The year was 2012. There was a nip in the air as I sat sipping a cup of steaming coffee, in a Café Coffee Day outlet at Indira Nagar, Bengaluru. With me was my friend Priyanka. We were busy jotting down our wish-list for 2013 on a paper napkin. Four years down the line, I still had that napkin safely tucked away in my wallet. Because, of all the wishes that I had jotted down, there was one that I could not fulfill – a journey that got delayed so many times, for so many reasons. I finally embarked on that dream journey on 25 January, 2017.
On the banks of the holy river, Ganga, lies a city older than history – Banaras. That was where I was headed. This centuries-old city is known by different names - Kashi, Banaras and Varanasi. Days before my journey, I had done a detailed research on the various places to visit, their attractions, and weather. With all the information in place, I boarded my flight at 10 am in the morning from Bangalore. After a stop over in Delhi, I arrived at my destination by 6 pm. The hotel that I had booked was around 28 kilometers from the airport.
After about an hour we stopped by the side of a busy road. We were not allowed to take the car any further. I paid the driver, took my bag and started walking, but no one could give me the directions to the hotel. I was tired. I decided to take a break and have a cup of tea.
At the tea stall, I met Dayal, a salesman at a nearby store. He knew where my hotel was and walked me there. It was around 9.30pm when I finally settled down in my budget accommodation. The hotel had a restaurant on the top floor. I reached my room and freshened up in the ice-cold water. From there I could see Banaras bathed in fog and Ganga on her peaceful journey at a distance.
I finished my dinner and taking my camera with me, went for a late night walk. I walked slowly and aimlessly by the riverside. Every now and then, I could see steps, called ghats, leading down to the river. Hermits were sleeping comfortably in the warmth of the fire they had lit to keep themselves cozy; some intoxicated. By 1 am I got back to the hotel. Before going to bed I set the alarm for 4 am as I did not want to miss the sunrise.
I resumed my walk at 5 am in the morning. Close to my hotel was Manikarnika, one of the oldest cremation grounds in Banaras. It is believed that if a corpse is cremated at this ghat, the soul attains moksha or liberation. I stood there witnessing the rich and the poor end their life’s journey empty-handed, in the same fire, on the banks of the same river.
It was nearly sunrise. A boatman approached me and told me that he would take me through the many ghats, watch life waking up with a boat ride for Rs 300. The fog had not lifted. Flocks of migratory birds kept circling over the river and boats. I bought a packet of seeds for 50 rupees and fed them. We kept moving forward. Behind me, the ancient city of lights proudly stood with its head held high.
When I ended my boat ride in an hour I decided to walk by the riverside again. I was at Dashashwamedh Ghat, the most important ghat in Banaras. I could see a part of the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple from there. The sights by the riverside at dawn were varied and a stark contrast to what I had seen the previous night. Thousands of devotees bathing in the holy river, men and women floating lighted diyas down the river, those paying homage to their ancestors by performing shraadh or pind daan, people doing yoga, hermits meditating, painters trying to replicate the beauty of the sunrise on canvas, tourists from across the world trying to capture the essence of India on their cameras – if there ever was diversity, it was here!
The best part of walking down the riverside is the camaraderie you feel with total strangers. People whom you have never met before and would probability never meet again smile at you with all the warmth of close friends. Clicking pictures all the way, I reached Assi Ghat by 10 o’clock. It was here that the renowned poet, Tulsidas, wrote Ramcharitmanas. A huge group of devotees from Tamil Nadu were sitting chanting shlokas. Children with live snakes around their necks begging on the streets came terribly close and scared me. Strolling about till noon made me tired. I went back to my hotel on a cycle rickshaw and took a much-needed nap after lunch.
The most beautiful part of my trip was scheduled for that evening – watching the Ganga Aarti that takes place at Dashashwamedh Ghat. I reached way before time, by around 4:30 pm as I knew there would be a large number of photographers fighting for the best spots to click the best pictures. As expected, the best spots were all taken, mainly by Korean photographers. I found a small space in their midst and squeezed in. Since it was Amavasi, a very special day, there was a bigger crowd than usual. A little girl walked through the crowd selling diyas. It was a long wait of two hours for the Aarti to begin. I will never forget the sheer magnificence of the spectacle that engulfed the entire place in a feeling of holiness and elation. I kept changing lenses and clicked picture after picture. The Aarti lasted an hour and left me feeling overwhelmed. White colored prasad was being distributed to everyone gathered. I made sure I got some prasad too, even if that meant finding my way through a swarm of people.
The streets on the way back to the hotel were lined with shops selling the world-famous Banarasi sarees. There were a number of sweet shops on either side of the street. I tried quite a lot of new sweets, the names of which I did not even know. By 11 pm I finished my dinner from the restaurant and went to bed. I had to wake up early the next day too to travel to Sarnath. An entire day of walking around and the chilly weather put me to sleep almost as soon as I hit the bed.
The next morning I took an auto rickshaw to Sarnath. This famous city, once known as Isipatana, is at a distance of around 13 kilometers from Banaras. The rickshaw ride was maddening owing to heavily crowded streets and the incessant honking of impatient drivers. A deer park, believed to be the place where Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon on dharmas to his disciples, was my first halt. There are so many monuments here that would enthrall any tourist. What caught my eye first was a majestic stone pillar called Dhameka Stupa, built by Emperor Asoka. At a short distance I could see Digambar Jain temple. A weaving center where Banarasi sarees are woven using the traditional “warp and woof” method stood nearby. Watching the weavers at work is fascinating in itself. Before I left, I bought a saree for my mother.
From the deer park, I went on to the renowned Banaras Hindu University. I hired a cycle rickshaw for 100 rupees to take me around the entire campus. There was a Viswanath temple inside. I spent the afternoon in the campus. It was terribly hot, especially since I was traveling in a roofless rickshaw. I longed to get back to the soothing cool of Ganga. I ran to the river the moment I got back and took a bath that washed away all the tiredness of the day. After the bath, I visited Kashi Vishwanath temple, which had very security measures in place. I was able to watch some part of the Ganga Aarti again by the time I came out of the temple.
At 7am when I woke up I had a sudden urge to take a dip in Ganga. With a towel in hand, I walked to the river and crossed to the other side on a small boat. There were no steps there. The water was clearer too. All the while during the bath I kept repeating to myself a line I had heard as a child – “a journey to cleanse oneself of all the sins”.
After having my breakfast, I said goodbye to those at the hotel. It was still too early to go to the airport. I started my aimless stroll yet again. By then Varanasi, the beautiful city nestled between Varuna River and Assi River, had etched myriads of everlasting memories in my mind.
By afternoon I was exhausted for no real reason and went into a shop to have cold buttermilk. I saw many of the customers sticking their photographs on the wall. I also took out a photograph and stuck it on the wall along with a half-torn visiting card. Then, I took a ride to the airport. My flight to Delhi was at 5 pm and from there to Bangalore at 11 pm. Unlike always, the flight took off right on time. From the tiny window, I looked down to see Varanasi for one last time. It was nearly dark. I told myself that if I ever came back, I would go and check if the photo I left was on that wall. As the city of lights vanished out of sight, I opened my wallet and took out that old paper napkin I had treasured all these years. I could feel my eyes welling up when I read the third item in faded ink on my wish-list – I had just checked off “Banaras” from my list!
Disclaimer: The article and pictures were sent by our reader Dipu Haridas