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No pressure: meet the mobile masseurs of Varanasi

They use no equipment, just walk up to tourists, charge Rs 20 for 10 minutes

more lifestyle Updated: Mar 18, 2018 08:56 IST
Sudhir Kumar
Sudhir Kumar
Hindustan Times
Ghats of Varanasi,Body massage,Tourists in India
In Varanasi, at least 150 mobile masseurs offer dry massages on the steps of the ghats, under the open sky. (Rajesh Kumar/HT Photo)

“Want massage? Half body massage, hands massage or whole body massage, I may give it right away at the stair,” that’s how mobile masseur Kishan Sharma approaches a Japanese tourist at the Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi.

Kishan is one of 150 mobile masseurs offering dry massages on the steps of the ghats here, under the open sky.

They have no equipment, rates start at Rs 20 for 10 minutes, and as they roam from one ghat to another, most of their customers are foreigners eager for the exotic experience.

The Japanese tourist nods his head immediately, at which Kishan takes his hand and begins kneading it. Then come the shoulders and arms.

Most mobile masseurs operate at the Dashashwmedh, Prayag, Rana Mahal, Rajendra Prasad and Assi Ghats. Some also roam the lanes of Kashi looking for customers, but generally bring them back to the ghats. (Rajesh Kumar/HT Photo)

Twenty-something Kohei Saka from Tokyo gazes out at the Ganga and visibly relaxes. In 10 minutes, the massage is done and the money has changed hands.

“I never imagined that I would get a massage standing at a Varanasi ghat. I am feeling quite relaxed. This is really very good,” Saka says.

Kishan has already moved on to the next foreigner. “They like this in the sun, under the open sky. They don’t bargain and they pay well,” he says.

Some masseurs have tied up with boatmen to offer their services during a boat ride down the Ganges.

“For massage on boat, the tourist has to pay for the boat as well,” says Mahendra Sharma, another mobile masseur. His customers of the day have included Chloe Prentoulis, a retired teacher from Los Angeles, and an Englishman-turned-sanyasi who declined to give his name.

Not everyone wants to be pestered about a massage during their first encounter with the mighty river, though. Many of the tourists are also not fans of the literally hands-on approach used to peddle these services. “The massage is good. But the way he started massaging me without asking was irritating,” says Peter William, a young tourist from England.

Origin story

The masseurs that operate here range in age from 20 to 65. Many take on and train young apprentices at no cost. Under the guidance of the guru, the trainee first massages domestic tourists and locals. Lessons include how to handle sensitive areas like the back and head.

Legend has it the first mobile masseur in Varanasi was a migrant from Bihar named Ramshankar Sharma who arrived in the pilgrim city 50 years ago in search of work.

Unable to find work in any of the shops, he stretched out on the stairs of the Dashashwamedh Ghat and slept. When he awoke, there was a foreign tourist seated nearby. He looked tired. Desperate to earn a few rupees, Sharma asked if he would like his hands and feet massaged.

Many masseurs have also tied up with boatmen to offer their services during a boat ride down the Ganges. (Rajesh Kumar/HT Photo)

That went so well that the tourist asked for a whole body massage. An hour later, he stood up refreshed and handed Sharma a Rs 50 note. This was a fortune in the 1960s, and Sharma realised he had found a career.

His son, Gauri Shankar Sharma, is now in his mid-50s and still earns a living here. “My father had learnt the art of dry massaging from his father, who taught it to me. This is my business and it’s one that I enjoy,” he says.

Earnings range from Rs 200 to Rs 500 a day. Gauri Shankar’s son Jeetendra, 32, is also a mobile masseur. It’s a profession that supports many migrants from Bihar.

Most mobile masseurs operate at the Dashashwmedh, Prayag, Rana Mahal, Rajendra Prasad and Assi Ghats. Some also roam the lanes of Kashi looking for customers, but generally bring them back to the ghats, where cots laid out on the steps — or sometimes just a shawl — allow the tourist to relax for longer.

“Most tourists don’t want an oil massage but if someone asks I just buy a sachet of hair oil from a nearby shop and charge an additional Rs 10 for the massage,” says Kishan.

So if you spot a man with absolutely no equipment mutter in the ears of tourists, don’t fret. They actually aim to relax.

First Published: Mar 17, 2018 21:05 IST