You may call it Benaras, Varanasi, Kashi or Banaras, but essentially this is a place which totally changes your perception towards life and spirituality. As Mark Twain famously said once - " Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together ".
I get this sudden urge to revisit the memories of this place, of Benaras, which, as they say, is as old as history itself. The memories now come in strong gushes of wind and I am transported to this vibrant amalgam of colours and smells....
Three trips in 2 years to a place I never ever considered worthy of being visited, speaks volumes about the kind of pull that Benaras has. I want to tell my story, the way it happened....and on the way you will also understand the city that Benaras is...
Journey from Prayagraj to BenarasCirca 2019..
I am on my way to Benaras after attending the Kumbha Mela at Prayagraj, along with a couple of my friends. We have heard a lot about Benaras and its food and culture and being the foodies we are, have decided to pay a visit to the city.
This is our first time. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I would fall in love with this mystical city so much that all other things would become secondary.
Our taxi driver seems to have recently gone through a breakup and is playing sad songs which irritates us to no end. He misses a turn and now we are on some other route.
This longer travel time is getting very frustrating. It is a tiring journey and we just want to reach our hotel in Benaras and rest. We plan to have dinner once we reach the city just to save some time on the travel.
We enter Benaras and feel dismayed. The city looks dirty and very crowded. What is this place we have come to? The taxi driver is unable to find the hostel and the Google map is making us go round and round in circles. We joke that even Google can't understand the streets of Benaras.
There is absolutely no space to park the car. The cacophony of vehicles is making us nervous. Somehow, the driver manages to stop the car and we find a gentleman sitting on a chair and chatting with his friends. We ask him about the hostel we booked and he advises us to let the driver go.
Reaching our hostel
We have a lot of luggage, it is 11 at night, we are tired and hungry. The first impression of the city is really bad and we start questioning this impulsive decision to make this trip in the first place. We get lost in the maze of these alleys of Benaras.
At one point, we encounter a cow and we are unable to cross her and go to the other side. A person coming from the other side understands our trepidation and gently pats the cow and she moves a bit. She is blind, he tells us. That scares us a bit more but we also feel sorry for the poor animal. Cows are aplenty in the city as we discover soon and are revered by the locals.
We find a lot of street dogs and it feels like they are ganging up on us. Finally, we reach the hostel (Bunked up) but are unable to climb the stairs. Dogs are sitting on the stairs and are looking at us menacingly. We call up the hostel and a sleepy person comes down. He carries our luggage. After completing the formalities, we are shown to our room.
We are shocked because it is essentially a hole of a room with 6 bunk beds. The room is not very clean and the bathroom is super dirty with toilet paper strewn around. We had booked the room based on the reviews it had and the reasonable price. But nothing had prepared us for this. One of the friends is tired and dismayed with the whole thing and starts crying. We are however very hungry.
Search for food at midnight..
It is almost midnight and we have faint hopes of finding any food. Two of us decide to go and get some food while the third refuses to go out. Well, we go out and go looking for food. All the places seem to have closed down. One gentleman sees us two girls and asks if we have lost our way. We tell him that we are looking for food. He thinks for a while and tells us that there are a couple of places near Dashashwamedh Ghat which may still be open.
After a lot of confusion and losing our way multiple times, somehow we reach the place. It's a small road side eatery hole and we are in two minds as to whether we want to have anything from this place. Well, we are ravenously hungry and is there an option? Among the limited choices available, we decide to have a plate of vegetable noodles and get a plate of fried rice packed for our friend in the hostel.
This frankly is our first introduction to the food in Benaras and we are blown away by it. A simple plate of chowmein as it is known in this part of the country, full of chilli sauce and ajino moto tastes wonderful. And the price..its fifty rupees a plate (less than US$ 1).
Full and happy, we walk towards our hostel. Having heard a lot about the famous lassi (a cool yoghurt drink), we want to try it. However, everything is closed.
We find a small sweet seller who is going to down the shutters and on a whim ask him if he has lassi. He shows us kulhads (earthen pots) filled with dahi (Indian yoghurt) telling us that though he doesn't have lassi, his yoghurt is better than the lassi. We decide to share a kulhad and absolutely love it. Back to the hostel, we sleep immediately but not before deciding that we would change the hotel the next day.
EARLY MORNING VIEWS
The next morning, we get up early and are told that the breakfast is being served on the terrace. Grudgingly we take the stairs only to be greeted with a lovely view of the tranquil Ganga or the Ganges River.
If there is one reason why it made the stay at this place worth it, it was the location, just a minute walk to the Holy Ganges river. For those of you interested, the name of the hostel was Bunkedup Hostel. And yes, we absolutely did not like our stay here except for the view of the sunrise from the rooftop.
BREAKING OUR FAST (BREAKFAST :-))
We decide to explore a bit in the morning and to check out the narrow alleys. A mouthwatering smell of hot kachauri takes us to a very small place simply known as Tarun Da's Kachauri. We have amazing kachauri sabzi and jalebis and feel shocked to pay an amount of 13 rupees per plate.
Sated we go back to the hostel and tell the manager that we are checking out. He gets very surprised and tries to dissuade us but we move out. We come to the main road and incidentally meet the same uncle who had helped us yesterday. He takes us to a small but decent hotel and we are grateful to him. He asks us to visit his collection of Banarasi sarees which he keeps at home and we promise him that we would try.
MEETING LORD SHIVA AT KASHI VISHWANATH TEMPLE..A SURREAL EXPERIENCE
Somehow we feel much better than yesterday. Filled with a positive energy, we decide to visit the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas, the holiest of Shiva temples in India. It is however, MahaShivaratri time and we underestimate the kind of crowd which is there. Long serpentine queues greet us and we realise that it would be a Herculean task to visit the temple. There is a lot of police everywhere.