A visit to Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh offers a unique spiritual experience. The trip should start before sunrise from Assi Ghat on the banks of the Ganges, considered holy by a large section of people.
From the ghat, one can view boats carrying tourists as well as local fishermen floating along the river. Meanwhile, a group of devotees would be waiting on the river bank with hands clasped in prayer to the Sun god scheduled to make his appearance any time. By the time of sunrise, Assi Ghat would be crowded with devotees, musicians rendering songs and yoga classes.
There are innumerable ghats, or steps leading to the river, to the north of Assi Ghat; the precise number of ghats being 87. While some are bathing ghats, others are meant for carrying out prayers. However, two stand apart. They are Manikarnika Ghat and Harischandra Ghat – both cremation sites.
The most attractive spectacle in Varanasi, which is also known as Benares and Kashi, is the Ganga 'aarti.' It is a ritual with traditional lamps conducted every evening at the Dasaswamedh Ghat by a group of young priests standing on a platform adjacent to the river.
Temple, wrestling, and silk
Kashi has lured people for centuries thanks to the Vishwanath temple, the shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva. Tight security is in place at the temple and praying to the small shiny idol gives a soul-filling feeling.
Another peculiarity of Varanasi is the presence of 'akhadas' or training centres for wrestlers. The masters are even aged above sixty years but maintain top fitness. No child is forced to become a student of wrestling. In fact, when a youngster expresses his wish to become a wrestler, the Guru visits him at home and explains all aspects of the sport before he is allowed to step into the 'akhada.'
Benaras is also known world over for its silk. Sarees are made by expert weavers and the art and science of creating exquisite sarees have been kept alive by cooperatives and other organisations. However, apparently due to poor pay, the youth are not being attracted to the profession.
Yet another feature of Benaras is 'paan.' It is a mild mixture of sweetness, sourness and tanginess that can be chewed after a sumptuous meal.
Travel, stay, and food
Varanasi is just an overnight train journey from Delhi. The Varanasi airport is barely 20 km from the city and can be reached in less than an hour. All types of accommodation are available, from luxury hotels to cheap homestays. There are innumerable restaurants in the city but food could pose a problem unless a hygienic place is selected.
Meanwhile, the government as well as various non-governmental organisations is engaged in earnest efforts to spruce up the ancient city. The results are now seen at various ghats.