My odyssey through Banaras
I stepped out of my rickshaw, baffled! Banaras was just like any other tertiary Indian city – dusty, chaotic and unorganised. Vehicles ran in all possible directions, honking uncontrollably; surpassing my decibel limits. While walking down the ultra-lean gallees leading to my hostel, I stopped every once in a while to admire the rustic charm of the oldest living cities in the world! ‘Bunkedup Hostel’ seemed more like an extension of a small, dilapidated temple, not in use any longer. The reception was cramped, stuffy and dimly lit. Uncomfortably steep stairs led me to my bunk on the third floor, which stared into the brick coloured Shikhar of the temple that gleamed subtly in the half-moon night of mid-September.
I woke up with a jerk to a ‘thud-thud’ sound on my window next morning. A curious monkey peeped through the tainted glass and made desperate attempts to slide the pane, but eventually gave up. I gulped on hot poha and chai served by the hostel, savouring my first views of Banaras from its rooftop. A bright and glazing sun had risen over the divine Ganges who flowed calmly beyond the intricate crochet of buildings and temples that lined its banks endlessly. Flocks of pigeons and parrots roamed carelessly under a vast blue sky.
A morning in the gallies
People rightly say that the true essence of Banaras lies in its gallies and ghats. Vishwanath Galli was a mesh of brightly coloured houses with simple, yet eye-catching murals of birds and flowers on the walls. Aromas of sweet-meats, deep-fried kachoris, freshly churned malai, flowers and scented agarbattis mixed with the intermittent whiff of freshly spat cow dung manifested the streets. Devotees thronged in serpentine queues for a darshan of the divine Kashi Vishwanath temple- the epitome of devotion for thousands of Hindus from all walks of life. Not very far away, Godowlia market bustled with vegetable and fruit carts and vendors selling colourful toys and cheap merchandise. Shops exhibited the best of their bright Banarasi sarees for sale and the eateries displayed piles of mithais and namkeens, too tempting to resist.
Banaras runs on Chai !
I stopped at one of the many tea stalls that stood at a ‘Nukkad’ (local word for corner) serving Chai in a ‘Kullad‘ (earthen pot). The bliss of refreshing milk tea infused with freshly pounded ginger combined with the subtle, lingering fragrance of earth in every sip can be compared to no other! Random conversations stirred up with other chai-sippers around. No wonder, why Chai is an inseparable part of Banaras, just like the rest of India. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to refer to Chai as a daily ritual or a religion that binds the nation and its people together!
Observing lane rules in Banaras
Getting lost in Banaras is normal and at times, its quite entertaining to rediscover yourself at the very place you left behind a few minutes ago! I figured out a few basic rules here and obediently bided by them..
1. You wait and let the cow pass first.
2. You squeeze yourself and pass at the same time as the cow, but you let its tail whack you a bit.
3. Honking is a universally accepted language to ask you to get off the way.
4. Stepping on dung is no big deal, it gets washed off easily, unlike chewing gum.
5. You can ask for guidance multiple times, even if you look like you are an absolute dumbass, you will be helped!
The trance of the Ganga-Aarti
I dragged myself at 4 am in an unconvinced state of mind to witness the early morning Aarti on Assi Ghat. Pandits dressed in bright red and orange dhotis arranged themselves on a raised wooden platform. Blowing a unanimous rhythm with their Shankhs (shells), the blissful Aarti began. The chants of the hymns blended with the metallic sounds of a huge bronze gong that was beaten at regular interludes. Huge brass lamps were swayed in the air leaving trails of soothing smoke and golden light. The sky mutated into electric blue as the universe gradually transformed from darkness to light. I stood between heaven and the Ganges, feeling blessed and euphoric with a sudden rush of gratitude.
The evening Aarti at Dashaswa Ghat carries the same aura, but its more vibrant and lively. I personally preferred the serenity of the Aarti at dawn on the banks of Assi though. All said and done, the divine Aartis on the banks of the Ganges is an experience one cannot afford to miss. (Aarti is a form of worship in India comprising of chanting of hymns and show of lamps)
A date with the ghats
Upon a morning boat ride from Assi to Manikarnika, I caught a glimpse of the oldest living city waking up to the first rays of the sun that touched the calm waters of the Ganges before spreading it arms on its banks. The ghats seemed to disappear into the haze and the fog on the tail end, adding a touch of mystery to the vistas. Getting down at Scindia ghat, I walked backwards all the way up to Assi, exploring the many facets of life on the ghats. Kids taking a plunge into the Ganga, washermen beating and drying clothes, devotees praying for their ancestors, pilgrims gently nudging small paper plates with diyas and flowers into the holy river, priests and sadhus performing their religious duties, pyres burning at a distance are just a few of the many stories that unfold on these ghats by the minute.
The ghats of Banaras are the very crux of its existence. Ghats are basically the riverfront steps leading to Ganga; the city has 88 of them. Each ghat has its own significance and is named after a legend. While almost all ghats are used for Poojas, two of them are exclusively used for cremation. A few must-visit ghats are:
- Assi : For the divine Ganga Aarti at the break of dawn
- Dashaswamedh: For the evening Aarti at the banks
- Manikarnika and Harishchandra : for cremation
- Chet Singh for its impressive fort-type structure
- Ahilya, Munshi, Ganga Mahal, Maanmandir and Darbhanga Ghats – for eye-catching edifices
- Tulsi – to witness action at the Akhada
- Scindiya – for its half drowned Shiva temple
The journey beyond death
While in the rest of India, its taboo for women to witness a cremation; here in Banaras, it’s not. There are no cries or whines but a sense of Moksha (relief) on the ghats of Manikarnika and Harishchandra, where pyres burn from dawn to dusk. It is a deep rooted belief that people who are cremated here get relieved from the cycle of life and death. Every day, bodies from all over India arrive here for their last rites. They are first submersed in the holy Ganges as a mark of purification before they traverse their path to attain Moksha.
The unsung Akhada
Not many know of the hidden treasures and historical significance of Banaras. At Tulsi ghat, I witnessed one of India’s most ancient sport- Kushti or Wrestling in action. Kushti is played by wrestlers called Pehelwans, in a cube shaped mud-floor called Akhada. The mud has a mix of neem, ghee, turmeric and other antioxidants and is rubbed lavishly by the Pehelwans during and after every session. Siyaramji, a 60-year old Kushti champion has been training Pehelwans for over 25 years with high levels of enthusiasm and vigour. Tulsi ghat was also home to the legendary poet, Tulsidas who wrote “Ramcharitramanas”. The pale blue colored house in which he stayed stands next to the Akhada and is still intact and preserved. A professor I met at the Akhada shared some interesting insights about the rich history of Varanasi, but the most prominent one I can remember is that under the camouflage of wrestling in this Akhada, locals and revolutionaries used to plan secret missions and train young men to revolt against the British during their Raj.
Action at the Akhada at Tulsa Ghat
The didgeridoo man
‘Interestingly weird’ is how I could define my brief interaction with Mithoo, the mysterious man who plays a mysterious instrument in one of the unnamed streets. Long, cylindrical funnels ranging from 2 feet to 10 feet in various colors and shapes were stacked inside a small rectangular room. Mithoo spoke in a philosophical lingo I couldn’t relate to. He then took out a 4 feet long didgeridoo, placed the narrow side of it to his mouth and played it with circular breathing and continuous lip vibrations that lasted for over a minute. The sounds from the didgeridoo were deep and cosmic-like with brilliant quivers, far from anything I had ever heard before. He charged a small fee for his performance. Strangely, he returned it, asking us to use it to feed the hungry dogs of Banaras. After I came back, I read a blog about Mithoo which said that once a week, he pulls out whatever money he can manage, prepares huge vessels of curd rice and feeds the hungry dogs and this he has been doing for years! People perceive Mithoo as crazy (just like I had initially), since his actions and words cannot be comprehended by many. I was moved by his unconditional love for nature and its creations. Because we all live in a perceived world and perceptions are always truth-defying, people like Mithoo get buried under it. The secret lies in having an open heart and mind to identify and absorb the infinite forms of beauty that surround us.
The three monks at Sarnath
Thirteen kilometres away, the small town of Sarnath welcomed me with its tranquility. With Vietnamese, Srilankan, Chinese and Japanese monasteries, Sarnath is a great option to spend some time away from the mad rush and frenzy of Varanasi. While wandering through the Stupa ruins, I met 3 young monks in their saffron robes. In the fading light of the day, their faces glowed gently and when they spoke, words fell like soft ocean pearls. Amidst small, humble conversations and smiles, I embraced their simple world overflowing with love, compassion and selflessness. The 3 monks at Sarnath became an inseparable aspect of my memories of Banaras.
My gastronomical journey
From pooris to kachoris, from chats to litti chokhas, from lassis to bhang thandais, from kesar jalebees to rabdi kulfis, Banaras is an extravaganza for a foodie! My taste buds went through an exotic journey of flavours, only leaving me craving for more..
At ‘Baati Chokha’ restaurant, I got my hands on the authentic Litti Chokha, a recipe unique to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Litti or Baati is a wheat ball stuffed with “Sattu”– a mixture of ground pulses. It is then baked over coal or cow dung and then tossed in lavish portions of ghee and served with daal and chokha. Chokha is a side dish made of smoked and mashed aubergine and potatoes garnished with the distinct sourness of lime and a pungent dash of mustard oil. Something worth trying while in Banaras.
Trippin’ on the mighty Bhang and pan
Bhang has its mention in Hindu mythology as the drink of Lord Shiva himself. Consumable proportion of crushed cannabis is added to a milk-based shake called Thandaai. Since no trip to Banaras is complete without tasting the good old Bhang, I decided to relish it too. The taste of Thandaai was mind-bowing and the post-bhang tripping experience -even better! The rest of the night was spent in bouts of senseless laughing and repetitive actions amidst mild hallucinations 🙂
“O Khaike pan Banaras walaa” flashed into my head while I munched on the delicious Banarasi pan at one of the nukkad pan shop. A twist that makes the Banarasi pan stand out is the Supari. Unlike hard suparis available in the rest of the country, the one used here is tender since it gets soaked in water overnight. The crunchy pan blends with the Kattha, Supari and Gulkand perfectly to give a blast of irresistible flavours with every chew!
A spiritual rendezvous
Millions have believed in the healing powers of the sacred Ganga for generations and she is referred to as Ganga Maiyya-the mother. Having said that a quick dip in the Ganges is inevitable! I spent some time on the Dashaswamedh ghat, listening to the divine evening Aarti. The eternal Maiyya kindled an urge in me to place a diya on her waves and like a goddess, she gently sailed it away into infinity.
Banaras or Varanasi or Kashi – by whatever name one may choose to call it, is an experience which needs to be lived to be believed.
Banaras in a nut shell
- When to visit: Best time is during Dev Diwali in November. Avoid summer and Sept-Oct due to high humidity levels.
- What not to miss: Early morning Aarti at Assi Ghat, evening Aarti at Dashaswamedh ghat, morning boat ride from Assi to Scindia Ghat, walking in the narrow alleys and strolling by the ghats from Scindia to Assi, Sarnath, Kashi Vishwanath temple, Vishwanath Galli, Godowlia market, Akhada at Tulsi ghat.
- Interesting ghats: Assi, Dashaswamedh, Munshi, Tulsi, Chet Singh, Maan Mandir, Darbhanga, Manikarnika, Harishchandra, Scindia, Ganga Mahal.
- Where and what to eat:
- Kashi Chat Bhandar- Tamatar chat, palak chat, kulfi and gulab jamuns are their must try.
- Rabdi Lassi at Dudhsagar a little ahead of Kashi Chat
- Kachoris, Poori sabzi, Kullad Chai and Malai Lassi at any thela in Vishwanath Galli
- Baati Chokha Restaurant at Puran Das road
- A small nameless thela opp. Imperial college in Tulsi Ghat sells delicious methi poori and kesar jalebi for as less as INR 15.
- Bhang thandaai from Kashi Vishwanath thandaai ghar
- Parwal ki mithai is unique to Varanasi if your taste buds can handle it.
- Mutton cutlets and roti from Kalam ki Dukaan, and Lallu ki Biryani at Kasaibada, near Dashaswamedh.
- Banarasi pan at any of the hundreds of stalls at every corner.
A few memoirs from my Odyssey of the oldest living city.