‘Banaras’ or ‘Kasi’ or ‘Varanasi’, a mystical city, well known for its grand history, the holy river Ganga, its 84 Ghats, Food, and the legendary belief of liberation after cremation.
It was winter like never before. Delhi gets pretty cold and misty in the winters, but Varanasi felt colder with its unique sense of mysticism, old world charm, and riverine geography. For me, it was a complete change from the retro locales to the oldest living city in the world. As I walked into the lanes near the Assi Ghat in the morning, I'd see the effect of the climate on the apparel of the boys and girls - colourful mufflers, scholes, shawls and sweaters had just begun to shine having come out fresh from the drycleaners. Hapless animals that are often seen straying on roads were invisible. Perhaps they had sought shelter somewhere. And the chaiwallahs had just begun to make merry as their best season of business had arrived. And the first thing that I did that morning was to sip the kulhar ki chai. I just couldn't resist it even though I was not sure as to if one should eat or drink anything at all before visiting the Ganga.
Perhaps, it was somewhere between 5-10 degrees centigrade. In this cold, I didn't expect to see anybody taking a dip in the Ganga - it'd be icy cold I thought. But I still made it to the Ghats to get a view of the river and guess what I found. People were bathing in the waters.
GEOGRAPHY & HISTORY
In recent years the Ganges River has drawn attention for its ungodly level of pollution. But the bathers are immune to all this. Nearly 2.5 million of them come each year to Varanasi, this holiest of cities, on the banks of the most sacred of Indian rivers. According to Hindu legend, Lord Shiva unleashed the Ganges from the knot of his hair. For centuries, its rich floods lent fertility to the soil of the central Gangetic plains and nourished some of India's most prominent ancient civilizations.
Varanasi is a heap of mismatched temples and narrow steps located on the Ganges' crescent-shaped Western bank, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It is a city of scholars, home to one of Asia's largest Universities. It is a city of temples, including the gold-plated Vishwanath sacred to Shiva; and the hundreds of small temples that dot the waterways and alleys. It is also a city of legends. Old Varanasi's ancient ruins lie on the Rajghat plateau, in the northeastern part of the city. Here, archaeologists discovered pottery that went back to 1000 B.C., and broken masonry from as late as A.D. 1500, suggesting the area has been continuously inhabited for 2,500 years. It is one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities.
Varanasi's legends go back some 10,000 years, to the oldest epics of Hindu literature, including the Puranas, the Vedas and the Mahabharata. They say Varanasi is the city of Lord Shiva, who walked here with his wife Parvati at the beginning of time. It could also be the battlefield where Lord Krishna set fire to a duplicate but imposter Krishna, or the place where Lord Rama came to do penance after slaying the demon Ravana. In a country where most cities have at least two names, Varanasi has over a hundred. The locals still call it Banaras, perhaps after the mythological king Benar. The Jataka Tales, a collection of ancient Buddhist folk stories, refer to the city as Jitwari, the place where business is good, or as Pushwavati, the flower garden city, or as Molini, the lotus garden city.
KNOWING VARANASI FROM THE BOAT
Perhaps, there are very few cities that can be known better from water than from the ground. Varanasi is one of them. Varanasi or ‘Kasi’ is the city of Ghats whose soul is the Ganges (Ganga Maiyaa).When I was young, a wise man had told me that if you want to know Varanasi hire a boat. So that’s what I did. And I had this gut feeling from the moment I had arrived on Assi Ghat that every ghat here has a story. So I searched for a good boatman and what I got was a 15 year old boy.
I hired Prakash and his boat from Assi Ghat to Manikarnika and back to Assi. Along the way, I expressed my inquisition and the boy began narrating me the stories of Varanasi's famous Ghats, the sets of steps that lead from the alleys of Varanasi down to the river. Each ghat was constructed by a different medieval king, and though they are young compared to the ancient ruins on Rajghat, the Ghats have inspired their own mythology. The most famous is the Dasashwamedh Ghat, where the father of Lord Rama once sacrificed 10 horses in an appeal to the sun. At Kedar Ghat a priest used to perform a daily prayer to Lord Shiva. One day he became ill and couldn't perform the prayer, telling Lord Shiva, "You will have to come yourself.” "So Lord Shiva rose from the water in front of the ghat," Prakash says.
Heavy black smoke rises from Harish Chandra and Manikarnika Ghats. These are the burning Ghats, where relatives bring their loved ones to be cremated. According to Hindu legend, those who are cremated in Varanasi will achieve enlightenment and be free of the cycle of death and rebirth.
Nearly 300 bodies are cremated every day. As I look at the sun rising behind the Ghats, I wonder as to if this is the best city to die. The bathers are out in full force. Some lather up, while others dance and sing in the water. In the narrow alleys behind them, the city of Varanasi is just waking up.
BEYOND THE GHATS
For all those moments when I thought that the real soul of Varanasi had been covered in the river, the Ghats, their stories, and the lanes, I was so, so wrong. For some hidden secrets were yet to explode upon me. The good thing was – I didn’t throw in the towel. I was hungry for more, just like any good traveller. And so my search for Varanasi’s hidden secrets continued. And so in two days I found myself standing at the doorway of ‘Naglok’. This is the place where Maharshi Patanjali had meditated at the mouth of the gateway to Naglok. It is believed that this place is the portal from Naglok (the world of the nagas) to Bhulok (surface earth).
This place has remained quite a secret in Varanasi since it is located behind a gym. Most tourists don’t come to know about this. Perhaps, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But by visiting such places, what one can learn is that ‘that’ which is a surprise or miracle for us living in the retros is actually quite a regulation reality for the people who live here.
FOOD & ENTERTAINMENT
Varanasi is not short of any colour irrespective of wherever you are coming from. The cuisine of Varanasi is lip smacking. The lanes near the Ghats are full of food outlets that offer delicious Vegetarian food. The poori subzi, jalebi, dosa-vada, kachodis and samosas are fabulous. A unique Varanasi drink I found and enjoyed a lot was the ‘Blue Lassi’. If you have a sweet tooth, do pay your visit to the Kedar Ghat. The range of sweets here is out of this world. And if you go to Varanasi, know one thing that no meal in Varanasi is complete without - the special Benarasi Paan (a betel leaf delicacy).
A rickshaw ride in Varanasi is a must. The lanes are full of rickshaws and a ride is very economic too. Varanasi is famous for its evening Aarti at the Dasashwamedh Ghat, its range of Indian saris and linen clothes, handicraft items, and its cultural events.
Ghats: Assi Ghat, Tulsi Ghat, Dashaswamedh Ghat, Kedar Ghat, Harischandra Ghat, Manikarnika Ghat (last two are burning ghats).
Market: Godolia market is crowded with shops of all kinds. Whether you are game for buying handicrafts, jewellery, saris, or sweets, this is the place.
How to Reach: Air/Rail from Delhi. Road conditions are not good hence not recommended.
Temples: Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Bharat Mata Temple, Tulsi Manas Temple, Kabir Chaura, Sankatmochan Temple, Naglok.
Nearby Sites: Dhamek Stupa, Deer Park, Sarnath Museum, Chaukhandi Stupa.
Activities: Boating, Evening Aarti, Shopping, Temple Tour, Yoga & Meditation, Cultural Events.