Call it Varanasi, Kashi or Banaras, this is one of the oldest cities in the world and carries with it cadences of history, heritage and a culture so rich in flavour that it leaves an indelible impression on anybody who visits.I travelled to Varanasi this July with my husband and another couple. After a 48-hour-long train journey, we finally reached Mughalsarai. The four of us stuffed our luggage into an auto and squeezed ourselves in to reach the old city of Banaras. Weathered buildings, ancient temples, narrow roads and the surroundings instantly give away the fact that this is a place like no other.
Once we reached the ghat, the rickshaw could not go any further as the streets were too narrow.We made our way to the guest-house via tiny, cramped up lanes. The lanes were flanked by old curiosity shops selling food, handicrafts, pooja items and a lot more.
We refreshed ourselves at the guesthouse but the journey began in earnest only when I took a dip in the holy waters of the Ganga. Later in the evening, we saw the aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat which completely lived up to its hype.
As it got darker and closer to the time of the aarti, the lights came on with divine music in the background and suddenly the noisy crowd went quiet as the aarti began. The grandeur of this 30-minute ritual, the devotional songs and the feeling of celebration evoked powerful emotions that left us transformed in a strange way.
We began the next day by attending the first aarti of the day at the Kashi Vishwanath temple. It starts at 3 am. The residing deity is woken up with pancha amrutha snana or five nectars of life (water, milk, curd, honey and ghee). Varanasi in a way is a metaphor of life itself. It is this and that, it is full of ebb and flow, zenith of joy and the darkest hollows of grief. As we approached Manikarnika Ghat, we saw dead bodies being carried towards their final destination.
About 20 kms away from Banaras is Sarnath, the abode of Buddha. The highlights are a series of Buddha temples built in architectural styles that carry Japanese, Chinese and Tibetan influences. You get to see among other things, a statue of Buddha giving a sermon to his first five disciples under the Bodhi tree surrounded by prayer wheels.
Another place we visited was the Banaras Hindu University built across 300 lush, green acres. If you are interested in quaint architecture, visit the Ramnagar Fort on the eastern bank of river Ganga.
From shopkeepers near temples who insist on taking care of your footwear and then sell you pooja items to priests willing to officiate with God on your behalf for a generous tip to sadhus ready to pose for a picture for a fee to a diya vendor who ‘lets’ you sit on the ghat, Banaras is a lesson in resourceful survival. And in the acceptance of end, whenever it comes.