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.
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.
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.
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 had us engulfed in its quaint and historical charm despite all the negativities and oddities – the chaos, the crowd, the touts. The energy of the Spiritual Capital of India is hard to ignore. We found ourselves embracing and enjoying every bit of it as we blended into the surroundings with utmost ease.
Not surprising though. Every nook and corner has something that would capture your mind, something that you wouldn’t have seen anywhere before, something that’s exciting enough to thoroughly engage you – the seers and the sadhus, each one different from the other; the colourful boats some parked on the ghats, others ferrying scores of people through River Ganges; the curious tourists trying to make sense of the surroundings; the vibrant ghats exuding stories everywhere; the crowded and narrow alleyways with houses, lodges, temples, shops, restaurants, people, cows, dogs, bikes, and what not; the paan shops and the sweet shops; the list is endless.
The three of us had decided unanimously that we wanted to walk the length of the ghats. There are 88 ghats and we were told they cover a distance of about 12 Km. I am not too sure of the distance though.
We walked from Daseshwamedh right up to Assi Ghat, which happens to be the last ghat at one end. Then, we retraced our path and went right up to Panchaganga Ghat towards the other end. Our guess is we would have covered about 70 ghats. We would have continued beyond Panchaganga had we not run out of time. We didn’t want to miss the evening aarti at Daseshwamedh Ghat, though it wasn’t the first time we would be watching it. Also, we walked leisurely aiming to experience the ghats rather than to rush and cover them all.
Here’s an account of the ghats that touched us a little more than the others:
This is the oldest ghat and considered to be the most important one. It’s also the busiest and one cannot escape its vibrancy and liveliness. The famous Ganga Aarti (Ganga River worship ceremony) is staged on this ghat every evening. Ironically, this overcrowded busy ghat attracted us the most, all because of its energetic surroundings. Persistent boat owners, flower sellers, pujaris, pilgrims, tourists, sadhus, temples, tiny shops, massage practitioners, touts of all kinds – Daseshwamedh had it all. One can just sit on the steps and spend an entire day simply watching people and their activities.
The Story Behind: Lord Brahma is said to have sacrificed 10 horses at this place. (Medh meaning sacrifice; Das meaning ten; and Aswa meaning horse)
Chet Singh Ghat
It is the Chet Singh fort on this ghat that attracted us the most besides the fact that it was a relatively quieter ghat. Nothing much was happening here.
The Story Behind: The name of this ghat is derived from the Palace of Raja Chet Singh, the illegitimate son of Balwant Singh, the first Maharaja of Banaras. This ghat witnessed a fierce battle between the troops of Warren Hastings and Chet Singh in 1781.
The quietude of this ghat is what appealed to us most. The fortified Akhara situated here also made it quite intriguing.
The Story Behind:Named after the Mahanirvani sect of Naga Sadhus, this ghat houses their famous Akhara as well. This Ghat also has four small Shiva Temple, said to have been made by Nepal’s Maharaja.
We visited this ghat thrice in our attempt to visit Trailanga Swami’s Ashram, which wasn’t happening for some reason or the other. A yogi and mystic, famed for his spiritual powers, Trailanga Swami is one of the 54 foremost saints of India. The great saint, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, referred to him as “The walking Shiva of Varanasi”.
The Story Behind:Panchaganga Ghat (Pancha means five) is supposed to be the meeting point of five rivers – Ganga, Dhutapapa, Kiran, Nadi, Saraswati, and Yamuna – but only Ganga is visible.
The feeling of heaviness is what we associated with this ghat. This is the burning ghat, where dead bodies are cremated. This ghat is considered to be an auspicious place for Hindu cremation. Pyres burn non-stop here. There were about five pyres burning when we were there. The overpowering smoke rising from the pyres made it difficult to stand here for long.
“Would it be appropriate to call this Death Tourism along the lines of Adventure Tourism or Medical Tourism?” we wondered.
The huge piles of firewood stacked along the ghat made us depressed, thinking about all the trees that have been chopped off. The three of us agreed in one voice that given a chance, we would like to be cremated in Manikarnika Ghat because of all the mythology associated with it, but in electric pyres.
The Story Behind: It is a belief in Hinduism that cremation in Manikarnika Ghat leads to moksha (complete liberation from the cycle of birth and death). There are a couple of legends about this ghat and almost all are associated with Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva.
One talks about Lord Vishnu digging a pit with his Chakra, the pit gets filled with his perspiration, and Lord Shiva’s earring falls in the pit while watching Lord Vishnu in action. (Mani means jewel in the earring and Karnam means ear).
Another talks about Goddess Parvati hiding her earring and asking Lord Shiva to look for it in the hope that the Lord would remain near her forever searching for the lost earring.
Yet another, says that Manikarnika is a Shakti Peeth and Sati Devi’s earing had fallen here.
Some sources also say that Manikarnik Ghat is named after the Rani of Jhansi, Laxmibhai.
This is the only other ghat that is dedicated to cremation rituals. There was a pyre burning in this ghat while another dead body arrived on a bamboo stretcher draped in shining yellow and red sheets of cloth amidst chants of ‘Ram naam satya hai’ (Truth is the name of Lord Rama.)
The Story Behind: Like Manikarnika, bodies cremated here are believed to attain moksha. This ghat is named after the mythical King Harishchandra, who worked at the cremation grounds for the establishment of truth and justice. Rishi Vishwamitra, a sage, asked the king to pay him a ritual fee. The king, known for his generosity gave up his entire kingdom, wealth, and riches but the sage was still not satisfied. Dejected, the king made his way to Kashi. Here he sold his wife and son into slavery and offered himself up for bondage. Years later his wife visited the cremation ground with their son’s dead body who had died from a snake bite. This was supposed to have been the final test for the King. The Gods rewarded him for his honesty, strength, and courage by giving back his throne, kingdom, and son.
It was still dark in the wee hours of that December morning as we stepped onto Daseshwamedh Ghat. The thought of sunrise over River Ganges was enough to get us out of bed and brave the cold at a temperature of 4-5 degrees centigrade. With teeth chattering and every exposed part of the skin going numb, we stood there looking around eagerly. A boat owner would come up asking if we wanted a boat ride like it had been happening every time we landed at the ghats.
And, soon someone approached, the requirement was discussed, the price negotiated, and we were rowing away into the darkness through the calm waters of River Ganges.
So focused we were on sunrise, that we failed to anticipate the fog that could shroud everything on a cold winter morning. As darkness gave way to morning light, we found ourselves engulfed in a sphere of haze where we could see nothing more than each other’s face. Forget the Sun, we couldn’t even see the ghats from the boat. The cold seeped into our bones as we realized our folly and the fact that we had wasted Rs.1200 on the boat for no reason.
We spent the other mornings walking the alleys and ghats, and visiting the Kashi Vishwanath temple. The latter I had to do twice, accompanying both my sisters on separate occasions. The less I say about the temple, the better it is. Not for my faith in the presiding deity of Lord Shiva, which I have enough, but the touts that seek out people like us, who have no patience or inclination to wait in the never-ending serpentine queues. The likes of us put up with them and their unreasonable demands only for a quick entry to the temple. Ironically, it’s people like us who encourage them and their unscrupulous activities – I plead guilty!
Our daily evening ritual at Varanasi was simple – watch Ganga Aarti and then binge on the street food. The evening Ganga Aarti or ceremonial worship of River Ganga is a well-orchestrated activity that is a must see at Varanasi. An elaborate make-shift arrangement is made every single day, which is again dismantled after the show is over.
A dedicated team from Gangotri Seva Samiti sets up seven elevated planks on which they sprinkle flower petals, mainly Marigold and Rose, making a gorgeous carpet out of them. Against each plank, they arrange several puja paraphernalia, including a layered brass lamp, flowers, incense sticks, conch shell, and so on. The team also manages the hundreds of devotees and tourists that gather every evening at Daseshwamedh Ghat – the place where the Aarti happens every evening.
We learn that the Aarti is performed by learned pundits of Vedas and Upanishads who are handpicked from institutes that impart Vedic Studies, like Benaras Hindu University (BHU).
The well-organized series of activities making for the Aarti left us stumped and we wondered how much of a practice might have gone into this. The Aarti began by blowing of conch shells and rhythmic chanting of holy mantras. Thereafter brass lamps, incense sticks, and other items were synchronously used one by one, as bhajans (hymns) played out in the background.
One can see the Aarti either by sitting on the stairs of the ghat, from the boats facing the ghat, or from the canopy of Ganga Sewa Nidhi office. We watched the Aarti from three different places on three different days. The first day was from a boat. The next day we decided to participate in Ganga Puja, which happens just before the start of the Aarti. We booked our slot by paying a fee at the Ganga Sewa Nidhi office. The Aarti Pundits conduct this Puja and it also guarantees a special seat right behind the Aarti platform.
We were also pleasantly surprised to find that a photographer had clicked our pictures while we conducted the Puja. His purpose was to sell the pictures to us, which he successfully did so at Rs. 20 per picture. We were delighted.
The food we binged on every evening consisted of a wide variety of snacks, from samosas to chats to pakoras and all kinds of stuff, deep fried in oil. Unhealthy, but who cares. We hardly ever do this in our city of Bangalore, rather there isn’t any scope to do so with the almost non-existent roadside food in the city. And, not to forget the sweetmeats – the pedas, the gulab jamuns, and of course the one and only Malaiyo.
My mouth waters as I remember these lip smacking food items and to think that I am a non-foodie….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.