Benaras Revisited

CHANGE IS THE ONLY CONSTANT

Life is unpredictable. Don’t we all know that! Yet we land up spending a lot of energy seeking permanence and familiarity. Consciously aware of the fleeting impermanence of everything around us, we still have this innate tendency to cling on to our pasts. In fact, it’s the unpredictability of life that makes it exciting and beautiful. What a monotone life would otherwise have been!

The world around us does its bit of continually reminding us of the fact that nothing lasts forever. We are just unable to internalize it. Last week, I spent five days at Benaras when River Ganges ascertained that I resonate with this thought of change being the only constant.

Pic 1: A section of Darbhanga Ghat clicked in 2019.
Pic 2: The same Darbhanga Ghat in 2021 (clicked on the third day when the water had receded a bit)

This was my second visit to the Spiritual Capital of India. The purpose of my visit this time was particularly special too. It was in 2019 that I had first visited the holy city, just before the pandemic.

The wonderful experience of the city had been etched in my memory forever. It was Christmas time in the month of December. There was no Sun and the days were very cold. The weather was least of our concern though. The long walks through the ghats, maneuvering through the confusing galis (narrow lanes and by-lanes) particularly around Bangali Tola, soaking in the divinity of the evening aarti, observing the crowd and contemplating on our perception of their quirkiness, gorging on the best of the street food, and the best chai in the world, are things that still bring a warm glow to my heart.  

Pic 3: A section of Panchganga Ghat clicked in 2019.
Pic 4: The same Panchganga Ghat in 2021. (clicked on the third day when the water had receded a bit)

With that mental picture in my mind, I found myself swiftly alighting the steps of Dasheshwamedh Ghat. I couldn’t wait to walk through the ghats (centuries old riverside stops). R, my photographer friend, was my travel companion in this trip and this was his first visit to the city. I had already talked enough and more about my previous Benaras experience. The anticipation building up in the past few days was at its peak now, and I couldn’t wait for R to experience it all. But why do things appear to be a little different this time? The ghat seemed to be smaller and more congested than how I had seen it. I tried to look around and walked towards one corner of the ghat in the hope of hopping over to the next ghat, but I couldn’t find a way.

Soon enough the story unfolded. River Ganga was overflowing due to water released from two dams in Allahabad, all because of a cloudburst up North. The ghats were inundated and large portions remained submerged. As a result, there was no connectivity between the ghats. One could access the different ghats only through the road. The essence of Benaras was totally lost and I am not exaggerating. If you have experienced walking through the ghats in Benaras, you’d exactly understand what I mean.

Pic 5: Just before Panchganga Ghat clicked in 2019
Pic 6: The same structure just before Panchganga Ghat in 2021. (clicked on the third day when the water had receded a bit)

I was distraught and visibly upset. As I reasoned with myself, I wondered how could I think that the ghats would always remain just how I had first seen them! Water levels in a river is always subject to change. What made me think that I would experience it just the same way. I could do nothing but accept the present situation and go with the flow. This encounter was certainly going to be different. And, sure enough the enriched experience this time was only because it wasn’t the same as the last time.

As they say – live in the present instead of dwelling in the past because only the present exists. But do we really learn!

Benaras – First Impressions

No, this isn’t my kind of a place! Overcrowded, untidy and utterly chaotic – I should be feeling disquiet, anxious, edgy, and uncomfortable. None of that was happening. Instead curiosity and fascination was overtaking me. The energy of the place was seeping into me. I muttered something and my sister said – Welcome to Benaras!

Also known as Banaras, or Kashi and more popularly Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

My Varanasi sojourn started with my phone going totally out of service right from the time I stepped into the airport and it remained that way till I left the city. I was hardly concerned, however, as I knew I wasn’t alone. My sister was arriving an hour and a half later from Kolkata. [Well, my cousin sister but hailing from a joint family we don’t prefer to use the term cousin]. I was meeting her after 4 long years and my anticipation knew no bounds. I made sure to occupy a seat somewhere between the departure gate and the baggage carousal section so that I wouldn’t miss her. She would have no idea that my phone wasn’t working.

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The taxi we booked from the airport to our place of stay dropped us somewhere in the middle of a chaotic marketplace. From there we were guided through lanes and bylanes to Chatterbox Hostel at Bangali Tola, our place of stay for the next 4 days. The narrow unkempt lanes were quite a shocker for me even though I was mentally prepared after having heard/read stories about them. I even doubted my decision of booking a place of stay in Bangali Tola, which I knew was an area marked by these network of narrow lanes and bylanes.

Soon I would realize what a good decision that was. I will have to write a separate post on the lanes.

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It was around 9 PM, when we arrived at the hostel. We had booked a separate room for ourselves. For now, it was just the two of us till my sister from Bangalore joins us two days after. Dumping our bags, we stepped out immediately for dinner and a quick exploration of the neighbouring area.

Walking through the narrow lane, dodging cows and street dogs, we settled for a restaurant that got us interested just by the way it was decorated with things like cotton sarees and jute artifacts. As we waited for dinner to arrive, we decided to grab tea from a tea shop that was bang opposite. We were seated outside, and the narrow lanes meant all we had to do was extend our arms to the tea shop to get our tea cups.

The tea shop was the untidiest I had ever seen. The walls were black with permanent deposits of soot and didn’t look like it was ever painted. The pan where tea was prepared never seemed to have been washed. It was, however, the best tea I ever had. Thereafter the tea shop became a regular visit for us over the next 4 days.

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After dinner, a 2 min walk led us to Ganga Ghat. It was quite late and we had no clue which ghat we were at. My first sight of River Ganga in the quietude of the night was nothing but magical. Peace, tranquility, and happiness is all I remember. It was freezing cold with North India being swept by a cold wave at that time. There were very few people around, some played badminton, some seated in a circle around a small fire that they would have created, some walked around, some simply huddled in a groups busy chatting away, and some were alone staring at the river.

Ganga looked calm and beautiful with hundreds of colourful boats tied along the shore.

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We walked towards one side and in another 2 minutes arrived at Dasaswamedh Ghat, the oldest and the most important ghat at Varanasi. It was 11.00 PM as we settled down finding our own corner in the largely empty ghat. Wondering how much the ghat might be buzzing with activities during Ganga Aarti in the evening and also during other times of the day, we went on talking about our lives and catching up on the millions of things we had to share with each other.

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Soon we started noticing several people kneading dough with atta or wheat flour on the ghat floor in various places across the ghat. My sister and I went about speculating and making our own assumptions on the purpose of their activity. Curiosity got the better of me and I headed towards three young men who were chit-chatting and kneading as a team. I learn they do this to create small balls that they throw into River Ganga for feeding fish. And, why do they do this? To feed a living creature before retiring for the night. This ensued an interesting discussion in that cold December night with these young men – mostly in their 20s.

My mind, unheeding, went into an unfair comparison of the seemingly uncomplicated lives of these men with their counterparts in my city of Bangalore where the corporate world swallows all these simple pleasures of life.