The newly built trade facilitation center in the oldest living city in the world has been in the news since it has been operational. We even considered it as a potential venue for our Yatra Conference but we ended up doing it at BHU. This time my exploration of Banarasi Silks took me to this new destination in the city.
We drove past Munshi Premchand Memorial in his ancestral village Lamhi. His home had been converted into a museum. Locals would tell you the stories of his characters, all of who lived around this house. I could not stop due to the paucity of time, but I highly recommend stopping here.
The trade facilitation center is meant to promote trade in Varanasi. We think of Kashi as a spiritual destination visited primarily by pilgrims. On the contrary, Varanasi has always been a center of trade, living at the crossroads where the two primary trade routes met. Yes, I am talking about the Uttarapath that runs east to west from Kabul to Dhaka and Dakshinpath that runs north to south from Patna to Paithan.
Our scriptures are full of mentions of Kashi as a trade center. Remember Raja Harishchandra had to go to Kashi to sell himself, while he was the ruler of Ayodhya. Closer to our times, poet-saint Kabir was the weaver of Kashi and markets often feature in his poetry.
We know about Banarasi Saris and Banarasi Paan but there are many more things in Varanasi that have a GI tag awarded to them. Now, the museum at the trade facilitation center is an ode to all things Banarasi. In a way, this is a celebration of the city of Kashi, Varanasi, or Banaras. The only other museum that I have seen celebrating a city is Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. But then, Kashi is far too vibrant nurturing so many art forms in its folds.
Trade Facilitation Center at Varanasi
At first glance, the center in red sandstone looks like another building in Lutyens Delhi. Then the faint outlines create the impression of Temple Shikhara in golden shine and remind you that you are in Varanasi. It is a huge public space that can accommodate a lot of people both indoor and outdoor.
What I admired about this whole premises is its design. The elements of Varanasi – be it Buddha or Kabir or the five Bharat Ratna awardees from the city, or be it its arts and crafts or the famous ghats are never out of sight. I have often wondered why do we need museums for living traditions, but this space does showcase them at one place in an easy to access way for the visitor. I also appreciate the fact that many artisans like the block maker or wooden toys makers were invited to work there and interact with the visitors.
The shopping area is fantastic. I can not say much about the products and how well they are priced. When I visited, many shops were lying empty but that could be the pandemic effect. I am sure once it is behind us, these shops would be thriving with many visitors and shoppers.
There are murals and Murtis capturing the essence of the city. There is a large sculpture of Buddha with his philosophy as you enter. In the middle, there is a statue of Kabir – the famous poet-saint and weaver of Kashi. There is a mural depicting all the five Bharat Ratna Awardees from Varanasi – Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Lal Bahadur Shastri, and Bhagwan Das ji. How many cities have you seen celebrating their shining stars?
Crafts Museum at Trade Facilitation Center
The crafts museum showcases the crafts of Varanasi on three floors. It is a beautifully designed museum space. Even before you enter, you are surrounded by colorful and vibrant wall panels showing you the diversity of Banarasi Silk. In a way, you are surrounded by the luxury that these exquisite weaves of the city define.
Film on Varanasi
A short film on Varanasi can be seen in an auditorium that gives you a 360 deg view of the various facets of the city. It is a great way to take note of the elements that fascinate you and then visit them in the lanes of Kashi.
You stand in the middle and get acquainted with the quintessential elements that define Kashi like its music and music maestros, the life on its ghats, its famous Panwallahs, Mithai shops, the weavers, wooden toy makers, Minakari jewelers, and stone carvers. The highlight though always remains is its famous lanes that are like walking into a living open-air museum.
Stand in the middle to be virtually surrounded by Kashi.
As I said, you enter this space surrounded by the exquisite textiles put tastefully to take you into the world of textiles. There are panels explaining the different types of weaves and weaving techniques in Hindi and English. There is a depiction of the weaving process with both visuals and texts.
What stands out in this gallery are some exquisite and heirloom pieces of Banarasi Saris on display. You see the traditional patterns of Kashi in bright colors like purple, magenta, and favorite red. You admire as well as understand the subtle variations in the weave, design, and patterns of the city.
You must see a piece woven using peacock feathers and another called Gaysar in Brocade that is used by Buddhist Lamas for praying.
This showcases some masterpieces like the one that shows the moon or tells stories of kings. There are various types of carpet weaves and patterns on display including a modern one that I did not understand.
Varanasi Art Gallery
This gallery displays a wide range of products from Varanasi. Despite my having written about various art forms of Kashi, I discovered terracotta art here for the first time. This includes the pottery in black terracotta that I usually associated with Manipur. Next time I will look for it in the markets of the city.
There are masks used in the famous Ramnagar Ramlila.
Exquisite pieces of Gulabi Minakari will hold your eyes for a long time.
Murtis in brass and other metal arts present both old and new works.
Towards the end, there is a large and fascinating Ram Darbar.
All the products that have a Geographical Indicator Tag are celebrated in this museum.
On the campus of Trade Facilitation Center, you may meet some artisans working on creating their artworks. I met a block maker, who was making blocks for the block printers. Another one was making small wooden artifacts including some pieces of jewelry. Interacting with them and watching them create is a joy as well as learning. Perfect place to take children. I hope they introduce workshops so that people can learn these crafts too.
Travel Tips for Trade Facilitation Center in Varanasi
The museum is open from 11:30 – 7:30 on all days except Monday.
There is a nominal entry fee.
Cameras are not allowed, but mobile photography is.
You can ask for a guide to show you around. As of now, this is a free service.
You need at least a couple of hours to see the museum, and to browse the markets here.
If there is an additional exhibition going on, then you need more time.