Varanasi or Benaras is known by many names. It is called “Kashi ,The city of Lights” or “Rudravasa, where Lord Shiva resides”. Varanasi is a place but Kashi is an idea, an experience, a feeling. Words are insufficient to describe the existence of Kashi. It is surreal like a dream and yet, it exists. It exists in the hearts and souls of devout Hindus who believe that one attains Moksha in Kashi. That the one who is lucky to take birth in Kashi and be cremated in Kashi shall be free from the endless cycle of life and death forever.
Kashi exists in its ghats where every morning and evening, the priests invoke the blessings of the Ganga, the mythical river Goddess. A dip in the Ganga is believed to absolve the devotee of all his/her sins and it’s no wonder then, that the beautiful waters are witness to a smorgasbord of rituals like bathing, dipping, floating the ashes of the dead; all in the name of faith!
Kashi exists in the boat rides on the Ganga. The tales of its ancient valour’s and glories live on in the stories that the boatmen tell you while ferrying you around its 365 ghats, one for every day of the year. Yes, Kashi is home to a hundred kind of temples but the essence of Kashi lives in the spirit of its ancient existence and the people you share its existence with.
Varanasi is as old as humanity itself. It holds the rare distinction of being one of the oldest continually inhabited cities of the world! It is the birthplace and the cradle of the world’s oldest religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. Yet for all its spiritual glory, it is a city of contradictions. From thugs to dirty labyrinth alleys (fondly known as gallis) to dead bodies cremated on its infamous Manikarnika Ghats, it is not a city for the faint hearted.
It is impossible for one to go to Benaras and not feel it intensely, for better or for worse. I realised this the moment I got down the train from Delhi to Benaras in the sweltering summer heat last week. I spent the next 3 days absorbing Benaras through its age old temples, getting goose bumps during the Ganga Aarti, explaining about spirituality to a bunch of Spaniards, taking boat rides watching silent waters of the Ganges, listening to heroic stories of ancient kings from my boatman, Ramnath, visiting an old school friend in one of India’s oldest universities, The Benaras Hindu University, and contemplating the meaning of love and life on the banks the Ganga.
How to get there: Varanasi is well connected to major cities in India by air, rail and bus. I took an 11 hour train from Delhi to Varanasi.
Trip type: Short weekend getaway, budget stay.
Where to stay: Zostel Varanasi (http://www.zostel.com/zostel/Varanasi/)
Whether you are a solo traveller, a backpacker or generally exploring a novel way to travel, Zostel Varanasi is the ideal choice. It has a choice of bunk beds in shared dormitories as well as private rooms for couples. The place is spacious, right in the heart of the city and boasts of a massive terrace café which serves basic Indian and continental food. It also has a lounge where you can interact with like-minded travellers or spend a lazy afternoon sipping Kulhar chai or reading a book. The hostel also takes care of all your travel needs from arranging tours to booking autos and taxis. The fact the rooms come for a cool price tag of INR 450 per night is an icing on the cake!
What to do?
1. Visit the Sarnath Temple
The first stop at Varanasi was Sarnath Temple. I wanted to spend the first day of the Assamese new year in a holy place and coincidently landed up at Sarnath. It is the place where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon under the Boddha Tree and where the Mantra “Buddham Sharanam Gachhami” owes its origins to. Some of the important stupas like Dhamekha Stupa, Chaukhandi Stupa as well as edifices from different schools of Buddhism from Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, China etc are found there. In fact the Japanese have their own style of Buddhist temple right here complete with a bonsai garden and origami !
2. Watch the Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedha Ghat.
Perhaps the highlight of the trip to Varanasi was to witness the Ganga Aarti along with thousands of spectators at the Dashashwamedha Ghat. Legend says that 10 horses were sarcrificed at this Ghat by Lord Brahma. Every evening, the priests invoke the blessings of the river goddess Ganga in a spectacular ceremony by the Ghat. The Aarti starts with singing of hymns and chants, followed by blowing of conch shells, burning of incense sticks , lighting of huge brass lamps. The ceremony is choreographed in a manner so that there is perfect harmony among the movement of the priests. Towards the end of this hour long ceremony, the priests circulate the holy lamps among the public for blessings.
3. Watch the sunset/sunrise atop a boat on the Ganga
Few things are as peaceful as going on a cruise along the Ganga. The rocking movement of the tiny boat, the still and silent waters of the ancient river take you to a state of trance. As the boat moves along from one ghat to another, one full of life and the other where the remains of the erstwhile human bodies are burnt continuously, you contemplate on the transitory nature of life. One of the most serene yet powerful experiences in Benaras!
4. Go on a Temple Tour around the city.
There are hundreds of temples in Varanasi and the temple tour is an apt way to touch these spots. Important temples like Vishwanath temple, Aghor tempole, Sankat Mochan Temple, Tridev temple, Vishnu temple, Birla temple at BHU etc. are covered in this 4-5 hour long walking/tuk-tuk tour . For the not so religious but spiritually inclined traveller, it is a great way to explore the religious architecture of Varanasi.
5. Soak in the tranquillity of Assi Ghat.
The southernmost ghat in Benaras, Assi Ghat, is the most well-kept Ghat. It is thronged by students, travellers and tourists of all age groups. The steps on the embankments of the ghats are ideal to sit and catch a glimpse of the orange skies at sunrise/sunsets or simply get a glimpse of the small boats ferrying around Ganga.
6. Eat traditional food at “Baati Chokha”.
This place was recommended by almost every local I met in Benaras! Baat Chokha is a restaurant which serves authentic Bhojpuri/Maithili cusisine. With its tastefully done rustic interiors and amazing fare, it is a treat for taste buds. Do try the special baati chokha thaali, sattu parantha and the lassi.
7. Buy some Benarasi silk saaris.
A generous dose of retail therapy completes the trip to Benaras. The place is world famous for its renowned Benarsi silk saaris and one should definitely have a couple of these beauties in their wardrobe. But beware of agent/driver who try to drag you to a “Whole sale price” outlet for Benarsi saaris. More often than not, you end up with a bad bargain.
If I had to sum up Kashi in one word, it would be SURREAL! So, what kind of a feeling has Kashi left you with? Do share in comments!