Following the renaming of coolies as sahayaks, the pandas (priests) and boatmen of Varanasi will soon be called Paryatak Mitras. Tourism and Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma is personally overseeing a programme to train them in basic English-speaking and soft skills. Sharma was deputed by the Prime Minister last year to ensure that his constituency sees progress and development.
He told The Indian Express, “Pandas are an important part of the Varanasi ecosystem since almost everyone who goes there interacts with them. We are trying to give them a more tourist-friendly image. In keeping with that, they will now be called Paryatak Mitras. The training incorporates basic mannerism – for instance, how to talk politely to tourists, why its important that they don’t feel fleeced, how to dress right etc. We are also toying with the idea of giving them uniforms.”
Besides spoken English and etiquette, the first group of 200 pandas and boatmen has also been imparted knowledge on some important keywords and phrases in foreign languages such as French, Spanish, Japanese and German with an aim to impress foreigners doing the Kashi circuit. The weeklong training module has been developed by the Indian Institute of Tourism and Travel Management (IITTM) in collaboration with the Banaras Hindu University.
Prof Sandeep Kulshreshtha, director of IITTM, said, “The tourism minister has approved that the pandas be eqipped with the basics of foreign languages and some regional languages such as Punjabi, Rajasthani, Bengali and Gujarati. For instance, they are being taught how to say welcome, sorry, thanks and other commonly used words in these languages.”
“The dos and don’ts of non-verbal communication is also be part of the training. After completion of the training, its results will be evaluated before the plan is expanded to include other sections,” he added.
Officials said the aim of the module is to give the pandas an image makeover since their image has so far been quite negative owing to reports of tourists fleeced and cheated. “The training programme for boatmen emphasises that they dress properly, stock bottled water on their boats, use life jackets and regulate their rates,” adds an official from the tourism ministry.
The first module concluded on Saturday, after which Sharma distributed training-completion certificates to them. There are about 5,000 pandas in Varanasi and an equal number of boatmen and this is the first time such an exercise is being undertaken. “Gradually, all of them will be trained in batches,” added Sharma.