“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shri Ram Bhandar opposite Taj was our favourite spot for breakfast because we could find a parking spot. The aloo– kachauri (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?)
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.
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.
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!
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