“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”………….Mark Twain
Varanasi, also known as Benaras and Kashi as the locals lovingly call it, is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Since 2014, It is being represented in Parliament by India’s Chief Executive – Narendra Modi.
Fall, Winter and early spring (October – March) are the best seasons to head towards Varanasi. The city has convenient connections by Air from New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Khajuraho. All of India’s major airlines – Jet Airways, Indigo, Spicejet and Air India fly in to Varanasi. We booked ourselves in to an Indigo air flight from Mumbai, reaching Varanasi in time for a 12 noon check in. Our land package was planned by Narmada Holidays. The airport is a good 45-60 minutes away from the main city and the roads pass by the country side of Eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Our stay was at Rivatas by Ideal. A well equipped 4 star hotel and apart from Rivatas, there are other options like Radisson and even Heritage options like Taj Nadesar Palace and Suryoday Haveli.
Our lunch was simple fare in the in-house restaurant, Ocean. Try the Indian breads (Roti), spinach and cottage cheese based gravy, lentils and Rice; Winter brings in the freshest of fruits and vegetables and it pays to try the season’s freshest. Lunch done, it was time to head out towards the Ghats situated on the banks of the river Ganges. Varanasi infact derives its name from the merger of rivers Varuna and Assi. There are plenty of options to get to the drop off point at Godowlia Chowk. You can hire an auto rickshaw costing approximately between 50 and 70 Rupees or a tri cycle rickshaw which pedals you for approximately 30 – 40 Rupees. If you have hired a cab for your transportation needs, the cabbie or the guide will drop you off at this junction (Godowlia Chowk). Have fun as your transportation takes you through a cantonment area, below a railway under bridge, mosques and other places of worship, busy streets selling clothing, utensils, electronics, sweets and savories, milk based products and of course numerous restaurants. Mark the spot where your transportation drops you in case you are doing the rounds of the ghat all by yourself. Soak in the chaos of the junction, feel the humanity surge in to you, hear the policeman shout in to the microphone asking erring cabbies and vehicle owners to give way, urging people to wear their helmets and what not….
The road leading from the chowk down to the ghats are vehicle free (not entirely as bi-cycles are allowed). Don’t be under the assumption that you can swing your arms and enjoy a leisurely walk. The roads a chock-a-bloc with people and you will need to be swift and be able to maneuver yourself for the next 0.5 mile. Before you head in to the ghats don’t forget to sip a hot cup of tea, served in a mud cup. Hot and mildly spiced, you are definitely not going to stop with one. Costs all of 5 – 6 Rs.
There are 87 ghats in Varanasi and each one of them was built by India’s former princely state leaders. Each Ghat was a donation to help pilgrims conduct their religious rites and offer a place to stay. Families chose Varanasi to perform the last rites of their near and dear as it is believed to offer complete salvation for the soul.
Dashashwamedh ghat is the most splendid ghat in Varanasi and plays host to the famous aarti to lord shiva, sun god, river ganges and the fire god. Priests pray every evening to the Holy river with hymns running in the background. This elaborate ritual starts every evening towards twilight. Get in early, find a good seat – either on the steps behind the priests or on the boats in front of the priest. Bargain for your boat seat with the boatmen. The aarti ritual mesmerizes you for more than an hour. There are free lance photographers who offer you instant prints at nominal prices.
The evening draws to a close as guests head out to roam around the narrow streets around the ghats. The streets are crammed with curio shops, sweet shops and interesting international eateries. Evenings are reserved for the best of Varanasi food….Part 2….