2 Days In Varanasi: The City Of God And Contradictions

18th Apr 2017
Photo of 2 Days In Varanasi: The City Of God And Contradictions by Michael Pargal

The Nugget:

This travelogue is lengthier than usual because it was hard to condense the stories I heard into something shorter. If you have 20min, the longer article is an amalgam of factoids, anecdotes and myth that I learned from a few people. If not, here is the quick and dirty:

We flew into Varanasi airport which is 70min from the nearest Ghat. We stayed at Brij Rama palace hotel located on Darbangha ghat and loved it. We visited: Chet Singh fort, Shivakali temple, Purani Durgabari, Kashi Vishwanath, Manikarnika ghat, Panchganga Ghat, Alamgir mosque, evening Aarti at the Dasashwamedh ghat, and Assi ghat. We loved the cross section of history and legend that this city represents; its relevance not only for the Hindus but also for the Mughal and British empire. We disliked the pollution, both physical and spiritual; the pandas (priests) still play middleman between us and God and no one but the authorities wants to clean up the river.

The long version:

They say that Varanasi is the oldest inhabited city in the world. People have been living here for the past 6000 years, even before Lord Shiva meditated on its ghats and gave it the name of Anandvana.

I've always wanted to visit but never had a chance until my friend decided to tie the knot in Banaras. Here is my experience from a 48h visit in which I've learned enough lore and myth to mull over for a while.

Day 1

We arrived at VNS airport on a fairly convenient Indigo flight from CCU Kolkata in the early morning. We'd chosen a hotel called Brij Rama palace which was very close to the wedding venue on the ghats and came highly recommended by a local friend. The hotel car got us till the Rajghat from where we transferred to a boat. This is where our adventure began. The boat took us past several of the 80+ ghats. We could see people swimming, washing clothes, fishing, praying, and riding boats in the water. The one thing that strikes you is how dense the construction on the ghats is. It's temple over temple over house over fort over the steps - repeated 80 times over. The eastern bank of the river is empty by comparison because vaastu shastra recommends that ghats face East and therefore the West bank is where the city is located. We passed by a Nmami Ganga trawler which is a Modi government initiative to clean up the Ganges.

The three sights that caught my fancy during the first boat ride were:

1) The imposing Alamgir mosque which sticks out on top of the Panchganga ghat due to its incongruous Mughal architecture against the largely Hindu motif

2) The cremation fires burning at the Jalasen/Manikarnika ghat; the fact that children were bathing in the river on ghats either side of the funeral pyres made me realize that people have a more stoic acceptance of death here than in any other city

3) Prayer party boats (for lack of a better phrase). There are these dinghys that go back and forth along the ghats with loud speakers playing bhajans to the tune of mostly raunchy Bollywood songs. Some men dance on the front - high on either ganja or religion!

We arrived at the hotel in 20mins. It is one of the most beautiful buildings by the river. The Brij Rama palace was made in 1812 overlooking the Munshi/Darbangha ghat. Ownership changed many hands and it finally opened for business as a hotel last year after nearly 2 decades of renovation. The elevator which brings you up to the hotel from the ghat is a refurbished version of the first ever elevator installed in India. If it fits your budget - I highly recommend staying at this hotel. Not only is it one of the oldest palaces here (apart from Ramnagar fort) but it's also located plum next to the Dasahwamedh ghat famous for its evening Aarti.

Bada angan in Brij Rama hotel

Photo of Darbhanga Ghat, Bangali Tola, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India by Michael Pargal

View from Brij Rama terrace

Photo of Darbhanga Ghat, Bangali Tola, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India by Michael Pargal

Brij Rama hotel

Photo of Darbhanga Ghat, Bangali Tola, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India by Michael Pargal

The first wedding function was at the Chet Singh Kila located above a ghat with the same name. It was constructed in the mid 18th century by Raja Chet Singh. He lost the fort to the British Governor General Hastings a few years later. The small fort has retained most of its beautiful structure even though it is sadly unkempt. I can imagine minor restoration turning this into a popular tourist destination- not only due to its obscure history but also its imposing view over the river. Apparently used only a couple of times a year for functions, we were lucky to have spent an evening looking over its turrets while eating Banarasi chaat with some smuggled black label. Alcohol and meat is banned within 200m of the holy river. We got to and back from Chet Singh ghat using the hotel boat. Boats aren't allowed to ply post 9pm so be sure to account for that if it's your main means of transportation.

Day 2

The hotel staff was vehement about us not exploring the old town by ourselves. I now realize it was out of a combination of concern for our safety as well as fear of us losing our way - don't trust Google maps to guide you through these streets sometimes no wider than 2ft across.

We hired a guide called Lalit. He is a soft spoken, bespectacled young man. By his own admission, he believes in Hindu traditions but lives a 'modern' life. A lot of the stories I'll relay below were told to me by Lalit (though verity of myth is more upon faith than fact!) You can find him using his Facebook page 'Let's walk'.We enjoyed our time so would definitely recommend signing up with him. The walking path we took is by no means exhaustive but is a pretty good 'Varanasi in a nutshell' if you have the stamina/time to only do a 3-4 hour tour. So here it is, with versions of the story and our experience:

Stop 1: Shivakali temple

This tiny temple built and managed by Bengalis represents the 'other' consort of Shiva. The front of the deity is Ma Kali and the back is the Shivalinga. In this dual form the deity is meant to represent the destruction of all evil. The priest knew almost all the devotees by name and it felt like a neighborhood temple popular with the younger women, most of whom spoke Bengali.

Stop 2: Purana Durgabari

The story: This was a fascinating stop. Legend has it that a certain Mukherjee family from Bengal set up this deity for the annual Durga puja in autumn 1767. On the 9th day, when they tried to remove to deity to immerse her in the Ganges, they couldn't lift her. In the night, the patriarch dreamt that Durga ma wanted to stay in Varanasi. So, a temple was established and the Durga Puja has been here for over 200 years still overseen by the same family!

Deity of Purana Durgabari

Photo of 2 Days In Varanasi: The City Of God And Contradictions by Michael Pargal

Legend of Purana Durgabari

Photo of 2 Days In Varanasi: The City Of God And Contradictions by Michael Pargal

Stop 3: Kashi Vishwanath mandir

This temple is the reason most people come to Varanasi. It is said to have one of the 12 jyotirlingams of Shiva.

The story: Brahma and Vishnu were arguing about their supremacy over the other when Shiva was called to intervene. He created an infinite tower of light and said that the one who could find the end point would 'win'. Vishnu dived downwards but came back disappointed that he couldn't find the end. Brahma went upwards and lied that he had found the beginning and had therefore won. Shiva punished Brahma for lying by decapitating his ego/5th head. This tower of light then melted into the Annamalai peak. But there are 12 holy sites where the lingas are meant to represent the original jyotirlingam. Kashi is one of these.

We hired a 'brahmin' to take us in for temple prayers - think of it as a religious fast pass. If you're lucky enough to come to Kashi Vishwanath, you'll be struck by the presence of police checkpoints all along the entryway. Former communal rioting and violence over the presence of a mosque and temple in the same compound means that security is tight.

The story: The original temple was destroyed by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1664 and replaced by a Jama masjid - also known as the Gyanvapi mosque. During the destruction, the original lingam was hidden in a well called the Gyanvapi which is currently within the mosque campus. For over a century, the Hindus worshiped the waters because they couldn't locate the Shivlinga. The new temple was commissioned by Princess Ahilya of Indore and built in 1780. That's what we visit today. You can see the white dome of the mosque over the walls of the temple though you can't enter if you're Hindu. The temple responds in kind by not allowing anyone with a 'Muslim sounding name' to enter either. Another peculiarity of the rules at Kashi Vishwanath is that foreigners cannot enter without signing a declaration of belief in the Hindu philosophy. I've never seen that happen at a temple before.

The actual experience of the sanctum sanctorum is disappointingly short. We were pushed through a line and allowed 3 seconds in front of the lingam, not even long enough to say a quick prayer. We proffered the traditional milk and flowers which the Brahmin helped us purchase. The temple is intricately carved, beautiful even in the short stint we had there.

The second temple we visited within the campus was the Annapoorna. She's the goddess of abundance/nourishment.

The final stop was the Hanuman temple where one of three Akshayavat trees is situated. The other two at are Prayag (Allahabad) and Gaya. The trees are believed to be a symbol of the divine power of Lord Narayan and older than 6 millennia each.

Takeaways: Kashi Vishwanath is chaotic and serene at the same time. It's not only an important pilgrimage site but also historically relevant to communal relations in Varanasi. The temple is now highly commercialized and completely under the control of an odd combination of pandas (priests) and policemen. Still, it resonates with the hopes and prayers of thousands of devotees that visit each day. Be sure to take a minute from being jostled through the narrow temple streets to catch the good vibes.

Stop 4: Jalasen and Manikarnika ghats

These ghats are exclusively for cremations. Other end-of-life rituals are also performed here to help the deceased achieve mukti/moksha. There is a Shiva temple on the ghat where a naturally occurring flame burns in the ground. This is the flame used to light the funeral pyres. Because the flame burns eternally, the funeral rites are performed 24x7 at this ghat. A few minutes after we left the Vishwanath temple, this place just creeped up on us. Lalit casually walked us over without warning. Only when an Aghori sadhu walked by me and I was suddenly surrounded by shops selling funeral pyre wood, it dawned on me where I am. The guide told my wife she had to stay out of the ghat because women weren't allowed but asked if I wanted to go see the funeral as a tourist. I declined. His nonchalance about observing people saying their final goodbyes struck me as anomalous. But then, this is the city that people come to await their demise. Dying and being cremated on the banks of the holy river grants you mukti (freedom) from the cycle of rebirth. So death is a happy occasion here, not to be mourned. This is one reason why women aren't allowed on the funeral site, Lalit tells us. "They cry a lot so the spirits feel bad and come back to Earth". Nothing sexist about that!

The story: I was told a multiplicity of myth for this ghat. They're all interesting and worth sharing:

1) Lord Vishnu told Lord Shiva to collect all body parts of Sati Ma and cremate her on the banks of the Ganges so that she may be reborn and marry him in her next life. To light the funeral pyre, he used his third eye. The fire still burns as an eternal flame below the Temple on the Jalasen ghat. Lord Shiva granted the Dom caste exclusive rights to perform the cremation rites at this ghat when he cremated his first wife. To this date, the same family carries on the legacy. Once an 'untouchable' caste, they are now considered the Kings of cremation: They set up the pyre, perform the rituals and use the still burning embers at the end of each day to cook the food in their house. I wonder if Shiva granted them the rights to protect from discrimination or whether they were the only ones willing to perform the less than savory tasks.

2) Manikarnika means diamond earring. Some say that Sati's earning fell on this site when Vishnu decimated her body with his Chakra. That's what makes this place a Shaktipeeth. Some others say that when Kali was pursuing the demon Raktabija, she was burning with rage. This rage melted her diamond earring which fell on the ground in Varanasi. Afraid that this burning rage would destroy the city, the mother Ganges covered up the earring in a small pond which is now called the Manikarnika kund. The final legend is that Vishnu created the kund for Shiv Parvati to bathe in. Parvati hid Shiva's diamond earring in the water so that he would stay around to look for it because she didn't want him to leave.

3) Another story says that Sati Ma's eye fell here, and the nearby Visalakshmi temple is the Shaktipeeth

4) Aghori sadhus who live at the ghat are the monks that practice tantra to fight evil black magic. They rub the cremation ashes on their bodies and eat the remains from the pyre to keep their connection with the spirit world.

Takeaways: whatever the myth one believes, there is a different view of death in this city. It isn't a cause of suffering or mourning. It is an oddly light occasion. If you are one of the ~250 people cremated here everyday, you might be going to the proverbial heaven. And for this reason, the death of a loved one doesn't freak people out. They are celebratory in the burning because they believe that the body is just a temporary cloak for the spirit; It needs to be shed in order to move on and moksha is the ultimate goal of every soul!

Stop 5: Ratneshwar Mahadev/the Leaning temple

This tiny temple at the bottom of the steps has the unique distinction of being one of the most photographed temples despite being submerged under the river for most of the year. Its speciality is that it leans 9 degrees to the back (compared to 4 degrees for the leaning tower of Pisa). During the hot summer months, it's fully above ground. When the river level rises and it goes underwater, the priest dives in to perform the prayers.

The story: As always, there are multiple theories for why it tilts

1) Raja Mansingh built this temple for his mother Ratna Devi 500 years ago as a repayment for performing her maternal duties. It leans because Lord Shiva stomped on the temple when he heard of the ego of the Raja or maybe because the mother cursed the temple - in both cases, they were angry because you cannot repay a mother for all she has done for you

2) Princess Ahilyabai cursed the temple because her maid servant Ratna named it after herself without taking permission from Ahilya

3) (Most plausible) The temple was made on silt with a faulty foundation

Whatever the story, the temple is a sight to behold, makes you wonder if your view is wonky or the structure!

Leaning temple of Ratneshwar

Photo of Jalasen Ghat, Lahori Tola, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India by Michael Pargal

Stop 6: Panchganga ghat

This is a large ghat, popular for bathing and has two hypotheses for its name

1) The waters of five rivers were brought here by the sadhus - Yamuna, Ganga, (mythical) Saraswati, Kirana and Dhutpapa and hence the 'panch' meaning five

2) The five elements combine here with the Ganges representing water

Stop 7: Alamgir mosque

Located 80 stone steps above the Panchganga ghat is this imposing, mostly intact, and obviously Mughal structure. I had seen it on the boat ride in and was determined to visit. So we walked up in the 40•C Sun much to Lalit's dislike. Aurangzeb built the mosque on the site of an old Vishnu temple he destroyed. The lower prayer hall retains some Hindu design elements. The caretaker in a lungi was excited to have visitors and opened up the sanctum for us, showed us where to take photos, asked us if we want to climb the roof or wear the caps. At the end all he wanted was Rs.100. I guess he misses the volume of tourists that his Hindu counterparts get to earn from. The mosque compound has some of the best vistas of the ghats - definitely worth the quick climb.

Alamgir mosque

Photo of 2 Days In Varanasi: The City Of God And Contradictions by Michael Pargal

Alamgir mosque

Photo of 2 Days In Varanasi: The City Of God And Contradictions by Michael Pargal

Stop 8: Visalakshmi temple

This was our last stop. A tiny temple near the Meer ghat. Assumed to be a Shaktipeeth perhaps in combination with Manikarnika where the eyes and earrings of Sati ma supposedly fell.

Stop 9: Evening Aarti at Dasashwamedh ghat

If you're in Varanasi, you will be encouraged to attend at least one Aarti. Dasashwamedh is famous for hosting a large one at sunset and Assi ghat at sunrise. The hotel arranges for a boat , you sit on the roof, the boat parks facing the ghat, and the priests and devotees on the ghats offer prayers to the Ganges. 50-60 similar boats line up facing the Ghat. I've attended the evening Ganga Aarti in Rishikesh sitting on the ghats so this feels like an opposite experience. While in Rishikesh I felt like I was participating in and performing the Aarti, here I felt like an observer- one with the river. Perceiving the young Brahmins in saffron dhotis as if the goddess Ganga herself would. I would recommend sitting on both sides if you have more than one evening here, you can decide what perspective you prefer.

Evening Aarti at Dasashwamedh ghat

Photo of Dashashwamedh Ghat, Dashashwamedh Ghat Road, Godowlia, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India by Michael Pargal

Evening Aarti at Dasashwamedh ghat

Photo of Dashashwamedh Ghat, Dashashwamedh Ghat Road, Godowlia, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India by Michael Pargal

Stop 10: Assi ghat

The day ended with a traditional Banarasi wedding ceremony by the Assi ghat for my friend and his lovely fiancée.

This brings an end to my unusually long write up on a pretty short trip. I wanted to share the stories that I heard along the way from various locals - the kind that you can't really Google. This ancient city is struggling so hard to retain tradition while the youth wants to live the modern, urban life. The streets are too narrow for vehicles but rife with life - cows in the Hindu area, goats in the Muslim area, dogs and children running in the streets. Every couple of steps, we were pressed against the walls by a two wheeler honking its way through. I was chased by a cow and my wife bumped into one that stomped her foot. The Hindu guide told us how they stayed away from the Muslims because they are non vegetarian but normal life runs quite smoothly with mosques and temples on the same compound. The God men look like crooks, as do the security forces. The streets are filthy but the spirit is purified here. The people aren't afraid of dying but the signs say 'Beware of pickpockets'.

This is the most intense two days I've ever spent in a city. The incongruity in its existence is at the same time refreshing and exhausting. I may never return but at least I understand a little better why some people never leave.

Banarasi sari weavers

Photo of Assi ghat, Shivala, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India by Michael Pargal

Islamic quarter

Photo of Assi ghat, Shivala, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India by Michael Pargal

Streets of old town

Photo of Assi ghat, Shivala, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India by Michael Pargal