The dimly lit ghats, the serene ow of the river Ganga, the calls of ‘har-har mahadev’ throughout the city, the high and mighty cows and cow dung, make Banaras. It is the most vibrant and timeless city of India that I have visited after Lucknow. A city, as old as history itself, Banaras is witness to the migration of and subsequent settlement of Aryans in India.
It is also said that it was of much were designated stops, but due to several Assi Ghat where I stayed in a backpacker’s incidents of chain pulling, which apparently is an everyday act on this route, according to a fellow passenger.
After the painful journey, I arrived in Banaras at around midnight; the Banaras stories told by my friends who had visited before were evident the moment I stepped off the train. The place was incredibly busy, noisy and messy even at that hour of the night. The traffic is appalling, the sound from the horns of frustrated log-jammed drivers of buses, cars and rickshaws is absolutely deafening. I took a cab ride from the station that got me into the old town closer to importance to Lord Shiva’s life. It’s a city that is regarded as the holiest of all the cities in the world. I can bet you that no other place in the state has beautiful evenings like in Banaras.
My journey started with long 32+ hours train ride to Banaras from Mumbai. The journey was smooth, and the train was before time until we reached Allahabad. The on-record time that a train should take to cover the distance between Allahabad and Banaras is four hours at the maximum, it took 12.
The train practically stopped at every small station not because they hostel. After the long, hard and frustrating journey to the hostel, I had no strength whatsoever to step out and do something. The moment I checked in I passed out. The temperature at night was 48 degrees. I guess visiting Banaras at this time of the year was really a bad decision, nonetheless, I decided to make the best of it.
Next morning was worst, the temperature rose to 49-50 degrees by 9AM, which made it impossible for me to step out and explore. I had to wait till the afternoon heat passed. With the temperature still being 44-46 degrees, at around 5pm I headed to take a walk along the riverfront. I could see numerous boats running in the holy water of the Ganga. These boats are the best way to see the life at the ghats of Banaras. There’s a particular community of boat owners and oarsmen known as Mallah and their primary work is to provide boat services to passengers across the rivers.
In the morning, you can enjoy a beautiful sunrise from the boats.
However, all the five mornings that I went to catch the sunrise it was dusky. In the day, they can take you across the river, so that you can take a bath in the less-polluted waters of Ganga on the other side. In the evening, these boats are the best bet to see the ‘Ganga Aarti’ at Dashashwamedh Ghat. One fine night, when I walked along the Ghats, I witnessed people calmly watching the funeral procession from the boats standing few meters away from the funeral pyres. Subsequently, a man burped and followed it up with ‘Jai Sri Ram!’ on the same boat. Taking a quiet boat-ride while passing the picturesque Ghats on a nippy summer evening silently brings one out to question the deeply-rooted principles that people base their lives on.
The next day, I visited the golden temple also known as Kashi Vishwanath. You will have to store any cameras, phones, pens, knives and computers in one of the local shops, before you’ll be allowed to enter, at your own risk. You will also face a body frisk at least a couple of times before finally getting in to the temple properly. This is quite normal at high profile tourist places in India, but if you’re claustrophobic you may
want to re-consider a visit here. I personally loved it, but this temple is packed to the rafters with pilgrims, with the only drawback being no pictures allowed.
The walk down the small lanes and market are an explosion on the senses.
5 Places to not miss
1. Kashi Vishwanath Temple
2. The Ghats
4. Monkey Temple
5. Banaras Hindu University
It’s pretty good until it’s the aroma in the form of food and spices being sold in the market stalls. However, it gets weirder and unbearable when the smell of cow and goat dung and urine, littered along the congested pathways, gets to you. The sacred cows roam freely through the narrow lanes, some of the lanes are so narrow, you’ll have to walk backwards with a backpack, if you have a face-off with a bull. You will be very lucky to avoid standing in at least one cow path – I managed two. The sights are equally as intense and serious; the brightly dressed pilgrims in orange and white wander through the lanes with their long white beards (some also have extreme dreadlocks), the mix of Muslim and Hindu shops selling spices, kites, food and a range of tourist and local merchandise and handicrafts.
You will also see quite a few local police dotted about the lanes. The temples of Banaras have been a target for terrorists and communal riots in the past, and the Indian security has been tightened considerably over the past few years. In fact, you will also spot special commandos and high-ranking officials in the lanes. They know the lanes pretty thorough, so if you get lost, this is one place where you can ask a policeman. They preferred to be called ‘god-fearing human guards’.
While walking on the streets in the market and around the Ghats you have to be extra careful. The streets are full of drug peddlers walking towards you abruptly asking about buying some “extraordinary stash”. I witnessed a very stupid scenario one evening where a similar peddler walked up to a Russian man with cops standing next to them, the moment the Russian guy refused to buy the drugs, the peddler made an eye contact with policeman and tried fooling the international tourist. When I saw that, I walked up to them, and they let the guy go fearing I was an Indian and from the press. According to the locals there, it’s pretty difficult to fool an Indian.
While I was exploring the city on my second last night before departure, I decided to take a boat ride In the middle of the night. While talking to Ramesh, the 17 year old oarsman, we planned to meet some Aghoris (an ascetic Shaiva sadhus who form a cannibalistic sect that engages in post-mortem rituals). In the summers the tribe moves towards much cooler places, but there’s an unexplored end of the river where a small tribe stays back. If you come across some of the people from this tribe do not shoot them. There are high possibilities they might snatch your camera and break it, unlike other sadhus who might charge you for a picture you shoot of them. Be extra careful. As good and holy as the city sounds, it’s also a little risky while travelling alone.
Banaras also hosts one of the best universities, with a huge campus spreading over 15kms. The Banaras Hindu University is considered one of the best in the world. Banaras has been a truly remarkable destination to visit. Even though I talked about the many downsides of Banaras, they’re insignificant when placing some perceptive on what an amazing destination Banaras is. The only real warning I would give you is to be careful, as there are a lot of scams that happen around including drug-peddling and thievery.
Banaras’s romance, then, is for the soul. This is not a city you visit because you are in search of modern amenities or a frivolous nightlife. If you look hard enough
you can actually find both in Banaras, but they are not what draw people here. What draws people to Banaras is something deeper, the desire to observe and perhaps be part of a spiritual journey that has been going on for centuries. If you are looking
for peace and calm and meeting new people from around the world, this is the place to be.