As Mark Twain rightly said, ""Varanasi" is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. Call it Varanasi, Banaras or Kashi, this place has a charm like no other. One of the oldest living city of India, Banaras has been a cultural and religious centre for several years.
For as long as I had been planning my first solo trip, Varanasi was stuck in my head like a love song. The magnestism was such that I couldn't resist from packing my bags and heading towards this city. The strange thing was most people couldn't really make peace with the fact that I chose this place for a solo trip. "Why Banaras?", they asked. Though I had no answer to this question, I listened to my head. And I am glad that I did.
As soon as you reach the city, you are welcomed with open arms by an air of dust and the honking of vehicles stuck in jam. But being from Delhi, that didn't really surprise me.
TIP: While roaming around the city or to reach from one place to another, always choose either walking on foot or cycle rickshaws. You wouldn't want to miss any sight of the city.
Being a solo traveller, it takes a lot of courage initially to takes steps ahead. What to do next, where to start with and so on. I say, take baby steps. Interact with the hostel/hotel staff first. Gather good, useful information from the local people. And act confident all the time.
TIP: If you too are travelling solo, prefer a cool hippie hostel over any other place to stay. You meet a lot of like-minded people and the environment really pumps you up.
It was already evening by the time I checked into my hostel. The very first place that I wanted to visit were the Ghats. Since my hostel wasn't very far from the most popular of all ghats, Dashashwamedh Ghat, I decided to go there by foot. Kept interacting with the shop vendors, local people to make sure that I was on the right track. Though it was january, the sun was heating the place up like a furnace. But when you finally get the majestic view of the ghat, you forget everything! You want to keep gazing this view for a while,trying to absorb all that you can.
When I was finally back to my senses, I decided to take a boat for myself to enjoy the picturesque beauty of that place. If you are on a budget travel, you can go for a boat in groups of people but even then, a single boat all for yourself won't cost you much.
I decided to cover the ghats on the southern part, all the way to Assi Ghat and back. Throughout the boat ride, the boatman kept me engaged with the stories about each and every ghat that we came across. The story behind the name of the ghats, the kind of activities it is famous for, so on and so forth. At some ocassions, the boatman would start humming the tunes of a regional song that made the entire boat ride all the more serene. It was a wonderland for me! The most striking thing about a boat ride is that as soon as you step into it, the usual fastrack pace of life goes into a slow motion mode and the whole setup is sure to sweep you off your feet!
By the time I reached back to the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the famous evening aarti had already been started. The lights, the smoke from the deepams and incense sticks, the collective chants by thousands of pilgrims and priests adds to the energy of the place. It is repeated every single day for the average pilgrim coming to Varanasi from every part of India. The sight is something to be cherished for a long time.
Tip: Try and reach the ghat early to reserve a good spot to spectate the entire aarti. It starts around 6.30 in the evening. So it is advisable to reach the spot by 6.
Spell-bounded by the the exhalted and splendid beauty of the ghats, I decided to start all my days by visiting them. One cannot think of missing the magnificient view of the sunrise every morning. When the first rays of the sun fall on the ghats, there is already a humdrum of activities along the banks. With a multitude of devotees performing rituals, taking dips in the ice-cold water of the Ganges which supposedly washes all your sins away.
Step into the embankements of the ghats to feel the pulse of this holy city. If you love walking aimlessly like me, then you are in for a treat. Keep walking through the steps and let the ghats surprise you in their own way.
TIP: If you are near Raja Ghat, don't miss out on the famous Lotus Lounge for a cup of hot tea. It gives you a breathtaking view of the river from its terrace.
If you are able to take out time from exploring the ghat area, you can visit Sarnath, which is famous for a lot temples. And when the rusty and crude city roads take a toll on you, the blissful evenings at the ghats will always be there, waiting for you.( As you can very well see, I have deeply fallen in love with the ghats.)
My last and final day in this city was spent exploring the famous temples of the city. A visit to the Tulsi Temple situated in the Tulsi Ghat is a must. You receive a lot of positive vibes while visiting this temple, as you listen to the chants and the sound of the temple bells.
Each day while returning back from the ghats, I never missed out on strolling through the narrow lanes of Banaras. Every lane offers a plethora of local shops including pan stalls, silk shops, tiny food joints, artificial jewellery and a lot more.
Tip: Look out for Brown Bread Bakery in one of the lanes. It offers some really delicious bakery stuff!
And while you enjoy being lost in these lanes, hog onto the local street food of Varanasi. Ridiculously cheap and unmatched taste! Be it the gol gappas, baati chokha or the flavored milk malaiyyu. It makes sure that it pleases your tastebuds to the core!
My trip to Varanasi was finally heading towards the end and it left me overwhelmed. I was not able to bid a final goodbye to all the amazing people I met during my hostel stay. The solo traveller who made sure that I wasn't alone on my birthday, the dormmates from New Zealand who kept me awed with their amusing travel stories. The group of college students in the city for a video shoot, who sang with me at midnight, giving me the confidence to sing to my heart's content.
And while I headed towards the railway station to catch my train back to Delhi, I grabbed some paans from a nearby paan bhandar! Because as they say' "Bhaiya Banaras aakar agar paan nahi khaya toh kuch nahi khaya!"