Heritage · Photography · Travel

In Varanasi, Travel Taught Me

“That’s the thing about time, isn’t it? It’s not all the same. Some days, some years, some decades are empty. There is nothing to them. It’s just flat water. And then you come across a year, or even a day, or an afternoon. And it is everything. It is the whole thing.”

Matt Haig

When did I last feel like that?

Christmas 2021, cruising in Kashi of course. Kashi, Benaras, Varanasi, call it what you may. The oldest living city in the world, favourite pit stop for the PM of India.

The lighted Dashwamedh Ghat where the evening aarti is conducted in Varanasi, India.
City lights.

I knew the bare minimum, my knowledge limited to few key words. Spiritual capital of India, a vegetarian foodie paradise, a city defined by its chaos and piety, beauty and squalor. Incidentally, it was much cleaner than I was lead to believe. And it took me less than two days to be completely smitten by it.

Pappu Bhaiya, the local taxi driver helped us on the first day. He set up our touring schedule and introduced us to Jagdish, owner of a boat service that took us on the Ganges. Incidentally, that was the highlight of my trip.

Come to think of it, here are my top 5 things to do, vrooming in Varanasi. I certainly learnt a thing or two while I was there.

1) An evening boat ride to watch the Ganga Aarti (from the boat itself).

Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. Perhaps that’s why we reached the Raja Ghat early (starting point). While we waited, we were ambushed by some very persistent little girls. Each carried baskets lined with tiny trays with flowers and a diya (an earthen lamp). They came in a pack, chattered incessantly and sold us six. “For the aarti, aunty”, they chorused. I had no clue what I was supposed to do with so many on a boat.

The boat too was a surprise. Hubby and I were the only passengers. Here we thought we were booking seats not realising it was the whole CNG powered motor vessel.

View of the Ganga at dusk from the boat in Varanasi, India
Chasing light

With total 84 ghats, all placed in a row, Chandan, our young boatman, zipped us soundlessly upstream towards Assi Ghat (that’s the final Ghat). I sat mesmerised. The brightly painted names of the ghats flashed by. My eyes greedily devoured the huge murals on the walls, beautiful old temples, grand havelis and palace hotels that hugged the ghat steps.

View of the ghats of Varanasi, boats and the Ganges
Mystic river

I was reminded of my joyride on the Grand Canal in Venice except this was the mighty Ganga. It was much broader, the sights and the sounds were quintessentially Indian. Yet in the fading light, the exhilaration I felt was the same.

From Assi Ghat, we doubled back to Dashwamedh Ghat for the evening aarti. Chandan was confident that we would get a good spot to view it. I wasn’t.

Our boats jostled and pushed. It was a race between the big and the small vessels to secure the best viewing point.

Anchoring the bow of the boat to view the Ganga aarti from the water in Varanasi.
Jigsaw puzzle

Chandan was good. He nimbly hopped across the boats to tie our bow to the boat in front of us, so that we don’t drift away. The person in charge of that boat happened to be his cousin. It was effective teamwork in play.

Soon, both the boys were sitting by our side. They had us engaged with their tales, of life in a city that held tightly to its spiritual roots while juggling with the stereotyped, touristy side of exotic India, familiar to the western world.

View of the aarti platform on the Ganga from the boat in Varanasi
Fire and light

As for the aarti, it was a magnificently choreographed evening prayer dedicated to Ganga, India’s most revered river. Two different samitis (groups) simultaneously conducted it under the lighted canopies across the broad platform of the ghat. Anyway, no complaints here. I had a panoramic view of the flaming lamps, swirling incense, sonorous chanting and the works.

On the side, it was business as usual. We had the chaiwallas (tea sellers) carrying kettle and cups, hopping across boats, looking for customers. The snack sellers followed carrying an assortment of chips to tackle hunger pangs. The icing on the cake, priests other than the ones on the platform, agilely jumping on the anchored boats. They expertly carried flaming aarti lamps for people like us on water so that we could take the blessings.

Rows of boats with spectators lined up haphazardly to watch the Ganga Aarti in Varanasi in the evening.
Boat crush!

For the grand finale, Chandan took the motor boat out in the middle of the river. It was pitch dark. That made it a perfect place for all three of us to take turns to light the diyas and float the little flower trays that were thrusted upon us by the Raja Ghat girls.

It was a memorable experience in every way.

2) An early morning temple trail.

Varanasi has close to 3000 temples. All I knew I had to visit the two main ones- Kashi Vishwanath and Sankat Mochan. Pappu Bhaiya added two more to the list.

Bhairav nath Mandir was the first. Legends says, he is the Kotwal (police officer) of the city. One has to visit his temple first to seek his permission to visit others. We were at the temple gates at 6 am and yet had to queue up for half hour or maybe more.

Little did I know queuing will define all my temple visits in Varanasi.

Standing in a line at the Bhairav Temple in Varanasi
A patience test

Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, the crown jewel of Benaras had multiple rules. No mobiles allowed, expect personal checks and humongous queues. In spite of police personnel everywhere, it was chaos in the lines. I mean we went from two queues to four and then back to two again. Honestly, it was rather stressful. I was clueless where to leave my shoes or from where to buy the prasad and I didn’t want to lose my spot in the line. At the end of the darshan felt as though I had won a marathon. The gate leading from the temple complex to the riverfront was closed. Work was still on.

Zipped thought Temple No 3 dedicated to Durga.

Then we were off to the famed Sankat Mochan. The latter too didn’t allow mobile phones inside the campus but it was better organised. It had a proper place for depositing shoes and buying prasad within the complex. The best part, queues moved efficiently and quickly in an atmosphere that was soothing and serene.

Final report- all four temples ticked by 8 am.

3) Go bonkers over the Banarasi weave

So Pappu Bhaiya took us to the Peeli Kothi, which was neither peeli (yellow) nor a kothi (mansion). Narrow lanes, cubby holes for workshops, the incessant clacking (of power looms, perhaps?) and a close encounter with weavers on handlooms.

Say hello to a weaver colony made up of uncles and nephews and brothers in this trade forever.

Weaver on a handloom in Varanasi weaving a Banarasi fabric
Thread artist

After the tour of the looms, next stop- a well-lit, spacious shop, piled high with Banarasi weave in a variety of silk and colour. I was determined not to buy anything (Banarasi silk of the top notch quality is never cheap) but I dare you to resist the charms of the elderly family salesman. He only urged that I see and perhaps admire the goods in the shop.

So, go bonkers over the swirls and intricate patterns in colours that dazzle, on cloth so rich. Don’t forget to carry your credit card. Banarasi sarees and stoles are souvenirs to treasure.

4) Savour the street food.

Varanasi is a crash course on how good vegetarian food can be. Make that street food which has attracted more food vloggers on YouTube than I can count.

I had to have malaiyo also known as Daulat ki chaat. Served in tiny clay pots, it had a yellowish hue, light as air, flavoured, sweet dessert made only during winters. I kid you not when I say, this is what it probably feels when you eat tiny bubbles. Each bite dissolves faster than a cotton candy on your tongue.

Street- food. Frying puris in the open for a typical Indian breakfast
Hot meal!

Shri Ram Bhandar opposite Taj was our favourite spot for breakfast because we could find a parking spot. The alookachauri (curry with lentil or potato stuffed balls) was good but the dahi-bada (yogurt based dish) was amazing. The orange jalebis dunked in sugar syrup was an additional breakfast accompaniment.

Unfortunately, my street food experience was limited to places that had parking spots. The really famous shops of chaat and lassi lay deep in the narrow lanes of Varanasi with parking issues and traffic snarls. I regretfully had to skip them all.

5) Sail on the Ganges for the sunrise.

So it was back to Ganga at the crack of dawn (actually before dawn). We took the same route- Raja Ghat to Assi Ghat and back.

This time it was Jagdish at the helm of the motor boat. In contrast to Chandan (his nephew), Jagdish was a talker. He came armed with a flask of hot tea and diya cups. (Sigh! What are we going to do about the size of the tea cups in Varanasi?)

Sunrise boat ride on Ganga on a misty morning near the ghats in Varanasi
Where the river runs.

Anyway, in addition to his amazing storytelling skills and local knowledge, he whipped out his phone to show us photos of how the ghats had looked at the turn of the century. The contrast couldn’t be more staggering. Many since then have either received a makeover or more constructions have come around the original building.

Wall mural in the ghats of Varanasi
Hey!

Could things get any better?

Flocks of migratory Siberian birds squawking and flying fearlessly near our boats had us up on our feet. Apparently, they love eating the namkeen sev and enterprising boatmen in tiny rowboats will urge you to do the boni (first sale) and buy a packet.

Misty morning on the Ganges with many boats and Siberian birds flying in Varanasi.
Fly away birdie!

Richa Chadda described it best. “It is a strange city where you can feel like a dweller and an alien at the same time.”

I suppose that’s what makes this city extraordinary.

PS: Missed the actual sunrise because of the mist. By the time we realised, the sun was a pale orange orb in a smoky sky. Yet, what an amazing way to begin a day!

Lens-Artists Challenge- Travel has taught me

WQW- Writer’s choice

48 thoughts on “In Varanasi, Travel Taught Me

  1. Stunning. I have never been to Varanasi – thank you for the ride into seething life and movement. An experience not easily forgotten! Beautifully captured – you transmit the feeling elegantly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ann-Christine, thank you for that heartwarming comment. You picked the right words to describe Varanasi- seething life and movement. Yet there is a timelessness to this place. As you said, an experience not easily forgotten. Happy you enjoyed the post.😊

      Like

  2. Soulful trip to Varanasi…. awesome coverage of the Holy City and delectable food too….hope people take this as pligrimage tourism and also a place to reckon with as a tourist destination in coming times…good job and excellent write up 👍☺️👌

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So beautifully captured. Never been there, but the vivid details of various must-visit spots make them very inviting. Benaras make over lifting the spirits and breezing through the local people can be felt in the writer’s narrative.Reflection pic is truly epic.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As always, I was there with you in this too! Even in the pitch darkness, fussing about with little oil lamps thrusted by little hands. Only, am sure, less sanctified than thou. The pics are splendid. The travelog is celerius & seamless.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m back on the boat reading your comments, Pratibha. Pitch dark, lighting the diyas in a strong breeze and then contorting myself over the boat to float them in the water without falling in. That’s a special memory. 😊
      Thank you for always raising my spirits with your words.

      Like

    1. Happy to show you a glimpse of India, Frank. Vibrant and historical defines Varanasi and almost every part of India. I suppose the World Wide Web has brought us all close and blogging is a perfect way to travel in such times. Glad you enjoyed your virtual trip to Varanasi.

      Like

  5. Stunning photos and evocative text – I almost feel like I have been there even though I haven’t yet visited. But of course now I want to even more than I already did. Looking at your photos I yearn to have the chance to attempt at least to take similar ones!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Sheetal, thanks a lot for the Kashi Darshan,  have doubts whether will venture out myself as Nirvana is on hold for the time being:)
    Your post is honest in its narration and has the timeless quality as the city itself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘Nirvana is on hold’ has a very catchy ring to it, Manjari. ☺️We have to make it popular!
      As for Kashi darshan, it was everything I expected. Yet it hits you. Hence wanted to blog about it honestly. Trust you to pick on it.
      I want to remember the wonder I saw in my world. I think I succeeded, right? If not, then nirvana here is going to be on the hold. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow Sheetal, you’ve give all of your readers an amazing tour this week! I must admit I am very claustrophobic when surrounded by crowds so this would not be my cup of tea but I enjoyed seeing the city through your eyes very much. Your images from the hazy morning on the river are exquisite!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Crowds are inevitable in India and more so in the cities. This place had more than usual because of the religious draw.

      Would you believe, Varanasi was added to my bucket list thanks to a chance encounter with a tourist from China, many years back. Hearing her talk about this place filled me with wonder and envy too. I mean, here I was in India missing this experience. Guess, this was the culmination of that desire.
      As for the river, it never ceased to amaze me. Thank you for all your appreciation!

      Like

  8. your brilliant photos really showed the culture of India – and the moods and feel for the people. The opening photo was my fav (but hard to really pick a fav) but I love the water and the variants in lights – great take on the theme this week.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yvette, I am thrilled reading your comments on my post. I have tried to recreate my experiences with my images and words. I’m more of a point and shoot person so you can see why I’m so pleased that you like my photos. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Sheetal, what a fabulous post. Every word, every picture dripped with meaning, new words, experiences. I could almost feel my hand trailing in the water, and the excitement to capture every experience. I was in awe that your trips to the temples meant long lines. I can’t imagine that experience entering places of worship here in the United States. Of course, most of them are not tourist attractions.

    The way you captured the tradespeople at their work, will be a valuable jumping spot for even more posts. The misty mornings with birds flying all around – I can see poetry for years to come. This post alone is rich in treasure, and I’m sure you have so many more “point and shoot” experiences from this trip you NEED to share with us. Loved every second of the trip. Thanks for taking me along!

    You have one photo of the mural which qualifies this post for another double dip – Photographing Public Art! Thank you so much for linking to WQW. I would have hated to miss this post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Marsha, can utter joy on reading such a detailed feedback leave one at loss for words?

      Seriously, this by far has to be the most extensively amazing commentary I’ve received on a post. It was a trip that I remember fondly, the great parts of course interspersed with ones that involved long queues and traffic snarls. Can’t blame Varanasi for it is a magnet for the people of the Hindu faith. Also since its been around for centuries, there is so much history attached to it. Hence with the faithful, the tourists too arrive in droves.
      Thank you once again for your brilliant commentary, Marsha! I’m overwhelmed, euphoric and energised.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wow, glad I had such an effect. I don’t always have so much to say, but it was an inspiring post. Commenting is important. It can be overdone. I’ve been known to carry on long conversations, but those are best taken to the next level. I didn’t do that at first. But a long comment when it is warranted is the kind of feedback that makes blooging an important means of communication.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s sunny and super cold (for us) here. It got down to 12 degrees F here this morning. I don’t think it’s reached more than 40, which for some would be warm, but for us is quite chilly.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Stunning images of the beautiful Varanasi, Sheetal! So much we can learn from this special place. Thank you for taking us there and sharing your fabulous experience. Love it!
    Door I’m late here. I did see you link on my post. Glad I found you through WP reader!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I love that shot ‘Chasing light’ and the image that follows, Sheetal. The place looks mystical. Like Tina I’m not so fond of crowds, and queuing for the temples wouldn’t appeal but I could feel the aura from your words and images. I would love to be there on the water, sailing my little boats in celebration of life. Happy for you that you got to experience this.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Jo. You picked the most beautiful part of the trip- the boat rides on the Ganges. That was an incredible experience for me as well!
      As for the crowd, one cannot be too far away from people in India. That’s something we take for granted. On the other hand, if the place is devoid of people, it actually makes me anxious. 😄

      Like

        1. You hit the nail, Jo! 😊Comfort in the presence of others sounds just about right although too many can be stressful too. Case in question, my temple visits.😅
          Aargh! It’s a pain finding the balance.

          Liked by 1 person

  12. It all brings back memories, Sheetal. I only did the sunrise boatride on the Ganges, but it was one of my top travel experiences. And then walking through the utter chaos that are the streets of Varanasi. What an overwhelming experience! Thanks for sharing your experience. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Woah! What an amazing connection to Varanasi, Brian! By the way, the name Benaras is still in use and so is Kashi. It was an amazing visit and I was grateful that so many people were wearing masks. The fear is less, masking fatigue more.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good to know about Benaras. I still say Bombay or Calcutta. (Old habits die hard, and I can’t imagine the English should have gotten all the names wrong. 😉)
        Masks are good. I still wear one every time I go out. Last year when we flew to France (12h) we had our KN95 mask on all flight long.
        Phir milenge.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. What a warm narration of a beautiful city, Ma’am !
    I have visited Kashi a couple of times and would like to go again and again, as the city has something new to offer every time. Or may be we as visitors have a changed and a more inclusive perception every time. My interest grew keener when a traveller from the west, over a chai conversation at a nukkad stall, urged us to preserve our culture and heritage…glorify it. He also had a tattoo on his forearm in Sanskrit which meant ‘Kashi is in my heart’. It did impress me and at the same time changed a perception. Since then Kashi has a place in my heart !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Much appreciate your wonderful comments, Rashi. ‘Kashi is in my heart’ sounds perfect for anyone who experiences its charms. There is so much to love about the city. Since you’ve visited the place, who would know it better than you.

      Like

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