Banaras is not just about the heavenly ghats or the all important shrines and temples. It’s the hot dusty May afternoons and bone chilling misty January mornings. It’s the endless spirals of narrow by lanes, the all spitting, all cursing, and ever highly spirited people. It’s the reckless autos (yes, even more than the ones in your city) and the immensely charming mullahs.
It was January of 2015 when I found myself with plenty of time to kill. I needed, rather wanted to have some alone time in a different city. An acquaintance of mine, Tushar insisted me on visiting Banaras. “Trust me; you’re going to love every moment”. It was then that I visited Banaras for the first time. I had no idea what the city had to offer, I had but the word of a person I barely knew.
On my first day in Banaras, I went on a leisurely stroll in the city. The fact that it is one of the oldest known cities to inhabit human civilization made me look at it with admiration. The years the city has seen and the changes it had witnessed, it’s a marvel in itself.
I was basking in the glory of the city and then a cold breeze hit me. The Ghats are near! The Ghats from those pictures I had seen. Will it be as good as the pictures? Is it Grand? The questions turned into excitement and then, there it was. The sight of the holy Ganga; the great Ganga. One deep breath, I forgot the traffic snarls (oh yes, even the land of Neelkanth is not immune). Another deep one, the fatigue was gone. Take in one more and lo! It’s the Banaras from the movies, from the pictures I had scrolled through and the books I had read.
The “leisurely stroll” lasted over 2 hours. I had walked more than I had in the last month. Deciding to call the night early, I went back to my hotel. Browsing through the web world, Demigod Google led me to Serenity Routes, a tourism venture which provides royal rickshaw rides in the city. It seemed fun and I decided to avail their service. But the surprises weren’t done for the day. The restaurant Dosa Bhawan at the Hotel Vibhav Harsh had the most innovative menu I had seen. It ranged from ‘Cheese Pizza Idli’ to ‘Strawberry Dosa’ and ‘Mexican Dosa’. A warm belly, tired legs and a comfortable bed makes for the soundest of sleeps and I slept like the proverbial baby.
The following morning the royal rickshaw from Serenity Routes (serenityroutes.com) was at the Hotel gate waiting for me. I woke up early to see the sunrise at the Ghats. The pre-sunrise, early morning sight of Banaras made it look nothing like the streets I had walked on the night before. We stopped at ‘Laxmi Chai’, which serves tea; no serves the flawless ‘chai’ in a Kulhad (clay pots) and toast topped with butter which they make them self. Even though I am not a big tea-drinking person, I helped myself with 4 kulhad full of chai.
I couldn’t miss the sunrise for the world and headed to the Ghats. The mist covered the entire bank before us. In no time the sun was out, gradually evolving from a small disc to a perfect circle of red and then in no time too bright to be looked at and too mellow to give respite from the chill. While I sat there locking away memories of a beautiful morning, the people moved on with their daily routine. For many, the Ghats of the Ganga is where they have taken a dip everyday from the day they could remember.
It was time for breakfast. We flagged off with the mini kachauri, or as the locals call it- Chhoti Kachauri, served with ghugri, aaloo-rassa (potato curry) and chutney which was sweet and conveniently spicy at the same time. What completes Choti Kachauri, is another helping of the Badi Kachauri accompanied by couple of Jalebis. I compensated for the extra calories I had burned the previous evening. A breakfast like that deserves a little something to top it off. I was taken through a maze of streets turning at right angles, streets so narrow that if a ‘Nandi’ is coming on from the opposite side, you have to wait for him to pass. We stopped at what looked like a shop which sold milk in clay pots. Only it wasn’t the milk which the shop specialized in. I noticed a large vessel containing a yellow-foam like substance being served into smaller earthen pots. The mysterious thing I was staring at was ‘Mallaiyo’, also known as the Mithai of Nawabs or as I like to call it, ‘The gift of Angels’. It is made with Milk, and since Dew being the maverick ingredient, it is available only during the winter. Modern day creams, softies and anything else you think to compare it with do not do justice. You have to taste it to believe it. To be precise, the shop sells happiness in cups.
TIP: savor the first spoon of Mallaiyo, for there will never be another opportunity to taste it for the first time.
Up until now, I had had a perfect vacation. A city I did not know, breaking bread with people I had met just hours ago and riding on a royal red rickshaw through the bustling streets of Banaras. The rickshaw took me to Bharat Kala Bhawan and New Vishwanath Temple before dropping me back at the hotel.
By now I was so in love with my royal rickshaw that I decided to go on another ride in the evening. To my amazement, the folks at Serenity routes had sent down a rickshaw to the Hotel as they knew I had no plans for the evening and thus wanted to show me around. Riding through the traffic on my red, sparkling ride I couldn’t help but beam with joy. I could sense the other non-royal rickshaw occupants looking at me in envy. Cruising through the slow moving traffic, the rickshaw dropped me where the gentlemen were waiting. What followed laid the groundwork for a memorable evening. Picking their brains about the city while walking, we reached the Thandayi shop. Thandayi is a milk smoothie full of dry fruits, but the key input is the Bhaang or Cannabis sativa (Yes, its legal). I have to agree, the folks at Serenity Routes have an excellent taste in authentic traditional food. I gulped down a glass and braced myself.
When you are in Agra, you do not skip the Taj Mahal; the Charminar in Hyderabad; the Golden Temple in Amritsar or the Ganga Aarti in Banaras. Later that evening, we went to the Ghats. The Ganga Arti is undoubtedly a sight to behold. It makes you think about the importance of rivers in our country. We worship it and we pollute it; we treat it as Holy water and dump waste in that very godly river.
A few paces away from the Assi Ghat is a tea joint which sells lemon tea. We settled on the steps. People sat there in groups, chatting over a hot glass of tea. Some more had assembled nearby with their musical instruments and an impromptu gig began. My company had to leave and I was left alone, mesmerized by the musical fusion. Maybe it was the high from the Thandayi or the cool breeze, I felt a calming effect. I sat there watching fellow human beings.
It was in that moment that I realized Banaras is really for everyone. Be it the backpackers, the pilgrims, the holidaying family of 16, a couple in their 40s or a solitary traveler loving its own company. It doesn’t matter whether you are on a budget or a lavish traveler, religious or not so much, Banaras will not fail to mesmerize you. Those words of Tushar , “Trust me; you’re going to love every moment” did happen to be true. I loved every moment of my first trip to Banaras.
Stay in Banaras, and it will stay with you!