Have you met the mad bull in the lanes that lead up to the Bishwanath temple? Imagine yourself exploring the lanes and by lanes in the market area, tasting and comparing the famous paan masala, or bargaining over a pair of jootis when all of a sudden there is an uproar. New to the city, you are confused. All around you, people are getting out of the day. What's going on, you ask someone, bewildered. In answer, you have been pulled into a shop selling pots and pans and before you get a chance to complain about the stranger holding your arm in a fine grip, you see it. A beast with a shining black body and magnificent horns rushes past you, galloping over the exact spot where you had stood not more than a minute ago. And in a moment, it's over. People climb down from wherever they had taken refuge, and the market place resumes its regular din until next time.
Have you met the little flower-seller girl while you gazed pragmatically at the river from the ghat? She sells flowers in a little leaf bowl, at the centre of which burns a tiny flame. What is it for, you ask her. To make a wish, and set it floating down the river. As the evening approaches, tiny flames light up the dark river. Tiny flames in little leaf bowls.
The river is heartbeat of the city. Devotees, pilgrims, travelers, tourists constantly throng the many ghats that line the river. The ghats- where every other minute, there is a family performing the last rites of their loved ones. They say, in Manikarnika, the fire of the funeral pyre never stops burning. They say, if you die in this city, if your last rites are performed here, on the banks of the Ganga, your road to heaven is clear. So, for a long time, (and perhaps even now) Benaras was a city where people came to die. The city shares a strange relationship with death. Nowhere else in India have I seen a funeral procession walk by every fifteen minutes or so. The city doesn't stop for death. It doesn't even pause.
Benaras has been imprinted in popular imagination as a city that embodies all things India. Correction. All things that stereotype Being Indian. Religion. Cows. Filth. Sadhu. Over population. But Benaras is more than just its burning ghats, more than just the elaborate offerings to the gods performed as dusk settles over the ancient river in an ancient city. It is more than the religion that stares you in the face with every turn you take. It is more than glossy images of sadhus river banks. It is all this. But it is more.
So, if you are planning a trip to Benaras, keep an eye out. Don't be fooled by the dirt and grime on the streets, or the religion being thrust at you from the walls, from electric wires hanging overhead, blaring from loudspeakers. Benaras is more than what meets the eye. Or for that matter, the ears and nose as well.
And don't forget to taste the paan, they are famous for a reason.