I left Benaras with mixed feelings. After three days of visiting temples, exploring the markets, walking down narrow gullies, watching the sunrise from the banks of the river Ganga, witnessing the evening aarti (offering of prayer to the river), dining, dressing up, and taking photographs, I felt content that I could tick one off my bucket list. But I felt none of the awe and wonder that I should have experienced in the oldest city in the world and one that was steeped in tradition and culture. The sights and sounds of Benaras which had touched millions who came before me from all parts of the globe seemed to have made no lasting impact on me. I worried if I had become indifferent. Had all my personal losses in the previous year made me insensitive?
Perhaps, the heightened excitement of being in the city that every Hindu aspires to go to, but few manage to; the disbelief that the journey that I had so long wanted to make had come to fruition, and the nervous energy that arises in the company of college friends, came in the way of experiencing the ‘mysticism’ that Benaras is known for. I believe to experience the aura of a place, you have to consciously urge your mind and the body to slow down and fall in sync with the beat of the place you are in . To achieve it in Benaras, I would have to allow my mind to be one with the waters of the Ganges that softly lap the ghats or tether it like the boats fastened at the dock, ready only to plunge into action to ferry pilgrims and tourists, or I would have to still my internal being like the ghats (steps) that carry the weight of millions of pilgrims who step on them to take a dip in the river with the hope that their sins would be washed off; or stay steadfast like the buildings and temples lining the ghats – that witness the chaos of life in silence. But, being my first time there, I had been too busy exploring, experiencing, observing Benaras with my eyes that I failed to let it seep into my being. This only means that I will have to go back to Benaras again,either on a solo trip or with my husband.
As I waited for my return flight after the trip, I began writing a post on Benaras. The words you have read so far are not what I had written at the airport. An encounter with a co-passenger on my return flight made me realize that I wasn’t doing the city justice if I wrote about Benaras as a mere travelogue.
What changed how I felt between then and now?
A woman sitting across the aisle got talking to me about my experience of a trip with girlfriends. Without getting into the details, let’s just say, we agreed on a lot of things. And that was enough for us to begin a heart-to-heart conversation. She asked me, “How did you feel in Benaras?” and I said, “Good.” My response was lacklustre. She prodded, “Did you feel the magic of Benaras?” I did not answer as I did not wish to disappoint her. I nodded my head and asked her about her experience. Her face softened and her eyes lit up as she spoke of the city- I saw ‘faith’ in her eyes that was refreshing and it was hard to remain unaffected. Two hours later when the flight touched down in Mumbai, I knew that something within me had changed. Before leaving, she asked me to make sure that I did not miss out on anything in my writing of Benaras. I assured her that I would try.
So, two days later, I scrapped out everything I had written earlier and began writing on a fresh page again. The sky was still dark and so was my room when I began writing about Benaras- the darkness around me and the quiet of dawn helped me to go back to the city. I allowed myself to walk through the ghats and ferry across the river Ganga- this time, minus the cacophony. The result was this post.
“Here religious feeling reigns supreme and no sensual thought ever seems to assail these beauteous mingled forms. They come into unconscious contact with each other, but only heed the river, the sun and the splendour of the morning in a dream of ecstasy.” Pierre Loti, French novelist
Benaras or Varanasi is to Hindus as the Vatican is for Christians and Mecca is for Muslims.
Background on why Benaras?
I had wanted to visit the city ever since I saw a picture of the ghats sometime in 2016. My wish to go there, however, had nothing to do with religion- it was the place that drew me in – the black river aglow with diyas, sadhus in a trance smoking weed, their bodies smeared with ash and their hair stringy and unkempt, and young brahmin boys in orange-coloured silk robes performing the Ganga aarti to the sound of drums, conches, and cymbals to a waiting audience. However, as Benaras is not a typical ‘holiday’ destination for kids, we did not think of visiting the place, and after a while, I forgot all about it until September 2020, (during the lockdown), when I was looking for a picture to paint. I found a painting of Benaras and the wish to go there resurfaced. As travelling was impossible then, I satisfied the urge to visit by painting it.
In March, when one of my friends from college said she was visiting India and asked if we were game to travel, we jumped at the idea. Having been locked in for two years, the three of us in our travel group of five (I suppose it’s safe to call us that now, as this is our second trip together) agreed immediately. Benaras was suggested, and Benaras it was! If someone had told me twenty-five years ago that I would travel to a place of pilgrimage with these girls, I would have thought the person crazy. But, like they say, fate has a funny way of bringing people together.
The four of us congregated at Varanasi on the 12th of March- from four different parts of India. My journey to Varanasi was one that I would like to forget, but I don’t think I ever will – the man sitting beside me had taken off his slippers and folded his one leg over his other knee so that his blackened feet pointed towards me. Gross! I survived the two and a half hour journey with Viktor Frankl’s book, ‘Man’s search for meaning’, which I picked up at the airport. Ironical, isn’t it? I thought so too.
Varanasi airport surprised me- shiny tiles, bright lights and spotless washrooms. The only thing missing was restaurants at the arrivals. So, the two girls who waited for me to arrive did so on empty tummies. So, despite being hungry, we left the airport and headed straight to Benaras, which is a one hour drive from the airport. The government-run taxi at the airport charged us 1200.00. My first impression of the city was that it was an undeveloped town- bumpy roads, insignificant roadside stores, traffic honking perpetually, minimal road signs with no dividers (so anybody could come from any side), and unassuming folk.
The ‘Hotel Temple on Ganges’, is a four-storey building that is unpretentious in every aspect. However, the rooms were clean and had A/Cs and hot water in the shower. The hotel’s USP was its location- being two minutes away from Assi Ghats. We dropped off our luggage and went to the ghats for lunch. I was ready to be overwhelmed- I had heard the Prime Minister began cleaning the ghat on the second day of his taking office in 2014 but I wasn’t sure how clean. Everybody I had spoken to, had visited a long time ago when the ghats and the river was a mess. The ghats surprised us- they were spic and span, despite the number of visitors- those who keep the ghats clean, work around the clock, in 3 shifts.
We walked down the ghats to a restaurant, five minutes away from the hotel, called, ‘Pizzeria- Vaatika Cafe’ which serves the best apple pie (if you go there, you must have it) and mouthwatering pizzas, baked in brick ovens. I totally recommend it. The quality is top-notch and the price reasonable. We had cold coffee, ginger-lemon tea, a Margherita pizza (we were so hungry that we gobbled it up and forgot to take a picture), a spinach-jalapeno pizza and apple pie.
Stepping into Benaras feels like you’re stepping back in time. It is the oldest city in the world and, as per Hindu mythology, it was created by the Gods. It is also believed that when the world finally ends, Benaras will be the only city to survive.
Varanasi, Benaras or Kashi as it is called, is a city in Uttar Pradesh, a state in the North of India. It is built on the bank of the river Ganges. Brad Pitt rightly said, ” I have never seen anything like Benaras. The city just spills into the river Ganges. It’s really, really extraordinary.”
The city has 88 ghats that stretch alongside the river. Most of the ghats are used for prayers and ceremonies. An aarti or prayer is held on the ghats at sunrise and sunset and no matter what day it is, throngs of people assemble to watch it- on the ghats or from the river, on a boat. On our first evening there, we watched the aarti from the river. The aarti is an elaborate affair, which takes around an hour. The main ghats from which one can witness the aarti is the Assi ghat (where our hotel was) and the Daswamedh ghat (which leads to the marketplace). It takes not more than half an hour from Assi ghat to Daswamedh ghat, if you walk at a comfortable pace. It’s all really one stretch of land that has been divided into sections and given different names.
After a hearty meal, we took our first boat ride (A boat ride that will take you through the length of the ghats and the boatman waits until the aarti is over, so you can witness it from the river, costs around Rs 1200.00 for 4 people). You can buy a lamp to light for Rs 10.00 and put it in the river once you are on the boat. Below are pictures, taken from the boat.
The evening aarti happens after sunset. We put our candles in the waters and the boatman manoeuvred the boat towards Daswamedh ghat. We watched the aarti from the boat – five pandits synchronized their moves to the sound of bells and bhajans (hymns). The quiet night was filled with the sound of claps from those on the river and the ones on the ghats. The flames in the five or more layered oil lamp glowed brightly, flickering as the pandit boys moved the lamps in a circular motion. Then there was the burning of incense, the sprinkling of flowers into the river and many more stages. It wasn’t very clear from the boat. What struck me was how other activities on the ghat came to a halt, so, the only activity was that of the aarti. The pandits stood along the stretch of the ghat. Smaller ghats had just one person performing the rituals.
The Harishchandra ghat, which comes before the Daswamedh ghat, is used as a cremation ground. The Manikarnika ghat also used as a cremation ground is after Daswamedh ghat. Neat piles of wood logs used to cremate the body can be seen on both these ghats. A common sight here is burning logs of wood, flames raising high, and black smoke meandering towards the sky as if carrying the soul. Mary Oliver said, “In the morning, we crossed the ghat, where fires were still smouldering, and gazed with our western minds, into the Ganges.” It is believed that if one is cremated in Benaras, they will be freed from the cycle of rebirth and attain moksha or salvation. It is no wonder that people close to death book themselves into ashrams here and await their death. Apparently, a person is allowed to stay for a maximum of two weeks, and if they do not die, they must return.
After watching the aarti (of which I will post pictures taken, tomorrow), we got off the boat and walked up the steps of Daswamedh ghat and into the marketplace- a narrow road which was filled with people, honking vehicles, vegetable and fruit vendors who had their produce in a heap on the roadside, monkeys and street dogs led us to Varanasi market. If you go like us to the market after the aarti, be prepared to have your senses shocked. An ‘explosion of sounds’ best describes the market.
If you’re one who loves shopping in old bazaars, then this is the place for you. There are a lot of hidden treasures that you can pick here. Amidst all the noise and the crowd, we managed to buy some oxidized jewellery, and indulge in chaat (street food) and the famous Benaras lassi (sweetened yoghurt drink). The market is a great place to shop for Benarasi saris and shawls as well.
And so ended our first day in Benaras- we returned to our rooms satisfied and tired.
I hope my words gave you a feel of the city and my personal journey to Benaras. Where my words fell short, I hope the photographs made up for it.
If you enjoyed this post, stay with me to read my second post in Benaras. I promise you, the photographs will get better as they were taken by my friend, who manages to get the most amazing pictures with her mobile phone.
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P.S. The title of this post means, ‘Come, let’s go to Benaras.’