Friday 2 February 2018

The city of lights

A lot of people were surprised when my friends and I decided to visit Varanasi for a few days. Since I am quite irreligious, it must have seemed odd to many that I would want to visit a city, that more than any other, is so closely associated with Hinduism, religion and temples. But I am a culture-vulture above all else and I knew Varanasi was much more than its temples. It is renowned for its millennia of history and civilization, its music, its food and its textiles to name just a few. To me and my friends, it seemed that it would be India in miniature (which indeed it was). Barring interesting architecture, the city is quintessential India, with its noise, heritage, dirt, cows - the exquisite and the egregious peacefully existing side by side.

(Note 1: I will use the name “Varanasi” and Banaras” interchangeably as the fancy takes me!.
Note 2: This is a practical guide for planning a trip to Varanasi. No paeans here to the merits of travelling with friends - I have written about that here :))

We booked our stay at Granny’s Inn ( which is a well-known homestay. It has 6 guest rooms in an old house in the heart of Varanasi (a 10-minute walk to Dashashwamedh ghat). It is not for those who need a river view because its a 10 minute trek to the ghats, but if you like a nice authentic experience and homely food with locals, this is your place. Plus the grannies are very friendly and have an impish sense of humour! It was really nice when we came back loaded with saree shopping and they followed us into our rooms so that we could lay out the sarees for them to inspect and admire, just like we do in our own homes with our moms and grandmas! 

First - the Banaras orientation. The city is on the western banks of the Ganga as it flows from Allahabad, east towards Patna. All of the main tourist and pilgrim action is concentrated in an approximately 4 km by 1 km stretch along the river, enfolding most of the major ghats among the 84 ghats that have been constructed in the city. The 4 km stretch runs from Assi ghat, the southernmost major ghat upto Manikarnika ghat and beyond. Inland is a narrow and very confusing warren of winding lanes (called gallis)  which are best negotiated with a guide if you only have a couple of days. If you have more time, you can probably get your bearings sooner or later and of course Google maps does help (though it gets fairly confused every now and then!)

The first thing to decide is what you want to do. We had decided to only visit the 3 main temples - Kashi Vishwanath, Sankat Mochan and Kaal Bhairav (a couple others got added later). We wanted to do the Ganga aarti (which happens at 2 ghats - Assi in the early mornings and Dashashwamedh in the evenings). We wanted to sample all of the Banaras culinary specialties (though we underestimated the amount of chai and paan that would get added to the mix) and spend a significant time with handloom weavers. We also wanted to do a walk through the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and visit Sarnath. So our itinerary revolved around all of these places and our first draft was ready. I also like to do a couple of guided walks in most cities. Roobaroo Walks seemed to have good ratings on tripadvisor and were very prompt in their responses so I booked two of their walks and this is what our itinerary looked like when we landed. 

Day 1 Plan:
4/4.30 pm: Start at Assi Ghat and walk all the way to the end of the ghats (1 hour)
6 pm:  Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat (starts at 6.30 pm)
10.30 pm: Kashi Vishwanath temple "Shayan" aarti

What we actually did:
We were late in starting out so we went to a neighbouring chaat place for tamatar chaat which was okay but maybe not the best place to sample this Banaras delicacy (we never managed to sample this anywhere else). From here we walked to Dashashwamedh Ghat, for the first time understanding why dodging cow dung in Banaras is a fine art requiring speed, agility and grace! The evening Ganga aarti gets really crowded so get there early for a good spot. People view this from the water (on boats) or from the ghat itself (standing room only if you reach late). We reached at 6.30 pm and got seats on a boat so we saw the aarti from the front (as the acolyte priests face the river). It’s a theatrical production lacking in spirituality but very high on aesthetics, hence a photographer’s delight (they pray for world peace and the aarti has been going on only for the last 15-20 years). The aarti ends by 7.30 pm.
After the aarti our guide for the day (the major-domo at Granny’s inn, a young and super-efficient chap called Mayur) led us through the gallis, giving us a quick overview of the lay of the land and suggested a rooftop restaurant for dinner before the 10.30 pm aarti at Kashi Vishwanath temple. What we were told is that there are 5 aartis at the temple. The last one, the “Shayan aarti” is done before the Lord goes to sleep and the temple closes at 11 pm. It opens again at 3 am for the “Mangala aarti”.  All the aartis require a fee except for the Shayan aarti which is free and also attended largely by locals, so the most authentic. I wasn’t expecting much from the aarti but it was the most surreal and goosebumps-inducing experience of our stay in Banaras. For starters, it begins very abruptly. There is a sudden loud cry of “Har har mahadev” and then the songs start, with the powerful voices of the mostly male devotees rising up in perfect sync. My friend Suchi said it was a bit like a flash mob as latecomers entered the temple and joined into the singing without missing a beat. Bhaang being so omnipresent in Banaras, it seemed as though many of the devotees had imbibed this heady narcotic as they almost head-banged to their rockstar God. Whatever be the reason, the atmosphere was charged with utter devotion and infectious energy. Our Day 1 ended on a high note, being one of the unmissable experiences in Banaras.

Day 2 Plan: 
Roobaroo Walks
6:30 am - 9:30 am - South Walk description as below.
Starting at Assi ghat with a live performance of Indian Classical Music and witnessing an open air Yoga session, at Subah-e-Banaras for 15 mins each, we then set out to explore the ghats and gallis in the calmer part of Varanasi whose serene settings have inspired philosophers and poets for centuries. The walk includes visits to a memorial of a notable woman icon, a Wrestling Akhara of traditional Indian style, a 17th century house of a phenomenal poet, an Ancient step well, bathing ghats, and a neighbourhood replete with handloom workshops. 
Connecting the dots along this quirky mix of venues, the walk leaves you with a deep understanding of this oldest continuously living city in the world. Along the way we would stop for a chai (and witness the famous baithaks that happen over chai!), and have a breakfast of Kachori-sabzi and Jalebi - Varanasi's favourite!  

2:30 pm - 5:30 pm - North Walk description as below.
The walk includes a 3 hour exploration of the oldest living part of the city wherein walking through the markets and the gallis we understand life in the city - people's value systems, beliefs and elements of Hindu philosophy. At the ghats, sitting by the Ganga - we discuss the story of Varanasi's growing up - major historical events and people which have led to Varanasi becoming the spiritual and cultural capital of India. And then walking along the ghats, we then discuss some of their stories and at Manikarnika (the burning ghat) - the compelling take that the city has on death, and her association with Moksha. Weaving in and out of bustling streets, peaceful temples and traditional Indian houses the walk perfectly emulates the eccentricities of Varanasi and offers a great insight into the city's unique culture, history and its people. 

What we actually did:
The walks stuck to their script to the T. We were a little concerned whether we would be rushing through all these places without having time to stop and soak it all in, but the pace was just perfect for our group and both the guides were extremely knowledgeable. I would highly recommend a couple of walks in Varanasi to capture the real flavour of this fascinating city.  Among the highlights - the visit to the akhada, visit to Tulsidas' home (where the original Ramcharita Manas is kept) and Lohark Kund stepwell.

Day 3 Plan: 
5.30 am- 9 am: Sunrise boat ride (start from Dashashwamedh Ghat)
11 am onwards: Sarnath 
Evening: walk through BHU

What we actually did:
Our boat ride started only around 9 am as Mayur told us it would be too cold and foggy in the early morning (as it turned out he was wrong; we did a early morning boat ride the next day and it was just perfect). After a leisurely boat ride from Dashashwamedh to Assi ghat (expect to pay around 500 for 4 people, though it could be more if you arrange it beforehand and get someone to escort you from your place of stay to the ghat etc) and some lemon chai at Assi, we found our taxicab. Our driver suggested we go to Sankat Mochan first. Since it was a Saturday, the temple was extremely crowded and we only managed a quick glimpse at the idol before deciding to leave and head to Sarnath. BHU was a lower priority for us so even though it was close to Sankat Mochan we decided to come back to it if we had time after Sarnath. 
The Sarnath complex has 3 main attractions: the excavated ruins, the museum, and the temples constructed by various Buddhist countries. Obviously each of these are worth seeing but we focused on the excavated ruins as being the most interesting. This part of Sarnath is really serene and one felt like parking oneself onto the grass and doing nothing else. While there are a lot of guides wandering around, with a little prior reading you can manage the tour all by yourself. We parked ourselves for a bit near Dhamek stupa and just chatted until we got hungry and it was time to leave. We didn’t spend much time in Sarnath but you could potentially spend an entire day wandering around here. 
We stopped for lunch at a place called “Baati Chokha” which serves the traditional meal known as Litti with Chokha. Litti is a complete meal popular in Indian states of Bihar, Jharkhand and parts of Eastern Uttar Pradesh. It is a dough ball made up of whole wheat flour and stuffed with Sattu (roasted chickpea flour), potato, or paneer, mixed with herbs and spices and then roasted over a cow dung fire. The Chokha could be made of brinjal or potato (maybe some other veggies as well) and the whole combination is eaten with lots of ghee. It is a complete and very heavy meal and we were unable to eat anything much for the rest of the day!
Our next stop was the most exciting - saree shopping! I won’t bore you with the details of the exquisite weaves we saw and learnt about, suffice to say we oohed and aahed aplenty and came away with our wallets noticeably lighter!
We skipped dinner that day in favour of sweets and lassi at the Blue Lassi Bar, a Varanasi institution. It was tough to decide between the 60 or so Lassi flavours on offer (many seasonal). The lassi is really thick and creamy and the toppings/flavours are all fresh (no pulp) and the whole concoction needs to be eaten with a spoon. My only regret is that we only got to go once to this place.

Day 4 Plan: 
We had allocated this day for weavers and shopping.

What we actually did:
We went to Assi ghat for the 5.30 am Ganga aarti (similar to the evening Ganga aarti at Dashashwamedh but with far fewer crowds). We took a boat back to Dashashwamedh ghat and the views of the fog lifting away from the river, ghostly shapes on the water and the sunrise, were captivating. Back at the homestay, we got ready (after a breakfast of kachoris and jalebi) and set off to Madanpura which is a large weaving colony. We spent a few wonderful hours with the master weaver and his family who patiently explained the multiple processes of weaving a Banarasi saree - from the dyeing of the yarn, to the final weave (both handloom and powerloom). The hospitality of these people was endless. No conversation in Banaras is complete without copious amounts of chai and paan and this was no different.  We sat on the floor, admiring the cute kids who wandered in and out, drinking awesome chai and not knowing how to chew paan properly! The conversation wandered from Govt policy towards weavers, to the ancestors of the master weavers family, to the economics of the business, to Amazon! My moment of thrill came when I realised that the saree I had bought the previous day had been woven in this very workshop and I had one of the weavers pointed out to me as the creator of my saree! It just makes my purchase that much more cherished to see the person who wove it so exquisitely. 
We rushed back home after a much-needed break at Vatika Cafe (where I for one was happy to sample some blander Italian fare). We had decided to dress up in sarees for a fancy dinner at a place called Guleria Kothi  but first we went to Dashashwamedh again for the evening aarti. If we stood out during previous days, we must have looked quite a sight negotiating those narrow lanes in our “city” sarees, all hitched up to avoid any contact with the cow dung! We took a boat to Guleria Kothi and had a wonderful Banarasi thali, overlooking the river and ghats. It was a leisurely meal and we still had not run out of conversation. It brought to mind my son who always says - Why do girls talk so much?!!! 

A fitting end to our Banaras getaway!

Some unique "Banarasi" traits that we observed: 
- People love to talk and are friendly (sometimes too much so!). Try and strike up conversations and they meet you halfway very easily. Maybe being an all-women group helped but we came away with the impression of a city whose people are born storytellers. 
- When I tried to describe the city to others who have not visited, I struggled to find the words. It’s not a beautiful city, it has no striking buildings, the Ganga is there but it doesn’t have the majesty of say, the Narmada or the Brahmaputra.  Everything looks old and dilapidated. It is certainly dirty and extremely noisy and crowded. But there is a palpable energy and aura (call it religious/spiritual), indescribable but palpable, that lends the city a totally unique character. The sense of history is very strong in this city, the world’s oldest living city which has been destroyed completely a couple of times before arising in its present avatar. I think it is this very tangible sense of history and spirituality that beckons even the non-religious into its folds again and again. 
-At Manikarnika ghat, I was taken aback to see life going on as usual on the sidelines. Near to the several burning pyres, were multiple tea stalls doing brisk business. Behind us, strobe lights blinked as loud music played (devotional songs set to film music). It all seemed a bit distasteful. Our guide assured us that neither morbid curiosity nor nonchalance in the face of death, was the least bit unsuitable. Varanasi knows that death is an integral part of life and we don’t separate the two, she said. Earlier, she had talked about the four elements of Varanasi or the four purusharthas (proper goals or aims of a human life)  - moksh, arth, dharm and kaam. The well-balanced pursuit of Dharm (duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and "right way of living”), Arth (commerce, prosperity), Kaam (the pursuit of earthly desires, pleasure and the fine arts)and Moksh (salvation, spiritual pursuits) leads to self-actualisation and fulfilment of your life’s purpose (I instantly remembered Maslow’s hierarchy!). 

On our last day, we were sitting at Assi imbibing our daily dose of lemon chai. I look up and see 2 women, heads covered with saree pallus walking down the steps with lamps in their hands. A solitary boat sails past as someone sings snatches of a Hindustani raga in the background. The horizon is shot with pink and orange as the sun rises and suddenly I am filled with an unreasonable happiness for being there at that exact spot, in that exact moment in time. It was my perfect Banaras moment!

Winding up with a quick list of places to eat. You will most likely run out of meals and time in the few days you spend in the city. Pace yourself and some meals may have to be only sweets (or lassi!)
      • Tamatar and chaat at Dina Nath Chat Bhandar (Assi ghat)
      • Blue lassi bar
      • Vatika Cafe at Assi ghat for thin crust pizza and apple strudel (very good!)
      • Mallaio (made from milk froth) available in multiple places but only during winter 
      • Kachori galli 
      • Pappu chai wale 
      • Chaurasia paan near Chowk 


  1. Such a lovely write up...went to Varanasi (almost) this para

    On our last day, we were sitting at Assi imbibing our daily dose of lemon chai. I look up and see 2 women, heads covered with saree ...

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