Varanasi: Varanasi is the India of your imagination, the most beautiful place on Earth for me. Spirituality and tranquility seep through each cell of Varanasi. One of the oldest living cities of the world, it is the cultural capital of India.
They say travel heals your soul. Ever since I found myself, I had promised to explore at least one new destination, especially on my birthday. This year, it was Varanasi – also known as Kashi and Benaras. Varanasi – the combination of rivers Varuna and Assi, is the city of temples, religion, art and much more. The holiest place in Hinduism, pilgrims come to the ghats lining the Ganges to wash away their sins in the sacred waters of the holy river.
Every journey starts with planning. Though a backpacker, I ensure that the trip is planned well in advance, so I can have hassle-free fun. There are direct flights available to Varanasi from Mumbai and Delhi. I wanted to stay at the ghats and so, booked a room at Ganesh Guest House near the beautiful Meer Ghat.
It was a well appointed property with a perfect location. The morning view of the holy Ganges from my hotel room balcony, boats sailing past, sounds of mantras chanting from far while sipping my tea, what else could I have asked for?
I didn’t have a pre-set agenda for the short break and instead, decided to go with the flow.
Varanasi airport is about an hour away from the city. I, along with a friend who accompanied me on the trip, reached the guest house early evening.
We spent the rest of the evening relaxing while enjoying the sight of the holy river. I wanted to cut my birthday cake at the stroke of midnight while sailing in the middle of the Ganga. We hired a boat to fulfill my wish, crossing many ghats until about 2 am. It was one of the most soothing and therapeutic of experiences. If you want to really enjoy the calmness, you must rent a motorless boat like we did.
After returning to the ghat, having turned a year older, we left to visit the famous Kashi Vishwanath Temple for the Mangala Aarti ceremony. You must reach the gates latest by 2:30 am for this. Mangala Aarti is important as it is performed first thing in the morning at Brahma Muhurta which is an hour and a half before sunrise. It is said that this time of the day is very auspicious because the sun is pushing all energies of the Earth from sleeping to awakened stage. The Aarti is from 3 to 4 am. You must book the darshan ticket at least a day in advance as only registered attendees can enter the temple premises at this hour.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple is revered as one of the most pious places in India. It houses one of the twelve Jyotirlingas, the holiest of Shiva temples. The temple has been destroyed and re-constructed a number of times in history. Since 1983, the temple is being managed by the Government of Uttar Pradesh. The Kashi Vishwanath Temple receives around 5000 visitors daily. On certain occasions, the numbers reach more than one million. What is noteworthy about the temple is its 15.5-metre-high gold spire and dome. There are three domes, each made of pure gold. We returned to the guest house post sunrise and slept till afternoon.
Around late noon, we went out and explored the streets of Varanasi. We had the most delicious chaats in the world for lunch. If in Varanasi, you cannot miss the chaats. There are many highly sought-after places like Kashi Chaat Bhandar, Deena Chaat Bhandar and Murali Chaat Bhandar. We chose to visit the Kashi Chaat Bhandar. I also ensured that I had chaats during at least one mealtime on all the three days we were there. Healthy and tasty, what’s not to love about chaats? My favourites? Aloo tamatar chaat, palak chaat, matar chaat and golgappas. The options are numerous, each worth every mouthful.
On the streets of Varanasi, you can easily find ‘Bhaang’ which they call Baba ka Prasad (Lord Shiva’s most potent blessing). Bhaang is legal in Varanasi and sold at government-authorised shops. An edible preparation of cannabis, it can give you a high. The ‘Special Lassi’ on restaurant menus is actually the Bhaang Lassi! Other Bhaang preparations include laddoos and pakoras.
In the evening, we left for Dashashvamedh Ghat which was a very short walk from my guest house, to see the world famous evening Ganga Aarti – a ceremony to thank and praise the holy river. It is performed daily at 6:45 pm (45 minutes after sunset) by a group of priests dressed in silky saffron and white robes using multi-layered oil lamps waved in a synchronised fashion as conch shells are blown. The priests end the Aarti by pouring water and offering flowers to the river. Devotees gently push small oil lamps (diyas) placed with flowers on a leaf into the river. After the ceremony, thousands of diyas floating on the Ganges like a constellation of stars makes it a sight to behold. It is a must-watch on every single evening that you are in Varanasi. The incessant, reverberating chant of mantras that fill the air transport you to a different space where there is joy and peace.
We came back to the guest house and finished our dinner at their rooftop restaurant overlooking the holy river. On the next day, at around 5:30 am, we left for a sunrise boat tour. Watching early risers taking their holy dip in the mother Ganga and worshipping the sun god, listening to sailors singing folk songs while rowing, birds chirping above our heads and the sun slowly revealing its face, this was divine and tranquil. Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful mornings I have ever had in my life.
There are 87 ghats (from Assi Ghat to Raj Ghat) alongside the Ganga in Varanasi. You can see all these ghats while sailing on the river. The Old Town is built on the ghat. You don’t have to make a trip to the ghats – part of your daily walk will involve seeing most of them. Some of the popular ones are:
The heart of the action and top attraction at Varanasi. This is considered to be the holiest of Varanasi ghats as the famous Ganga Aarti takes place here every evening. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Brahma created the ghat to welcome Lord Shiva.
Located at the extreme southern end of the city, where river Ganges meets river Assi. This ghat is comparatively less crowded. It is where the renowned poet Tulsidas took his last breath. There are quite a few interesting shops and cafes at this ghat that are popular amongst long-staying foreign students, researchers and travellers.
The ghat, also known as the burning ghat, is where people from across the country, especially Hindus, bring the bodies of their loved ones for cremation. Hindus believe burning mortal remains liberates the departed from the cycle of death and rebirth, hence attaining moksha (salvation). This is the only place where dead bodies are cremated 24 x 7 on all days of the year. You can see piles of firewood lined up on the shores and numerous funeral pyres burning.
The stunning architecture of the BrijRama Palace Hotel makes this one of the most picturesque ghats. The palace was built in the early 1900s by the royal family of Bihar. You can wander around this ghat and also the Munshi Ghat located adjacent to admire the impressive architecture.
It is one of the oldest ghats of Varanasi. This ghat has been named after King Harishchandra, who once worked at the cremation ground here for the preservation of truth and charity. The ghat is one of the two cremation ghats and is sometimes referred to as Adi Manikarnika Ghat, which means the original cremation ground. An electric crematorium was opened at the ghat in the late 1980s.
This ghat borders Adi Manikarnika Ghat on the north with its Shiva temple lying partially submerged in the Ganges. It is rumoured that this ghat collapsed under its own excessive weight. The ghat is named after the Scindias who built it. Above this ghat, several of Kashi’s influential shrines are located within the tight maze of alleys of Siddha Kshetra, also known as the Field of Fulfillment.
After spending over two hours sailing, we went to the opposite bank of the river, where we had kulhad chai (freshly-brewed tea in a clay cup) and pakoras. Since it was cold, we sat near the angeethi (a traditional brazier used for heating and cooking) to warm ourselves.
Imagine spending the winter month of November on the banks of the holiest river, with the beautiful sunrise as a backdrop and a warm kulhad chai – a surreal experience isn’t it?
We came back to the guest house, got ready and left immediately to have a sumptuous breakfast at Madhur Jalpan. Kachori sabzi is the staple breakfast for a majority of the Banarasis. We also had aloo kachori and desi ghee ki jalebiyaan. Make sure you visit this restaurant and taste the items mentioned above.
We also went shopping for the famed Banarasi saree at Chowk Market where numerous stores are located. Known for its exquisite gold and silver brocade or zari, fine silk and opulent embroidery work, Banarasi sarees are among the finest in India and often a part of many a bride’s trousseau in the northern parts of the country. The cost can start from Rs. 2000, running into lakhs of rupees, depending on the complexity of the zari work.
On my flight back to Mumbai, I was thinking about the past few days in the holy city. I took a piece of Varanasi with me – its spirit, perseverance and uncertainty. The shores are timeless in aspect and spirit. Every inch of life that existed on those ghats was a display of faith, spirituality and a constant search that never ends. I was completely electrified by the city and would love to go back there, again and again.
One must visit Varanasi during the winter, especially in the month of November (or Kartik as per the Hindu calendar), for the spectacular sight of the ghats which will be lit with a million diyas as people celebrate Diwali.