Varanasi, or Benaras as some people call it, is one of the most spiritual and oldest living cities in the world. Mark Twain, the renowned author once said :
“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”
I had the opportunity to visit Varanasi, explore the wealth of knowledge, culture and heritage, I was enthralled to grab this chance to know more about what I love.
On the 12th of November I reached Varanasi Junction around 8 a.m.. Anxiousness as well as enthusiasm enveloped me as I stepped into the new and unknown city, a quick look around and it was comforting to find out that I wasn't the only one feeling this way. It was Dev Deepawali two days after, and Varanasi was destined to be crowded.
Shivam, who was to show us around Varanasi, was ready with a pre-booked cab, which took me to Assi. My journey to Assi wasn't completed without the mention of our, then, national dilemma - demonetisation. A helpless citizen waving a Rs. 500 note in hope of getting notes of Rs. 100 in exchange, triggered my chauffeur to make a favourable statement towards the dilemma "This is Modiji's constituency! It’s a shame to have such people in here, We just need to adjust for a few days for the greater good of our nation!”
I reached my hostel and my home for the next three days, "Roadhouse Hostel" by 9 in the morning. The friendly residents made the unfamiliar place feel like home. In Varanasi, a culturally rich paradise, I experienced multiculturalism, I shared my dormitory with boys from China and Spain.
An hour after my arrival, my fellow travel buddies, Sakshi, Pradyuman and Aarushi joined me. We briefly check on each others' journey until here.
About an hour past noon, we left for Assi Ghat. Even a glimpse of the beautiful Ganges was a feast for the eyes. The weather was a cherry on the top. Post lunch, we head to Banaras Hindu University - a place valued across the globe for its knowledge and education.
The lush green 2000 acre campus of BHU welcomed us with a refreshing cool blow of the wind, which was a breather, with the constant scorching heat of Varanasi. The University stands strong with 6 institutes, 14 streams and with more than 132 departments.
The University campus envelopes the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, the replica of the original Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The temple is beautiful and well maintained, it has the statue of Pt. Madan Mohan Malviya (Bharat Ratna) at the entrance. The temple often sees student and its visitors praying for their betterment, the campus being a small city by itself, we made sure we didn't miss out on the canteen food. The University also boasts of being a home to one of the important hospitals in Varanasi.
The Tulsi Manas Temple, our next stop after BHU, was a delight to look at, particularly because it had the Holy verses of the Ramayana written across the walls. Tulsidas, the great medieval soothsayer who wrote the epic 'Shri Ramcharitmanas' inspired the name of the temple.The temple radiated calmness and peace, we couldn't get enough of it.
Our next stop, Sankat Mochan Hanuman had a long queue of its devotees, who waited outside and resounded the chants of the devotees inside. Lord Hanuman is also known as Sankatmochan - the shielder from inconveniences. Established by Goswami Tulsidas, the temple is famous as the 'Monkey Temple' in honour of all the monkeys which have made the temple premises, their home. Laddoo, the prasad served at the Sankat Mochan Hanuman, was definitely the best we've had, and the taste still lingers on our palates.
After paying a visit to few more temples, we headed to the Dashashwamedh Ghat. The old city was booming with the people of Varanasi, walking through the streets was a task itself. This city never fell short on its visitors, whether foreign or Indian. And like every other tourist destination, Varanasi didn't lack the never ending string of shops, they had everything you could imagine - desserts, the famous Benarasi silk sarees and even bhang thandai (Cannabis)! And interestingly the shops maintained that one thing which made them different from the shops around the world, the antique architecture.
We were less than a kilometre away from Dashashwamedh Ghat, the oldest ghat of Varanasi which cradled the River Ganga. Dashashwamedh Ghat, which also has the Kashi Vishwanath Temple erected on it, is said to be created on the orders of Brahma, to welcome Lord Shiva. The ceremony included ten horses and the famous "Dasha-Ashwamedh Yajna".The setting sun invited more people to the ghat. A daily ritual for the priests, 'Agni Pooja' is performed as a devotion to Lord Shiv, the River Ganga, Surya, Agni and the whole universe.
Tuesdays and festivals calls for special aartis. We took a sneak peak at the aartis being performed and several other ghats as our boat swayed along the River Ganga. The man directing the boat, with all his experience and profound knowledge about the Ghats made the ride all the more delightful.
Dashaswhwamedh Ghat - With the River Ganga swaying right through its bosom, according to legends Lord Braha created this to welcome Shiva and relinquished ten horses during the
“Dasha-Ashwamedha Yajna” performed here.
Rajendra Prasad Ghat: This Ghat was named in memory and honour of the first President of India, Rajendra Prasad.
Man Mandir Ghat: Raja Man Singh's palace was the inspiration behind the Ghat's name, a magnificent building known for its finely done florid window carvings.
Manikarnika Ghat: The legend has it, Lord Shiv's or his wife Sati's earring was found here, and this made Manikarnika Ghat the supreme place for Hindu cremation, a place which witnesses one human body at a time being burned for salvation, after its time on Earth is done.
Bajirao Ghat: During his rule, Peshwa Bajirao built this ghat, and this explains the name of this ghat.
Hanumangarhi Ghat: The name of this ghat was inspired from the renowned site, Hanumanagarhi, Ayodhya.
Jain Ghat: It is believed Varanasi witnessed the birth of 7th as well as the 23rd tirthankara. With three temples on the river banks, the Jain Ghat was said to be owned by the Jain Maharajas.
Hanuman Ghat: The eighteenth century saw the great Saint Tulsidas erecting of the Hanuman Temple on this Ghat.
There were many more ghats; 84 to be precise. We returned to Dashashwamedh Ghat and found the priests in the middle of the Aarti. The scene was mesmerising. The feeling of festivity and positivity enveloped us, along with the chants. It is believed that, the priests have to make through a test and interview to be able to lead the Aartis. Around 8 in the evening, we headed back to our hostel and called it a day.
We four went to the rooftop and discussed about our day and the experiences we had. We played cards for a while before entering our deep slumber after a good day’s work.
Day two started on an interesting note. Angel was a friend I made here. He was from Madrid, Spain and I couldn't stop myself from asking him, what has always been bugging me - why do people from Europe come to vacation in India.
His reply took me aback, "Life is so simple here. People in capitalistic countries have a difficult life. It seems very beautiful from the outside, but believe me, people here live a better life than us. A life in a capitalistic country promises you money but it takes away your time, your youth, good family ties, good relationships. I have a family back home but it is not even close to the warm family relationships people here share with their loved ones, back there, it is all very materialistic."
I was reassured about my roots but I was also filled with sympathy for him and for all those Indians who leave their motherland in hope of a 'better life'. Only if they counted for a better life in non-materialistic terms would they really understand the value of their home.
The breakfast that morning, was a breakfast to remember, indeed! We made the noodles ourselves, and we got a helping hand from our new friends, all from different parts of the world!
Post lunch, we left for Sarnath. The small size of Varanasi worked in our favour. It took us just about half an hour in an autorickshaw to reach Sarnath. Sarnath has made its place in the list of the four most important Buddhist pilgrimage centres of India. Sarnath was where Buddha, the colossal sage, came to, after attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, to deliver his first sermon. It was here the foundation of a new order of monks and a new order of religious doctrine was laid. As if this wasn't enough, Sarnath is also sacred to the Jains because they consider this place as a site of self denial and passing of the eleventh Tritankhara.
Sarnath was booming with devotees. Sarnath had devotees pouring in from both beliefs, Jainism as well as Buddhism, from India and outside, alike. Dhamek Stupa, our first stop, was a broad stupa standing at an impressive height of 100 feet. Dhamek Stupa attracted Buddhists from across the globe.
The Dhamek Stupa is surrounded by a beautiful park. The Turks destroyed and damaged most of what had consisted of Sarnath, only the ruins remains now.
Our next stop was the Sarnath Archeological which proudly houses the famous Ashokan Lion Capital, the national emblem of India and national symbol on the Indian flag. Artefacts and statues dated as long ago as the 8th century AD, kept the Ashokan Lion Capital company.
Shri Digambar Jain Shreyansnath Mandir was built to facilitate Sarnath being the birthplace of the 11th and the current Tirthankar. Unfortunately we missed the temple by a few minutes. It was shut by the time we got there, although we were more than content to watch it from outside. We did stop by a few shops and ate something.
Later that day, we feasted on the specialities of Varanasi chaat and delicacies. A small but nice restaurant was where we decided we would have dinner from, before we called it a day.
Modestas, a Norwegian friend I made that day, happened to be staying in the our hostel. I asked him the same question I asked Angel. His reply did not disappoint me. "The peace and spirituality, the things that actually appeals to the soul, can't be found in the fast life I lead. I graduated in London before starting to work. And without realising six years slipped out of my hand. I came here to spiritually clean myself and break away from the rat race. After this, I am looking forward to a blissful month in Nepal.”
Cooking tomato and eggs for dinner, my Chinese friend, had her mind clouded with the thoughts of her lost wallet. But she said, being in Varanasi somehow makes her distress more bearable.
Day three, which was also our last day in Varanasi, started with a short visit to my relative's house. The small city and the helpful nature of the people of Varanasi, which stood in stark contrast to the cosmopolitan way of thinking, made my commute very comfortable.
Little after noon, we found ourselves in Ramnagar Fort, which is 14kms away from Varanasi. The Ramnagar Fort has all the Royal bearings like vintage cars, royal palkies, arsenal of swords, old weapons, ivory work and old timekeepers. Ramnagar Fort houses the Durga Temple and Chhinnamastika Temple. Ved Vyasa Sanctuary and sanctuary of Dakshin Mukhi Hanuman is found there too. 'Ram Leela', is another reason Ramnagar is famous for, a play enacted around the time of Diwali.
Dev Deepawali was the reason Ramnagar was so crowded. The ill-maintenance of the Palace didn't make the Palace look very aesthetically pleasing. However, the string of old guns, cannons, swords, bows and arrows made up for it. The Ramnagar waterfront opened itself to the skyline of Varanasi, what a breathtaking view that was!
We were told the Ramnagar Lassi and Jalebi were some things we wouldn't want to miss out on. It turns out, we couldn't even drink our Lassi, we had to literally eat it because it was that thick. Even the Jalebi was different, particularly the syrup which was made from jaggery. The rush around the shop, further highlighted this special delicacy.
We reached Varanasi just in time to celebrate the main reason for coming here, Dev Deepawali celebrations.
'Diwali of the Gods' is the celebration of Karthik Purnima. The night of full moon in the Hindu month of Karthik, which is also fifteen days after Diwali, sees its devotees in preparation for this celebration. The million lamps light up the ghat and river in vivid colours. What a breathtaking sight it was!
Every year, for this day, thousands of devotees come pouring in from city, surrounding villages and from across the country, to watch the aartis being performed.
Later that evening, we were out on the streets again. It almost felt like, all the people of Uttar Pradesh were here, at Varanasi, proceeding to the ghats. Jain Ghat being less populated sounded like a tempting bait, and we head there. I must add, in all this chaos and celebration, the lit up and decorated Varanasi, looked like a gorgeous bride. The diyas, rangoli and festive mood just added to the glamour.
We thought of touring the Jain Ghat on a boat to experience Dev Deepawali better. From the boat we got a panoramic view of the ghats, it looked like the house of a groom, all light up and decorated, to welcome the new bride. No sooner, the fireworks decorated the sky in patterns and colour like never seen before. The reflection from the sky and the already floating diyas just added to the beauty. Dhashashwamedh Ghat was our next stop, the population here was no less than the other ghats. Each pair of eyes waiting to feast of the beauty of the night. Despite the chaos, there was peace and sanctity radiating.