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!

A Bizarre Travel Experience

Didi, for heaven’s sake be careful…..that sari may just slip from your hands!”, she pleaded. My wavering attention was immediately back to the precarious situation we were in. I controlled the urge to rebuke her at that moment for being so insistent on wanting to be at this place. A noisy family of more than a dozen people had just landed right beside us. My attention was quite automatically diverted towards this freshly added commotion. As if the already chaotic situation wasn’t enough!

We were at Triveni Sangam and had just taken a dip in the holy confluence of the three rivers – Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati.

My cousin had made sure to include Triveni Sangam in the itinerary when we were planning our visit to Varanasi. During her previous visit to Varanasi, she couldn’t make time for Triveni Sangam and this time she wasn’t going to miss it. I wasn’t much keen but agreed on her insistence.

Pic 1: Boats that take people to Triveni Sangam.

Triveni Sangam is located at Allahabad and is about 83 Km from Varanasi. It is a sacred place, one that is of religious importance to the Hindus, where the historic Kumbh-mela is held every 12 years. It is believed that a bath in the Sangam washes away all sins and paves the way straight to heaven. That’s not the reason why my sister insisted to come here though. It was just sheer curiosity. As for me, I just accompanied her though experiencing a Kumbh Mela is in my bucket list.

The Sangam is located some distance away from the banks and one must take a boat to reach there. At the confluence, the greyish and opaque waters of River Ganga is distinctly differentiable from the greenish and clear waters of River Yamuna. The mythical River Saraswati is invisible, believed to be subterranean. A series of boats were set up forming a sort of a platform where people performed religious rituals. There was a special arrangement for taking a dip in the waters. You step onto a log of wood holding the ropes on either side that are tied at the two ends of the log, much like a swing. The rope is slowly lowered till you are immersed in the water.

My sister was keen on taking a dip and also in conducting the rituals. I wasn’t sure for a while but then decided to take a dip too. It was going to be an interesting experience I thought, but no rituals for me. All the more, as the priest there demanded Rs 500 just for a coconut, some flowers, and a little vermillion.

Pic 2: Triveni Sangam marked by the flags seen here where a series of boats are set up to form a sort of a platform.

Now, the only problem was that we couldn’t see any place to change into dry clothes after the dip. It was the month of December and hence quite cold. We would have to get out of the wet clothes. Our boatman assured that he would make the necessary arrangements. “Yeh sari hai na” (we have this sari), he said, picking up two bamboo poles, as he spoke. Both of us assumed that he would use the bamboo poles and the sari to create a makeshift arrangement in the boat with enclosures on all four sides. We didn’t bother to clarify.

When we were done with the dip, he just handed over the sari to us. One of us was supposed to hold the sari from one end and stretch our hands up. The cylindrical sort of an enclosure created by the 9 yards yarn is where the other would change. It was a HORRIFIC proposition. The sari even seemed quite transparent to me. We resisted a bit but soon realized that it was the only solution and we could either do as instructed or shiver our way to the banks. Opting for the latter would most certainly cause us to fall ill. We were also quite shocked to see other women doing the same. Nobody seemed to have a problem, except the two of us.

Pic 3: Siberian Seagulls that migrate during winters making the holy rivers, Ganga and Yamuna, their temporary home.

My sister had to admit our Varanasi trip didn’t have to include Triveni Sangam, at least not now. However, it’s an experience that we hilariously recall each time we talk about our Varanasi trip. All said and done, our wish to be at Triveni Sangam during a Kumbh Mela remains as strong as can be.