"Brahma once weighed the heavens against Kashi. And Kashi, being heavier, sank while the skies, despite all the gods who lived there, rose upwards." – Adi Shankara
Well, the great sage might've exaggerated a bit in his encomium to Varanasi, but the city is definitely not much less compared to heaven. Mythologically regarded as the place that acts as a gateway to heaven for the deceased, Varanasi is visited by millions every year who are hopelessly trying to find better after-lives for their relatives or friends.
But there's indeed a particular time of the year when nobody goes home disappointed from the city, and that's the time of the colourful festival of Holi. After the cities of Mathura, Vrindavan and Dwarka, it's Varanasi's Holi that is the most talked about in the world.
Holi, By Her Holiness Ganges
While the jist of the festival is more or less the same everywhere, i.e., the main objective is to drench others with colours amidst a sense of brotherhood, but there's something unique that makes the Holi very special in Banaras. This is the holy Ganges. River Ganga is worshipped as a divine goddess in Hindu mythology and is the one that helps traverse the way between the world and heaven. Holi is played on the hundreds of ghats by the Ganges every year and is quite a sight. There is no dearth of water and the festive spirit is in the air along with the colours.
The festival is spread over two days in the city. A custom called Holika Dahan is observed on the evening before Holi. It involves lighting a bonfire on the ghat, which signifies the triumph of good over evil. Cow dung cakes and wood are burned alongside. Grain is also offered to the fire-god, seeking prosperity in return.
A peculiar thing that happens only in Varanasi is that in this evening, people rub a paste called ubtan over their bodies and burn the leftover paste believing that it will cure them of all diseases.
This year, Holika Dahan will fall on Sunday, March 12.
The following day, that is Holi, is reserved for going completely wild. As soon as the sun comes out, people can be seen smearing colour of all kinds on anyone they can find in the labyrinthine alleys leading up to the godly ghats. The most epic celebrations for Holi happen on Assi Ghat. There is endless gulaal (dry colour) in the air as well as on everyone's previously white kurtas. Most people are intoxicated as the day progresses as plenty of shops sell bhang-infused thandai (a refreshing drink made with milk and dry fruits) and laddoo. Bhang is locally-made marijuana, so you can imagine the consequences. When many run out of colour to put over each other, they take refuge in the wet mud on the floor. The merrymaking doesn't stop until the police sirens start blaring on the roads telling everyone to take the celebrations to their respective homes.
What makes the Varanasi celebrations even more special is the fact that everyone is friends with everyone else on this holy festival, and by the afternoon you can see all of them sitting by the ghats and eating gujiya (a traditional sweet prepared on Holi) together. All these events collectively sum up the Varanasi Holi, and it really has to be seen to be believed. Every year thousands of foreigners come down to this city to be active participants in this madness.
This year Holi falls on March 2.
If you haven't b0oked your tickets yet, now is the time to make arrangements. If you live up in the north, driving down may be a good option. But whatever is the case, you should start packing your bags right away and head to Varanasi for their epic Holi in 2017!
How to reach: The Varanasi Junction railway station is connected by most major train routes. The nearest airport is Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport located in Babatpur, which is 26km away from Varanasi.
Lots of magical things take place in this divine city, and you can also experience the same this year. Realise your most colourful dreams in Banaras and share your experiences once you come back; 25 million travellers are waiting to hear from you!