INDIA

Varanasi

Varanasi Guide’s Story as Intriguing as His Tours

Jeremy Oltman, a guide in Varanasi, India

Jeremy Oltman stands in front of Lolak Shasthi, the Sun Temple, one of the little-known spots his tours take visitors to in Varanasi, among the oldest living cities in the world.
GREG MIDDLETON/Meridian Writers’ Group

THIS HOLY CITY, where Hindu pilgrims come to bathe in the River Ganges, is also the home of one of the best and most unusual guides in north-central India.

Jeremy Oltman came to India in 1997 as a wide-eyed young American evangelist from Minnesota, determined to do good works and “save” Indian beggars, prostitutes and drug addicts. The omens for his mission weren’t good: “I remember my first morning because it was Mother Theresa’s funeral,” he says.

We are sitting in front of the Kashi coffeehouse, a chai stand with what may be the best coffee—real cappuccino—in Varanasi. It is a place I would never have found if Jeremy had not brought me here.

“I came to India be a social worker in Delhi at Sahara House, a drug rehabilitation house,” he says. “I didn’t like India at first. All I saw were drug addicts, prostitutes, beggars and corrupt police.”

It wore him down. Within two years he was burned out. He went north to Rishikesh, near the source of the Ganges, a beautiful place considered holy, and home to many Indian spiritual and yoga teachers.

By then, he was no longer a Christian, but a hardcore hippie, sporting dreadlocks and beads. He went to Rishikesh to learn Hindi and found a mentor, a man by the name of Raju, who suggested he write a Hindi study program for westerners.

“I slowly realized that foreigners can’t really help anyone here, but that maybe we could be a catalyst, that we might be able to help Indians help Indians.”

He and his new Indian wife eventually moved to Varanasi where they opened a study centre for disadvantaged Indian women and children. He stopped telling Indians what to do and started helping show them how something might be possible.

As he learned more about Varanasi, one of the oldest living cities in the world, he would take his students on walking tours, to both learn from them and teach them what he had learned. It was not long before Indian and then western friends would say, “I have friends or relatives coming, would you take them on a walking tour?”

His Indian friends discouraged him from including the usual tourist haunts and overpriced stores that give guides money back under the table—baksheesh. So, more and more, the tours became the secrets sights of Varanasi. Eventually, he opened his own business. “What I offer is knowledge and safety in a city that can be overwhelming,” he says.

He offers to take me to somewhere where I, who have visited Varanasi half-a-dozen times, had never been. And he does: Lolark Kund, the Sun Temple, hidden on a back street, constructed so you only see the image of the holy lingam (the phallic symbol of the Hindu god Shiva) as a reflection in a pool. Women seeking to get pregnant often come here to bathe. I am impressed.

In Varanasi, Jeremy is known to the locals as Jai, meaning victory in Hindi—which is what he has, in his way, found here.

 

ACCESS

For more information on Jeremy Oltman’s tours visit his website at www.varanasiwalks.com.

For information on travel in India visit the Government of India’s Ministry of Tourism website at www.incredibleindia.org.