We walked out of the hotel at 6.00 a.m., fresh, after a good night’s sleep. The weather was cool and the ghats were abuzz with activity- boatmen waiting to ferry people across, a woman singing bhajans (songs in praise of God, like hymns) – her voice echoed through Assi ghat, a group sitting in a circle engaged in prayer, some others sitting on the ghat sipping tea from earthen cups and a man making arrangements for the morning Ganga aarti. Our boatman (the one we had taken the previous day) was waiting at the agreed place for us. At Rs 500, we had booked him so we could watch the sunrise from the river.
Everything was the same – the river, the ghats and the buildings lining the ghats, and yet it felt different from the previous evening. The river was still just waking. The boatman- a slight, old man, with strength enough to row a boat across the river and a face that transformed into a young boy’s when he smiled. He steered the boat out of the dock- his face as tranquil in the morning as it was at night- he’d lived all his life there and had never been beyond the shore of Benaras.
Once we were on the river we became distant observers of life unfolding on the ghats- the people stepping down the ghats to take a dip, the boatmen waiting for passengers to ferry across, brown and red sandstone ancient buildings, palaces and temples, the chanting of prayers- everything so much smaller than it really was . There we were away from home, from family, from responsibility- just us- four women – independant and yet together- free as the sky above us; on a river that has been flowing since the beginning of time- that is revered and feared and loved by believers and non-believers- at the very heart of where civilization began. Sitting there, in a surreal way, we were connected to the past, the present and the future. We gazed in awe, each with a prayer of her own- as the sun rose, on the other side of the river from behind a clump of trees – a bright orange ball of fire; it enveloped the banks and everything on it in a warm glow. How many sunrises and sunsets had we seen and yet why did it not seem enough?
At around 7.00 a.m. when the sun was up in the sky, the boatman rowed us back to the bank. Today, was to be the day we were to complete what we had sought out to do – visit the very famous Kashi Vishwanath temple also known as the ‘Golden temple’ of Benaras, among others. Getting off the boat, we made our way to Daswamedh ghat and up the steps to the market. The vegetable and fruit sellers, the mendicants with their begging bowls, the men in saffron robes, vendors selling puja (prayer) items were already there. However, the crowds had dissipated and the ground beneath our feet was now visible unlike the previous evening when we had simply placed our feet, wherever we found space.
The walk to Kashi Vishwanath temple from the ghat should take you around 15 minutes but will take longer if you’re like us and can’t help stopping to click a photograph of everything that takes your fancy.
It’s a straight road until Godowlia crossing and then a right from there to go to the temple. There is a project underway to create a corridor from the river Ganges to the temple so that devotees can take a dip in the river and go directly to the temple without going through the market way. It’s being constructed near the Manikarnika ghat. Once the corridor is made, one will also be able to see the temple dome from the river.
We bought tickets to enter the temple at the office for a nominal amount. One of the girls in the travel group who had been to Benaras several times made the entire process seamless for us. She spoke to a priest to help us around the temple.
There are locker facilities provided to keep your handbags, cameras, mobile phones and smartwatches. This means there’s no way you can take pictures. We crossed the road to the temple and were blown away by the beauty of the temple. I wished I had my camera. Thank God for Google (the picture below is from the net)- there is no way I could express the grandeur in words- gold domes, carved sandstone structures, white marble floors. It’s cleaned continuously as part of Prime Minister’s ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ (a project the Prime Minister undertook to keep the country clean) so devotees can pray comfortably.
The Kashi Vishwanath temple was built by Maratha ruler, Maharani (queen) Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore in the eighteenth century. It had been destroyed several times by Mughal invaders and reconstructed. Finally, in the last 17th century, the mughal invader, Aurangzeb destroyed a portion of the temple and built the Gyanvapi mosque on the premises. The temple that we see is the renovated version when Benaras fell into the hands of the East India Company (when the British colonized India). The right to rebuild the temple was given to the Maratha ruler. In the present day, the mosque continues to exist in same compound. The lane behind Godowlia crossing is inhabited by Muslims. Benaras is a true symbol on secular India- the seat of Hinduism where Muslims and Hindus reside in harmony.
Why Kashi Vishwanath temple is important? As per Hinduism, there are twelve places in India that are considered to be of utmost importance for the followers of Lord Shiva. The Kashi Vishwanath temple is the first one. There is a long story behind it which I will leave out as you can find it on the wiki.
It was 10 a.m. by the time we finished at the temple. With sandalwood paste smeared on our forehead and garlands around our neck ( put by the priest at the temple), we headed to a restaurant for breakfast- one with not more than 10 plastic tables with four chairs around each. Outside the entrance to the hotel, a man was pouring the batter for jalebis (deep-fried white flour in the shape of pretzels and soaked in sugar syrup) and another frying puri. Having had nothing to eat in the morning and our dinner long digested, our tummies growled at the sight of crispy hot jalebis and puris (I’m not a fan of oily food otherwise, but this looked mouthwatering to hungry souls). The place was clean, which was the only condition we had. We had puri bhaji and a plate of crispy, hot, sweet, juicy jalebis.
After breakfast, we took a tuk-tuk, one with seats facing each other- apt for four of us, and headed to the other temples- the Sankat Mochan temple dedicated to Hanuman, and the Durga temple, dedicated to the female energy, Durga. The below pictures have been taken from the net. We could have taken pictures from the outside but it was too sunny to do anything but pray and get back to the hotel.
Once we were done with the temples, we took a tuk-tuk back to the marketplace and stopped at a sari wholesale store. We had to leave our footwear outside the store and enter. We were led into an inner room and asked to sit on the covered mattress laid on the floor while one of the salesmen showed us the saris. Another headed out to get us lassis (sweetened yoghurt drink), a perfect drink to cool off and focus on the saris. Benarasi saris are famous for their vibrant colours and stunning zari work(gold or silver threadwork). The price ranges from Rs 2000 to Rs 5,00,000.
Lunch was at a roadside restaurant in the marketplace. A simple lunch of aloo-paratha (dough with a potato filling rolled out and cooked), yoghurt and refreshing mint juice.
Sweaty and tired, thanks to heat (the best time to visit Benaras is from October to March. We managed to go just in time before summer sets in) we returned to our hotel room to freshen ourselves and after an hour the four of us were back on the ghats for another boat ride (there really isn’t much to do in Benaras other than eat, pray, shop and go on a boat ride) – this time we went to the other bank of the river which is a desert – miles and miles of sand of the lightest shade of brown, where you can take a horse ride or a camel ride. We did neither. Instead, we stood there and simply looked at the city that had sprouted thousands of years ago along the course of the river- haphazardly built homes, ancient buildings with small niches for windows, sturdy pillars lit up at dusk.
We made our way back to the boat – our last boat ride during this trip. This was Benaras- distinct from anywhere else in the world – where people smiled without expecting anything in return, where drum beats and prayers filled the air, where life rolled at its own pace unaffected by the rest of the world. It was normal for them to see so many come there from all over the globe in search of spirituality or like me, to appreciate the history and culture of India better.
We ended the day at our favourite joint, Pizzeria (you’re probably wondering how much we eat, but, what’s a holiday without food, right?) This time we had a reason too- we had a birthday to celebrate. The trip wasn’t planned with the birthday in mind but it became all the more memorable because of it. The birthday girl blew a candle atop a piece of apple pie as we cooed, ‘Happy Birthday.’
For all foodies out there, the dinner menu was- bruschetta, 2 pizzas, brownie with ice-cream and 2 apple pies (one with ice cream and one without), and 4 mint nanas (a drink made of mint, lime, sugar and ice) – perfect on a warm summer’s day, all for Rs 1500.00. I found the customer service at the restaurant admirable.The waiter warned us that their bruschetta was different. We still asked for it. It was different, but it wasn’t bad. At the end of the meal, he asked us how it was and we said, ‘It was different.” Hearing this he asked us, how he could make it better and we told him. Talk about getting consumer insight. Impressive, right? So, if you ever go there and have their bruschetta and it tastes authentic, you know whom to thank ;).
With this, ended our second day in charming Benaras. Tomorrow, we have a full day. We visit the seat of Buddhism, Sarnath and we take Benaras by storm with a photoshoot. Stay with me. You’ll not be disappointed.
P.C. Some of these pictures have been taken by my friend, Seema. We are fortunate to have a friend who is both patient and talented in the group. For what good is a trip without a photographer?