Varanasi:A Microcosm of India

10th Apr 2010
Photo of Varanasi:A Microcosm of India 1/6 by Nikita Goswami
View along the Ghats
Photo of Varanasi:A Microcosm of India 2/6 by Nikita Goswami
Buddhist Temple and Monks in Sarnath
Photo of Varanasi:A Microcosm of India 3/6 by Nikita Goswami
The Ganga Aarti Ceremony
Photo of Varanasi:A Microcosm of India 4/6 by Nikita Goswami
Useful Varanasi Walls
Photo of Varanasi:A Microcosm of India 5/6 by Nikita Goswami
Hindu Graffiti
Photo of Varanasi:A Microcosm of India 6/6 by Nikita Goswami

One of the most telling images of my trip to Varanasi was of a holy man sitting on the steps of one of the ghats (landings on the river) -- back ram-rod stright, forehead smeared in ash, a limp piece of cloth covering his taut body -- merrily chatting away on his mobile phone. This stark juxtaposition between the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, was one of the several mystifying scenes that greeted me over the next week. There is a little glimpse of every stereotype you might have had about India as a travel destination: density, chaos, colour, rituals, godmen, labyrinthine alleys, and aromatic food. If you happen to come around a popular Hindu festival, you will get to see the city at its resplendent best, milling over with people and festooned with lights. However, for a city breathing from its every pore, it is ironically the country's most sought-after cremation site: located on the banks of the Ganges, you will always find the Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats lining the river swarming with families and holy men, performing the final funerary rites, burning the body, and scattering the ashes into the holy river. The paradoxes never seem to end.

Varanasi makes for a great opportunity to soak in a city steeped in history and coming to terms with the future. It takes a day or two simply to fully acquaint yourself with the labyrinth of tiny streets and hand-painted signs all over the walls – like the Brighton Lanes but smellier; with animals, motorbike drivers and hundreds of people vying for space. So I suggest you spend about a week here, roaming, eating, taking sunset boat rides, and striking up conversations with the perenially interesting babas. You'll come back with more stories than you would imagine!

Since I was coming in by train from Agra (an experience I highly recommend -- North Indian trains are timely and very light on the pocket), I decided to spend the first few days exploring the tiny suburb of Sarnath. Located so close to the tourist center, the rickshawallas here are almost waiting for the opportunity to fleece the foreigner. More than an annoyance though, I saw it as an amusing dance we engaged in -- each trying to outdo the other through negotiations. Keep a smile on your face, make sure you know the prices approximately, and you'll be fine.
Photo of Sarnath, Sarnath, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221007, India by Nikita Goswami
Even to someone who doesn't know much about Buddhism, the history of Sarnath is captivating. The archaeological museum is clean, has a negligible entrance fee (Two rupees when I went!), and makes for the perfect way to beat the afternoon heat. It is also fairly comprehensive, carrying exhibits that date all the way back to the 3rd century BC and are rich in cross-cultural influence -- with Buddhist, Jain and Hindu art all occupying pride of place.
Photo of Archaeological Museum, Varanasi, UP, India by Nikita Goswami
The surrounding Jain temples are a pleasant evening walk, but what fascinated me most was the nearby deer park where Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon. The park itself plays to script, with a sense of calm engulfing the place.
Photo of Jain Mandir, Jawahar Nagar Colony, Bhelupura, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India by Nikita Goswami
The most popular touristy thing you can do in Varanasi -- as nearly everyone will tell you -- is to take a boat ride along the ghats. If you can shake yourself out of bed at an early hour, the serenity of a boat ride at dawn is quite unmatched. A ride at dusk has its own personality -- as silhouettes of little boys flying kites from the rooftops dot the horizon and the dying sun distracts from the river that can stir up imaginations of the worst water-bourne diseases. You will be offered rides on the faster motor-propelled boats, but go for paddle power. It is cleaner, less noisy, and allows you to take in your surroundings at a languid pace.
Photo of Varanasi, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India by Nikita Goswami
Whatever you do, make sure you do not miss the maha aarti every evening on the Dasawamedh Ghat. With a whole retinue of priests chanting in unison and the flames of several hundred small lamps, it was quite the spectacle. And one I was more than happy to join in. You can also release a small leaf boat into the Ganges after the aarti with flowers in it, purchased from any one of the many small children who will tug at you. It is said to carry your hopes and prayers to the gods, and makes for a lovely sight with the reflection of the lamps in the waters.
Photo of Dasaswamedh Ghat, Dasaswamedh Godowlia, Varanasi, UP, India by Nikita Goswami
A step up from my earlier budget accommodation, the Ganpati Guest house turned out to be an excellent midrange option. Offering WiFi (a real luxury in non-metropolitan India), a view of the Ganges, and rooms with a generous dose of personality -- my needs were more than met at this laid-back joint.
Photo of Ganpati Guest House, D3/24 Meer ghat, Varanasi, UP, India by Nikita Goswami
For the tired Western traveler, there is nothing better than a breakfast comprising of baked goods straight out of the oven. And the Brown Bread Bakery really delivers on that front. Do stop for a bite.
Photo of Brown Bread Bakery Varanasi, RZ 33 B-9/9, Kishan Garh, Main Road, 110070, Vasant Kunj, Delhi, India by Nikita Goswami
One of the better things about traveling in India is that you can find good food at dirt cheap prices. It almost feels like a crime to have a bill so tiny after a wholesale wolfing down of yummy samosas, chai and many a snack at Madhur Milan, but there isn't much room left for guilt after a meal that size!
Photo of Madhur Milan, Dashaswmedh Road, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India by Nikita Goswami
Vaishali Restaurant serves up good snacks such as dosas and banana shakes.
Photo of Vaishali Restaurant, Sarnath, Varanasi, UP, India by Nikita Goswami