India Travelogues Varanasi

King of the Ghats – a Varanasi story

Lala - King of the Ghats varanasi elvis guesthouse

The first time I saw Lalah he wore a tattered lunghi and an off-white vest stained with something brown.

He opened the door of the Elvis Guesthouse with a frown, after repeated knocking forced him from bed in the middle of the night to deal with a bedraggled backpacker fresh off a 13-hour local bus from the border town of Sunauli.

Neither of us looking in any way presentable, he grunted with the suggestion that I should follow him into the shadowy hall, after the auto rickshaw driver who looked like Snoop Dogg explained we had just arrived in Varanasi.

Following Lalah’s hulking shape up the stairs I avoided eye contact with his lunghi-wrapped rear and wondered where the brown stains came from.

He showed me to a baby blue room with white sheets and a red table cloth decorating the bottom of the bed, pointing to a brand new air conditioner on the wall as I nodded in approval.

After paying the rickshaw driver, Lalah silently escorted to the blue room, grunted something unintelligible and left.

Varanasi Ghats - Elvis Guesthouse - the traveloguer travel blog india

It wasn’t long before the smell hit us. A sewerage-like stink, it seemed to grow stronger with each passing minute. It was the middle of the night deep in the warren of Shivala, and we were exhausted from spending two days on hot buses. Waking Lalah again seemed like a really bad idea, so we allowed exhaustion to knock us out.

The next morning we headed straight to the rooftop restaurant to inhale caffeine poured from a long-spouted silver teapot in the clamouring heat. A hint of a breeze and the speckled shadows cast by a wooden trellis made the rooftop seem like an oasis.

If only our room wasn’t so smelly.

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We found Lalah at the reception, with a surprising half-smile on his face. When we explained we would be checking out early, he sent a boy to investigate the mysterious smell.

After much consulting, Lalah communicated through halting English that the previous Japanese guest had done something hideous in the bathroom. To this day, I don’t fully understand what the guest had done, but all hints from Lalah appeared suggest the guest had done his business in some hidden corner and not down the toilet. He apologised profusely and urged us to stay, promising to remedy the situation.

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Daytime Lalah was different. Soft-spoken and with a mysterious air of regality, he spread a newspaper across the low coffee table and chatted with us about the upcoming elections as we waited to see if the smell could be remedied.

After a while, he reported that the room had been fixed, and the smell was no more.

Although still reluctant, we allowed Lalah to convince us that leaving was not the best idea. The blistering Varanasi heat and the promise of the cool confines of the rooftop helped with the decision.

Before we knew it, a week had passed and we were still guests at the Elvis Guesthouse.

Elvis Guesthouse - king of ghats Varanasi, India

Lalah was the benevolent father figure of the guesthouse. He would appear on the rooftop, a white scarf thrown jauntily across his shoulders, his wise eyes accentuated by his glasses. With his clasped hands resting on his rotund belly, he made the rounds, greeting each table in his soft-spoken tone. There was an air of kindness about him as he enquired about our day, our plans and how we were.

One day, we followed Lalah down backstreets and shadowed alleyways to the fabric district, where he invited us to peek inside a window where a wizened old man worked a loom, the afternoon sun hitting his skin in a way that made him look like a wax figure.

Varanasi - Silk Weaving - thetraveloguer travel blog varanasi ghats elvis guesthouse

Lalah reminded me of Khan from Shantaram, not that he was a gangster, but in the way people reacted to his presence. As he brought us deeper into the maze-like alleyways, people nodded and gave him smiles of recognition as he passed.

We went to his friend’s house, which was also a shop. As any traveler in India knows, being roped into hearing long sales pitches in fabric stores is pretty unavoidable. But in this case, we didn’t mind.

We climbed stairs and entered a room entirely padded in layers and layers of coloured cloth. A bronze skinned man with a tiny stamp of a moustache and a gargantuan belly greeted Lala with deep affection. His small rimless glasses threatened to slide down his nose as he gestured for us to sit, sit.

fabrics in varanasi ghats elvis guesthouse

We sank onto the pillowy floor and took in the millions of layers of cushions, blankets and scarves that rose up to the ceiling like rainbow-coloured ladders.

We were served chai in glass cups on a silver tray. As we sipped the thickest, sweetest chai we would taste in India, the man told us the milk had come fresh from the cow we had passed outside.

Lalah’s friend told us his blankets were sold in Brown Thomas, an expensive department store in Dublin. As he showed us his black leather notebook filled with orders, I wondered if he kept a list of fancy department stores in each major city, or whether his goods really did travel all the way to Ireland.

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After chatting for a while, we were treated to an impressive display of thousands of scarves, pillowcases, blankets, curtains and more bed spreads imaginable, each flung from its folded position up into the air like a silent firework, before falling spectacularly to the soft floor below. We left with just three modest scarves, wishing our backpacker budget could stretch to cover more.

Standing in the narrow alleys once again, we blinked in the bright Varanasi light as the colours of all the materials danced behind our eyes, and allowed ourselves to be led by Lalah once again.

Lala - King of the Ghats varanasi ghats elvis guesthouse


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  • Reply
    March 31, 2017 at 3:42 pm

    Varanasi is one of my favourite places in India. I could spent days there. There is always so much to see and do. And indeed a great place to go shopping as well.

  • Reply
    March 31, 2017 at 5:08 pm

    Lalah sounds like quite a character, one you aren’t soon to forget. I’m not so sure I believe the Japanese tourist story, and Varanasi does have it share of smells. Although, it is a fascinating place!

  • Reply
    Punita Malhotra
    April 1, 2017 at 6:48 am

    Just love your narration…it reads like a short story. All the expressions, similes, and little details, the way your words bring to life the scenes…a personal touch of you comes through every bit of what you say. Brilliant! The way a travelogue is meant to be…

  • Reply
    Sandy N Vyjay
    April 1, 2017 at 10:06 am

    Interesting perspective of Varanasi and also the people that inhabit it as well as their daily life. Lala h looks like an intriguing character and your have sketched his persona very well. Varanasi is really an enigmatic city with so many faces, many of them unknown and undiscovered.

  • Reply
    April 1, 2017 at 10:21 am

    I love this! The best way to get to know a country is through the eyes of a local. It seems like you all really got the full experience from Lalah and if I’m ever in India I’ll definitely be staying at the Elvis in hopes of having the same experience!

  • Reply
    April 1, 2017 at 9:19 pm

    I spent a few days in Varanasi – I’m not a huge fan of India, but I get why so many people are so fond of it! Thanks for the great read!

  • Reply
    April 2, 2017 at 7:49 am

    It seems this Lalah is quite a character!

  • Reply
    April 2, 2017 at 7:54 am

    Varanasi is fun. I spent a couple of weeks there way back in 1977. I dont think it has changed much from that time. Still dirty, crowded, and the Ganges a sight to behold.

  • Reply
    April 3, 2017 at 2:41 pm

    Looks like a great place to stay and a good host. I still haven’t made it to India yet but I can’t wait to get there. Hopefully I can get to Varanasi when I am there.

  • Reply
    April 3, 2017 at 4:49 pm

    The section about the smells had me cracking up!

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