As we all know that Mumbai is known for its undying spirit of its people and their survival instincts amidst extreme hardship. I feel there is another such place in India that is always bustling with life and the spirit of devotion. Known for its chaos and mystic charm, it is one of the ancient cities of the world and an ultimate religious destination for the Hindus. It is Varanasi also fondly known as Banaras, Kashi or Shiva’s city. It is a city of extremes where life meets its destiny; a place which brings purity to the living and salvation to the dead.
Banaras as I refer to it is closest to my heart. This place always brings back a lot of memories and happiness of my childhood. I visited this place almost every summer vacation. It is my granny’s hometown. My mother and granny narrated a lot of stories about the place, about lord Shiva, the Vishwanath temple, the history of some of the ghats, our ancestors etc.
Our ritual was to get up early in the morning and start our day by visiting the Vishawanath Temple. The Vishwanath gali has a divine charm about itself. From far away you can see saffron colour clothes fluttering in the air and as you approach the crowded and narrow lanes you will get enamored by the spirit of the devotees around. The air is filled with the chants of “Har Har Mahadev/ Bum Bum Bhole”, fragrance of agarbatti (incense stick), flowers etc. However, it is contrasting to see thousands of police, military men and commandos guarding the place with heavy guns. There are several check points and frisking that one has to go through to reach to the temple.
The temple is known for one of the twelve Jyotirlingas of lord Shiva in India. It is surrounded by series of smaller shrines like Annapurna temple, Kaalbhairavai temple, Vishnu temple etc. In the vicinity, there is a small well near the mosque known as Gyaan Vapi. It is believed that the Jyotirlinga was hidden in this well to protect it from the invaders. Aurangzeb; the Mughal emperor destroyed the original temple of Kashi Vishwanath overnight and raised a mosque in that place. This place is heavily guarded by the commandos due to the Hindu and Muslim sentiments attached to the place.
After the darshan (visit to the temple), our next activity was to have breakfast. On the main road of the Vishwanath Gali, there are several small restaurants selling scrumptious breakfast - puri/ kachori and jalebi. The visit to this place is incomplete without this scrumptious breakfast, so fulfilling and satisfying.
The next main attraction is the boat ride. There are several boats lined up across the banks of the river Ganges. It is crucial to strike a good deal with the boat men as they normally tend to take you for a ride when it comes to the money part. In my case, it used to be simple as my uncle negotiated in the local language (Banarsi language). The boat ride is an exhilarating experience as it takes you far from the river banks and gives you an opportunity to get a panoramic view of the ghats, the architectural brilliance of the palaces and the temples, the chaos and enthusiasm of the devotees, pundits (priests) performing pujas under round bamboo umbrellas and others leaned in meditation/ yoga, painting/ sketch, photography etc. The best time to take a boat ride is at the break of the dawn and in the evening. Afternoons are hot and dry.
On the other hand, it is depressing to see the pollution that is increasing at an alarming rate, the nonchalant attitude of the devotees and priests towards the cleanliness of the place. The holy river Ganges is taking everything along with the sins of human without any complains. But I am sure the nature has its way to give it back.
Well, there are around sixty four ghats out of which Dashwamedh Ghat, Harishchandra ghat, Manikarnika ghat, Assi ghat and Panchganga ghat are of great historical importance. Each of these ghats has its own historical significance. The ghats are lined up with round bamboo umbrellas, steps that lead down the river, priests, small shrines, devotees taking dip in the holy Ganges etc. I would recommend taking time out of the busy schedule and spending some quiet time soaking in energy and enthusiasm of the place or just simply gazing at the surroundings. If you get unknowingly sketched/ painted by an artisit on the ghats, don’t be surprised.
It is a breathtaking view especially in the evening to witness the aarti on the Dashashwamedha ghat from the boat. A group of priests perform puja on the stage, dressed up in saffron attire and dhoti, reciting Vedic hymns and circling huge lamps in a circular pattern. The air is filled with sandalwood fragrance and incense smoke. It is the most peaceful and divine feeling one can ever experience. It is recommended to experience the aarti from a boat, as it provides the best view.