I have been a huge fan of India's religious and spiritual traditions, I remember while cycling back from my tuition classes in evening I use to find big pandals ( Shelters made from canvas cloth) in the residential colonies around my home. These pandals were decorated by the locals with the statue of lord Krishna ( A Hindu god) for the much awaited festival of Janmashtami which also embarks the beginning of festivals in India especially those celebrated in the northern region. This period of the year always fascinated me because of the stories connected to these festivals which most of them my grandmother use to narrate me before going to bed.The story which I always wanted to see as a kid in existent was the marriage of frogs to delight the rain god and that's what brought me to Varanasi which my grandmother always use to call Banaras( The old name of Varanasi).
Where is Banaras or Varanasi?
Sight for many Bollywood & Hollywood movies, Banaras is the oldest and holy city of India also known as Kashi. This city is located in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and is considered to be the land of lord Shiva ( A Hindu god). Regarded as the spiritual capital of India, the city draws Hindu pilgrims who bathe in the Ganges River's sacred waters and it's also believed if someone spends the last days of their being here they attain nirvana.
How to reach Varanasi?
So there I was, 06am early morning my train arrived at the station of Varanasi, built in 1872 much before the Indian independence, the station has an old world charm in its architecture even though it's been reconstructed couple of times.
Varanasi is now well connected with all major airports in India and also has good train connectivity with almost all stations. Varanasi can also be reached by road but the roads in this part of India are not too great to travel.
Once you step outside the station, you would find many tuk tuk's to take you to your hotel. Bargaining hard with them especially when they identify you as a tourist is a good recommendation ????
My Journey of Banaras of Varanasi
I reached my hotel in no time and after a heavy poori bhaji breakfast ( Poori is an Indian fried bread and bhaji is a spicy delicacy made with potato), which are the known breakfast items of Varanasi; I left to start my journey, to explore the Banaras of Varanasi.
As I stepped outside my hotel I came across a tuk tuk driver who was a local man and generally stands outside this hotel to wait for tourists to show them around the city. He probed me to hire him for rest of my journey at Banaras, an offer I accepted. Prem, my tuk tuk driver suggested me to begin with the ghats and see them twice once during the day and once whiles the sun is setting.
This city still has quaint charm irrespective of the fact that there are few traffic signals and big showrooms beside the roads. Very soon the tuk tuk entered the space I had been waiting to see, the narrow filthy lanes leading to a mesmerizing view of world known Ganga ghats. The lanes had houses of locals at both sides with their two wheeler parked outside, leaving a very thin space for other vehicles to pass by comfortably. Fortunately people here don't mind someone honking or asking them to adjust their vehicles since that has become the way of their life. So in short I found the people very adjusting and generous especially when they see the tuk tuk has tourists.
In no time we reached the known ghats of Banaras and honestly I have never seen someplace so magical especially leading from something as I mentioned above.
There are in total hundred ghats connected with each other and named after various gods or legends of Indian mythology. The best way to see all these ghats is to hire a boat which would take you from the beginning to the end of the ghats. I hired a boat which was piloted by a highly informative 15 years old kid called Kalu, who was very happy to see me just like any other person of Varanasi when they see tourists. You would find many young kids here riding boats, selling artifacts at the local shops or working at local restaurant to meet their necessities instead of attending schools but don't be surprise when you hear couple of them speaking Spanish, French and English frequently.
As Kalu began the boat ride we passed the ghats one after the other but what captivated my eyes were the burning dead bodies at the Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats. I had never seen something like this before in my life, it was one of the sites that everyone can't witness because of the fact that it's not something fair to see. These two ghats as told to me by Kalu are dedicated for cremation rituals. He told me that people from all over north and east India come here to cremate their loved ones while the hymns and mantras are recited by the pandits ( The local religious man or priests) during the cremation ritual to free the dead souls from the vicious circle of life and death and attain moksh (Salvation).
I like the beauty of beliefs that we Indians have, for people of my age its bit silly but I think this is what India is all about and I always preferred to be grounded to my roots. This is not something that started a decade or two ago, these rituals are centuries old and takes you to a historical journey of how our ancestors lived their lives. I told Kalu to go close in order to the see the ceremony and he took me close enough wherein I saw a dead body passing by our boat. I saw one after the other bodies being brought there from the stairs of the ghats and being burnt while rituals were being performed frequently by the pandits.
It was the month of June and the rains were also setting in at Banaras. When i told Kalu about the frog marriage story that my grandmother told me, he laughed and made me stop at the Ashwamedh ghat where the ceremony of frog marriage takes place during this time of the year. I noticed the pandits holding one frog each, clad with flowers while they performed their rituals in order to get the frogs married. After the rituals got over they went down the stairs of the ghat and left the frogs in the holy waters of river Ganga. This as told to me by Kalu is to please the god of rain "" for him to shower rains on the holy city to relieve the locals from high rising temperatures.
We next stopped at the Dashashwamedh ghat close to which is located the famous Vishwanath temple, this temple is important for all Hindus staying all over India and is visited by close to 35000 pilgrims every day. The temple is devoted to lord Shiva and is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas (Jyotirlinga is a devotional object representing the supreme god Shiva) and has total of three domes out of which two are made of pure gold and one is gold plated. The temple was demolished by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb who constructed a mosque in place of the temple and finally in 1780, the temple was again reconstructed by a Maratha ruling princess. At present the temple and the mosque share a common wall without any unrest among the people of both Hindu and Islam religion.
While it would be difficult for you to follow the big lanes to enter the temple premises but in India corruption plays a big and important role. Kalu made me meet one of the shopkeepers who sell coconuts and other ritual performing articles at his shop and he offered to show me the temple through a VIP line ( That's how we like to call these bribed alternatives in India) in just 05 dollars. I didn't find this idea too bad but it was kind of funny to bribe to enter a temple.
I left my belongings and slippers at his shop and started to walk with him barefoot as per the custom of the temple. After crossing few narrow lanes we reached the temple which was crowded with hundreds of devotees who were made to see the sculptures of god in a great hurry. Sincerely expressing I was expecting some peace being at a place of such an historical importance but rarely could I grasp any solace here due to the density of the crowd. But the temple was beautiful and well kept.
After finishing my tour of the temple I stopped by a local shop to enjoy some local food at the narrow lanes just behind the ghats. I spent my whole afternoon on the streets, engaging myself with people who described the beauty of this place in their legends. I met few Aghoris meditating and one of them also offered me to read my hand and articulate my future and I couldn't hide my inquisitiveness. He told me that am soon to get married and would be blessed with three kids; thankfully none of the things happened as sooner he described them to be. This was in fact a conspicuous experience and a recommended one, if you don't mind being crazy at times!
Prem met me again while the sun was about to set at the ghats where he dropped me and led me to reach Dashashwamedh ghat again. I could see locals preparing for Ganga aarti, a spiritual ritual performed every evening at the banks of Ganges here. Prem suggested me to reserve a place as soon as I can to enjoy the best view while the aarti takes place. As the time passed, the day light drowned with the sun in the holy water of Ganges and soon I could see thousands of diyas ( Diya is an oil lamp made from clay with a cotton wick dipped in oil and is lit on various religious occasions in India as is considered sacred ) flowing over the water adding to its holiness, each diya flowed by individuals here had a different wish to make as its believed the wishes do come true while one perform this ritual here.
The loud sound of the Shankha (a conch shell of religious importance in Hinduism used as a trumpet to begin the religious ceremonies) and the bright high lights of aarti gave me goosebumps. This was not a view this was a lifetime experience which was magical. My eyes were stuck on the gleams of aarti and my ears could only hear the pandits singing the aarti cohesively and my mind was blank completely devoid of any mental activities, may be this is meditation. The aarti continued for an hour and I was just solidifying at my place and I don't really remember where I slept that night. That was a miraculous experience, one of the best of my life and may be the one, I could return again to always.
Next morning was a tuk tuk ride 11kms away from the ghats towards Ramnagar city at the outskirts of Varanasi. This place is known for its historic Ramnagar fort which was once home for the king of Banaras famously known as Kashi Naresh. The fort can also be accessed by a boat which is a journey of an hour from main city.
The fort is massive influenced by Mughal architecture and was built in 17 th Century using sandstone however today most of it is converted into museum. The fort museum displays the vintage cars and palanquins which were used by the royal family then along with old photographs of the family themselves. The Fort encompasses an old tunnel with stairs leading you to the terrace and main facade of the fort overlooking the Ganges. Walking through the tunnel definitely made me feel like a warrior moving through the secret passage of the fort.
The old heritage preserved at the fort "While coming back Prem and me enjoyed some Rabdi (An Indian desert made from milk) served in an earthen clay pot called Kulad which is a famous street delicacy of Banaras"
Sarnath - An important excursion of Varanasi
Banaras is not just an important spiritual destination for Hindus but also for people following Buddhism and Jain religion. I headed towards Sarnath, 13kms away from the main city and a place which is believed to be the first destination where after attaining enlightenment lord Buddha preached his first sermon. This place is also one of the four holy sites by the lord Buddha himself for pilgrimage. The places to see at Sarnath dates back from 200 BC and most of them were destroyed by various invaders in India. Among the ruins the most prominent is the Dharmekh Stupa which is 128 feet high with a diameter of 28 meters and looks like a cylinder made of bricks and stone.
Sarnath also houses a small Buddhist temple which is open for Visitors.
Once we returned back from Sarnath, I couldn't stop myself to drive back to the ghats because my Banaras was there, the colors of ghats, the smell of Ganga water, the floating diyas in water and everything else here was just enchanted. I wish I could visit this place once every year or may be stay at Banaras for rest of my life and attend the Ganga aarti every evening.
I met a foreign couple as I walked in into a cyber cafe to use the internet to check on my train tickets back home. This couple was from New York and was settled in Banaras from past twenty five years as the charm of this place didn't let them go back making them a local from a tourist. They own a restaurant and a cyber cafe now to meet their living in this city. This couple is surely not one of their kinds but Banaras has many of them from different parts of the world who settled here because of the fascination in the air.
My last night at Banaras and I couldn't leave without experiencing the Sitar and Shehnai music which is said to be born here. ( Shehnai is a woodwind folk instrument and Sitar is a plucked stringed instrument used mainly in Indian classical music ). I wandered around the lanes near the ghats to find the place where I could settle my lust for these two. I climbed the stairs of this old building and reached this restaurant which had nothing called as an ambience but there was definitely a vibe to this place. It looked like someone's house which was converted into a restaurant, there was old, almost broken furniture kept at the entrance which looked like a spacious living room of a house. At one corner was a small stage set for the musicians who were almost masked in their music.
I braced myself at a corner and enjoyed the melodious tones by these two veterans while spending my last evening at this mystic destination. This was my Banaras of Varanasi, the oldest city of India seen with my senses.