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In Varanasi’s bylanes, a surprise: A thriving Korean culture

South Koreans on the Buddhist tourist circuit are settling down, opening cafes, learning to speak Hindi and play the sitar in the holy city.

more lifestyle Updated: Mar 20, 2018 15:18 IST
Madhusree Ghosh
Madhusree Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Bona Café, in a narrow alley at Bengali Tola, is typical of the Korean cafés in Varanasi - low seating, Korean- language menus, home-style meals and Seoul-style street snacks on offer, with one significant difference. The meat is limited to chicken.
Bona Café, in a narrow alley at Bengali Tola, is typical of the Korean cafés in Varanasi - low seating, Korean- language menus, home-style meals and Seoul-style street snacks on offer, with one significant difference. The meat is limited to chicken.(Rajesh Kumar/HT Photo)

There’s a Little Korea in the gullies of Varanasi.

Walk through this timeless city and you will see, near the foreign tourists sipping blueberry lassis and the vegetable vendor arguing loudly beside a music shop where someone is playing the sitar, suddenly an oasis of calm in the form of a Korean café.

Dimmed lighting, soothing music, low seating arrangements and authentic Korean cuisine — it’s like you’ve stepped into the streets of Seoul.

South Koreans have dotted this city with little cafés, signs in Korean and K-Pop CDs in the stores. Some came as tourists and never left, others arrived as students and keep coming back. Still others visit once or twice a year to experience “something real… chaos so unlike the sterile rigidity of Seoul,” in the words of Bowon Kim, a 26-year-old South Korean sculptor studying fine art at Banaras Hindu University (BHU).

“Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the spiritual capital of India. I think the Korean tourists are attracted to the contrast the city presents against their hometowns. It’s relaxed and the slow pace gives them a sense of peace,” says Avinash Chandra Mishra, joint director at the Uttar Pradesh department of tourism. “Last year 18,286 South Koreans visited Varanasi, of the total of 3.35 lakh international tourists. For the last five years the number has ranged from 17,000 to 21,000 annually.”

Sitar teachers have Korean students coming back to them year after year, most of them studying art and music and fluent in Hindi.

“Being so close to Sarnath is an added attraction,” says Neerja Samajdar, associate professor at the Centre for Korean studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, referring to the largely Buddhist South Korean population, and the area in Varanasi where the Buddha first preached. The cultural exchange is now going both ways, Samajdar adds.

“Youngsters here are starting to study Korean, out of interest, or so that they can act as tour guides. There are Korean language diploma courses with batches of 40 students at a time.”

Varanasi is an important destination on the Buddhist circuit, which also includes Bodh Gaya, Vaishali, Rajgir in Bihar, Shravasti and Kushinagar in UP, and Lumbini and Kapilavastu in Nepal, where the Buddha was born and spent his early years.

In addition to Koreans, Buddhists from Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan and the US and UK, among other countries, travel this route as a sort of pilgrimage.

Koreans, however, have another reason to connect with India. Many have grown up hearing a folk tale about an Indian princess who travelled from Ayodhya in 48 CE to marry a king and, at age 16, become the first queen of the ancient Korean confederacy of Gaya.

“Since then, along with Buddhism, various aspects of culture have been shared by the two countries,” says Kim Kumpyoung, director of the Korean Cultural Centre in India.

Korean cuisine amid kachori-malai

“Bibimbap (a traditional Korean dish of rice, chicken, vegetables, chilli paste, soya paste and soy sauce) and Rabokki (a Korean street snack made with ramen, boiled eggs and rice cakes in a spicy sauce) are very popular at our eatery,” says Seema Majhi, 26, who has been running the Mong café with her brother Sanjay Panday for seven years.

Most of the cooks at Varanasi’s Korean cafes are locals. Some pick up recipes on YouTube. Others perfect their skills with a little help from Korean patrons. (Rajesh Kumar/HT Photo)

Mong, incidentally, is Korean for ‘total relaxation’ or ‘doing absolutely nothing’.

Majhi is also the chef; she learnt how to cook Korean fare by watching YouTube videos. “Sometime my brother’s friends from Korea visit and teach me new dishes,” she says.

Panday, now 33, has had a Korean connection since he was 8. That’s when he first met the eminent South Korean poet Ryu Shiva, while he was selling postcards to tourists. The poet was so taken by the child that three years later, when he returned to Varanasi, he looked him up. When Panday was 18, Shiva invited him to Seoul, where Panday did a Korean language course at Seoul University. He now runs two cafés, and acts as a guide for Korean tourists.

“Shiva completely changed my life; he is like a father to me,” he says.

Most of the Korean cafés in Varanasi are joint ventures.

An Indian provides the space and licences; a Korean, the mood and cuisine. Ashish Dwivedi claims his Raga café was the first of its kind in Varanasi.

It’s been around for 16 years, set up by Dwivedi and a Korean named Ju Jong Won who met while studying at BHU. “More Koreans were coming to the city, as tourists and students. We saw a business opportunity in that,” Dwivedi says.

So he turned the bookstore on the ground floor of his ancestral home into a Korean café. “We serve only Korean cuisine. Ju Jong Won helped with the cooking, and we all learnt from him. Tourists appreciate how authentic the food is.”

Dwivedi has since married a Korean woman, Sunhwa Cha, and divides his time between Seoul and Varanasi. Over the past four years, the trio has opened two other cafés, a Korean one near the Assi Ghat and an Indian one in Seoul.

Their Raga Café at Manikarnika Ghat is a perfect example of the seamless integration of the two cultures. Just outside is a Shivalinga worshipped by the owner’s family, and just inside a detailed map of Varanasi written entirely in Korean.

“We also organise Hindustani classical concerts and dance performances from time to time,” says Himanshu Dwivedi, Ashish’s brother.

K-Pop, Hindi lessons and Aamir Khan

Graphic designer Soenja Shin, 41, speaks fluent Hindi, very little English and, of course, Korean.

“I came here six years ago and promptly fell in love,” she says. She studied Hindi for three years at BHU. “It helped me learn about the society too. About where its history of religious amalgamation and tolerance comes from.” She is now pursuing a Bachelors degree in Fine Arts at BHU.

Sitar teacher Rabindra Narayan Goswami with Saebom Park, 28, a bass guitarist. About 10% of his students are South Korean, Goswami says. (Rajesh Kumar/HT Photo)

Her husband, Sung Mo, 46, moved to Varanasi also, in 2014. “Sung is studying the tabla at BHU,” Shin says. “He used to play acoustic guitar in Korea and he eventually wants to teach music to kids.”

Shin is now discovering Bollywood. “I’m a huge fan of Aamir Khan,” she says. “When I was learning Hindi, I watched 3 Idiots 50 times! I can recite its entire script. Aamir Khan’s movies make you think, so I love them.”

Also at BHU, Indian students are studying Korean — the varsity introduced a two-year diploma in the language three years ago, and has 50 to 70 students in each batch.

Strumming along

Pandit Rabindra Narayan Goswami has been teaching students how to play the sitar since 1976.

Musician Saem Bawy Han, 29, has a diploma in performing arts from BHU, specialising in sitar, and is currently pursuing a Bachelors degree in the same field. He often performs at local cultural events. (Rajesh Kumar/HT Photo)

“About 10% of my students are now South Koreans,” he says. “I’ve been teaching South Koreans how to play the sitar for 11 years. I think the fact that Pandit Ravi Shankar was born in Varanasi inspires many. But it is the city’s chaos and old-world charm, its combination of past and present that they seem to find addictive.”

Goswami’s current students include six South Koreans — among them, Saebom Park, 28, a bass guitarist; Saem Bawy Han, 29, a musician who is back in India after a break for visa purposes. Han has also done a diploma in performing arts from BHU, specialising in sitar, and is currently pursuing a Bachelors degree in the same field. And Bowon Kim, the sculptor who came to India as a tourist, stayed on, and has grown to love Shah Rukh Khan, saris and tandoori chicken.

“Varanasi just pulls you back again and again, through music, through food, through art. The charm is unavoidable,” Kim says.

And when the city gets too crowded and polluted for our liking, Shin adds, we retreat to the ghats and feel the peace return there.