Ever experienced the feeling of waking up in the morning and finding yourself absolutely incapable of carrying on with your daily life? When you just can’t put one foot before the other without wishing that the world should have ceased to exist yesterday? On days of a mental breakdown, all you can do is just get away. And if it is the right place, just a day is enough.
Last time we felt like smashing our laptops and hitting someone in the face with its broken remnants, we just boarded an overnight train to Banaras for a saner frame of mind with absolutely no plan. And some day it was!
Our train reached Banaras station an hour before sunrise and having no specific place to go, we decided to go to the Ghats. An auto took us halfway there and then left in the dark, we decided to follow a procession of chanting Sadhus to the ghats. And it set the mood for the entire day. The surreal experience of chants floating around in the darkness guided us to the most popular ghat – the Dasaswamedha Ghat. We sat at the ghat admiring the Ganga in the semi-darkness of the day break until a boat man convinced us that the sunrise from his boat would be the best thing we would experience in Banaras. It was. The solitude, the sound of his oars in the water while we sat watching the rising sun in silence was breathtaking. On our way back he regaled us with the name, meaning and function of the numerous ghats of Banaras. He left us off near a temple we had to visit according to him and every online guide we found, but we gave the temple a miss witnessing the crowd that was now jostling at its gate. Instead we chose to roam around the captivating galis of Banaras bursting with life and hiding temples at every turn. By the time we settled down for breakfast at the Lotus Lounge, at the deserted and unknown ghat of Manaswarovar, we had lost count of the number of temples we had paused to admire wide-eyed. We spent more than an hour and a half taking in the panoramic view of the river (and the activities around it) that the place afforded while enjoying an exceptional breakfast.
By this time, the sun was beating down upon us and we decided to head to a less chaotic Sarnath. A 13 Km auto-ride later, we were staring at an 80 ft tall statue of Budhha at the Thai Buddha Vihar. From there we went to the Mulagandhakuti Vihara temple and paid homage to the Bodhi tree. We then walked a short distance to the Sarnath Archaeological Museum and then headed to the Deer Park. This park is where Lord Buddha first delivered his discourse of his Dhamma and the Dhameka Stupa now marks the sacred place. After exploring the different ruins in this park, one of which is the remains of the Dharmarajika Stupa which once contained the bones of Buddha, we settled down in the shadow of the Dhameka Stupa to take in the blissful surrounding and the peace emanating from the entire place was now permeating through every pore of our body. An hour later we were joined by a monk who settled down at some distance close enough for us to hear him imparting his wisdom to anyone who wished to pay their reverence to him, but far enough for us to choose to ignore it all and just float away.
Another hour later, we walked around the stupa thrice, as per the directions of the monk and pray for the illusive peace of mind and leave, fully rested and rejuvenated. On our way back to Banaras, with plenty of time to kill, we decided to visit the Ramnagar Fort. The vast collection of antiques and weaponry at the Fort amazed us though their deplorable and dilapidated condition due to lack of maintenance was infuriating. We were rewarded for our then anti-establishment thoughts by being chased by a few bats in a dark deserted passageway.
Finally, being back to Banaras we decided to witness the evening aarti at the ghats. After the serenity of Sarnath, being in no mood to push through the large crowds that throng the ghats in the evening for the puja, we chose a much less crowded Assi Ghat which seemed very popular amongst the younger travellers. The laid back attitude of this particular ghat was what suited us most - we sat there to witness a lone Brahmin perform the puja in front of a bewitched gathering.
After the puja, we walked around a bit more, until it was too late to do so, headed to the station and waiting for our train to take us back to the real world – which seemed infinitely more bearable after an entire day of spiritually enthralling instances.
Banaras was an incomparable mix of emotions – we found solitude and peace in the most crowded places. We were surprised at the architectural marvels casually tucked away at every corner. There were cows bang in the middle of the narrow galis we had to tip toe around while fearing we might get mauled. There were 6 years olds begging fluently in English, French and Spanish. There were Sadhus posing for the most extraordinary pictures in exchange of money. There were policemen who spent 20 mins helping us look up places on our phones long after we sincerely thanked them for all their help. There were people who so extraordinarily overcharged us that we did not even realise what transpired for hours afterward. There was a rickshawala so courteous that we felt guilty to quantify his help and service in terms of money.
And then, there is the memory of the Ganga glistening golden in the sunrise. The memory of the silence in the shade of the Stupa with the monk’s soft prayer in the background. The memory of the evening aarti with the tiny specks of flames dancing in the dark. For months afterward, every time I dreaded switching on my laptop, all it took was a deep breath and those images in my head to carry on through tempers and tears.