everyday? Or am I just getting smarter, so I notice it?

While I lament the McDonalds-ization of ancient places, I equally lament the Facebook-ization of my friendships. Maybe I sound like my grandmother. Every living thing, from humans to cities, develops with increasing rapidity—faster, it seems, perhaps, now that we can read about it instantaneously.

Preservation activist Jane Jacobs is known for her simple motto: “New ideas must use old buildings.” Is it possible, then, that new brilliance must use old methods? Maybe, in writing a letter to a friend, or reading a book by candlelight, we can find out. I do not suggest we smash our computers (after all, this piece is written on Microsoft Word, of which I am a supportive fan) or revive some sort of latent Luddite within our generation. However, I do suggest we reconsider our relationships to our past and how much inhabiting something (relatively) ancient—be it a temple in Varanasi or our very own Nassau Hall—holds an important place in preserving both history and our sense of self.

Mark Twain wrote, “Varanasi is older than tradition, older than history, and looks twice as old as the two of them put together.”

Varanasi is an ancient place, often described as seeming somehow stuck in time. It is a museum in many ways: a testament to an ancient way of life, brimming with the fossils of epochs past, but also needs to exhale its old exhibits in order to inhale new innovations.

A grandfather, a father, and a son walk in the steps of their great-greats down to the river. These same steps have been stepped on by the bare feet of all their elders. The water drops have long evaporated. The sun, ever relentless, has shone on all their shaven heads and all the shaven heads before theirs. Running parallel to the river, though, is a new development: a road, newly paved, leading to the airport.

I took that road. Back to the BMW dealership. As our rickshaw trotted along past it, I wondered why there was no one inside.

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