Located on the banks of Ganga, a journey to Varanasi means witnessing the culture of one of the oldest living cities in the world. Varanasi is also described as the Spiritual capital of India. Varanasi has also been declared 'The City of Music' by UNESCO in 2015. Varanasi was advocated as an ideal example of India's intangible Cultural heritage as a combination of a temple city with its rich tradition in music.
Also known as Benares and Kashi, it is also one of the holiest cities in Hinduism. With a recorded history of 3500 years, Varanasi draws its name from two tributaries of Ganges, Varna and Aasi, which flow through the holy city. According to legend, Kashi was founded by Lord Shiva and was his favourite abode.
In one verse of the ancient scripture Skanda Purana, Shiva says, “The three worlds form one city of mine, and Kasi is my royal palace therein.”
English writer and traveller, Mark Twain was highly impressed by Varanasi. He wrote, “the city looks older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together." No one could have said it better.
Pilgrims come to this holy city to wash away their sins in the sacred waters of mother Ganges. They also come here to cremate their loved ones. Last but not the least, some want to die here hoping to attain salvation and liberation from the cycle of life and death. There are 2600 temples in the winding streets of Varanasi.
On 4th March 2023, a day after Ekadashi, me, my wife and daughter were in Varanasi, sitting on the banks of Mother Ganga at the Manikarna Ghat, known as Maha Shamshan. This is the only burning ghat in India where cremation takes place round the clock.
Holi in this holy city was to be celebrated on 7th March but we were to witness a Holi of different kind, a lifetime experience.
On 4th March, Varanasi celebrates Masaan Holi. Aghori sadhus from all over the land had gathered at Manikarna ghat to play Holi. And what a Holi it was. They were picking ash from the burning pyre and smearing it all over the body. Some local enthusiasts and tourists also joined them. They were singing Maha Shamshan Holi songs and dancing with gay abundance.
The legend has it that that a day after colourful Ekadashi, Lord Shiva was coming back after completing a marital custom with Devi Parvati, he went to the Mahashamshan or Manikarnika Ghat. There he had played Chita Bhasm Holi with ghosts, spirits and invisible energies!
The ascetics and saints of Kashi started playing Holi, keeping this legend in mind. It’s unique and shatters every belief you had about how to live. One lesson that you learn here is, death is not a great tragedy but not living life fully is.
People from all over the world come to Varanasi to visit the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. The temple has now got a new look due to efforts of the Prime Minister, Narender Modi, who is also member parliament from this city.
A corridor now connects the temple with mother Ganga. Kashi Vishwanath is one of the twelve Jyotilingams of Lord Shiva. There is also a Shakti Peeth representing mother goddess. Other important temples are Sankat Mochan temple and Ma Durga temple.
Locals believe in the legend that you must first visit Bhairav Nath temple before going to Kashi Vishwanath temple. Bhairav Nath is considered Kotwal of Banaras and you cannot visit the city without his permission.
Our visit to Varanasi was not pre-planned. We had almost finalised our plan to visit Ooty, Kannur, and Wayanad. One fine evening, me and my wife were watching a programme on Varanasi. My wife sighed and said, how I wish, we could visit this sacred city. Shiva’s abode is really close to my heart. OK, if you desire, we can cancel south and go to Varanasi. Yes, was her reply, I would love it. Looks like, lord Bhairavnath had given us green signal to visit Varanasi.
I told my daughter to book our air tickets and guest house in Varanasi in the first week of march. Nothing doing, she said, I am coming along, She said. This is a pilgrimage I want to take both of you to. I gladly agreed.
The holy city is not only sacred to Hindus but also to followers of Buddhism and Jainism. Lord Buddha, after attaining enlightenment, delivered his first sermon at Sarnath, just 10 kilometre away from Banaras, announcing birth of Buddhism. Also a pilgrimage place for Jains, Varanasi is believed to be the birthplace of Parsvanatha, the twenty-third Tirthankara. A Jain temple, dedicated to lord Parasnath is just about three kilometres from Kashi Vishwanath temple.
Varanasi, Kashi in ancient times, has always been original hub of spirituality, art & culture, music and commerce. It is also called gateway to salvation. It was here only on the ghats of mother Ganges that saint, poet Tulsidas wrote Ramcharitra Manas in Awadhi language. Original Ramayana was written by Valmiki in Sanskrit.
Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, and great Shehnai player, Bismillah khan owe their origin to Banaras. Sant Ravi Das and Kabir belong to this holy place. Annie Besant chose Varanasi as the home for her ‘Theosophical Society’ and Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, instituted Benares Hindu University here ,the biggest University in Asia.
Ayurveda is said to be originated at Varanasi and is believed to be the basis of modern medical sciences such as Plastic surgery, Cataract and Calculus operations. Maharshi Patanjali, the preceptor of Ayurveda and Yoga, was also affiliated with Varanasi, the holy city. Varanasi is also famous for its trade and commerce, especially for the finest silks and gold and silver brocades since the early days.
Varanasi is a city of ghats. More than 80 ghats dominate skyline of the holy city. The only way to get best view of ghats is to hire a motorboat in the evening. This is exactly what we did. It serves two purposes. You get unparallel view of ghats and then, as the dusk is approaching, your boat is docked in front of Dashashwamegh ghat for evening Ganga Arti.
Our boat was joined by thousands of other boats to soak in this divine festive atmosphere. Tiny candle lit paper Diya’s with flowers float across Ganges carrying prayers of devotees. As the Arti begins, atmosphere becomes eclectic. The air is filled with prayers, chants, and music. Sounds of conks, cymbals, drums and bells vibrate in the atmosphere as burning oil lamps are thrust skyward in a rhythmic movement.
Another good time to visit ghats and the river is at dawn in the morning when first rays of sun kiss them. Atmosphere at the ghats in the morning is calm, peaceful and divine with Ganges flowing in its full majesty. Devotees gather at the ghats to offer Pooja to the rising sun, offering sacred Ganges water. You enjoy this magnetic scene best while having a boat ride along the river.
According to Jawahar Lal Nehru, “The Ganga is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilization, ever-changing, ever-flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga.”
Varanasi represents spiritual soul of India. It has not changed much since medieval times, except superficially. It’s crumbling, loud and rushed. Old men taking dips in the Ganges, boys flying kites, mundan ceremonies taking place side by side the burning bodies are everyday sights. Let us say, Varanasi celebrates life and death every moment.
When you move through the winding, turning and twisting and narrow alleys or Gullies of this city, deferent smells of incense, flowers and cow dung can be over bearing. Traffic in the city is chaotic and noise deafening. When my daughter complained, answer from one of locals was, Subah Banaras, Sham Banaras, 24 ghante jam Banaras, meaning, whether it is morning or evening, there is 24 hour jam in Banaras.
Locals here are quick witted and humorous. Well, I agree, even this chaos is part of experience. But as you reach the ghats and look at mighty Ganges, a sense of peace and calm prevails over you.
Varanasi is not known for spirituality, art and culture only, it is also a foodie’s paradise. And of course a visit to this place is incomplete without relishing a Banarasi Paan, humming, Khaike Paan Banaras Wala, Khul Jai band Akal ka tala. This brings to your memory Bollywood mystery thriller Don, where Amitabh Bacchan sizzles to the tune of this song chewing Banarasi Paan.
In the remake of Don, Shahrukh Khan also dances to the intensity of same song enjoying Banarasi Paan. But do you know Shahrukh actually visited Varanasi for the promotion of movie, When Harry met Sejal. It was Imtiaz Ali film. Not only that, but he also relished here chilled Mitha Banarasi Paan at Tamboolam Paan Bhandar. This delicious Paan costs just 40 rupees and is worth the money spent. By the way, all three of us, me, my wife, and daughter enjoyed the same Paan at the same shop.
Street food is an essential part of Indian cuisine and Banaras is known for it. Pure vegetarian food, cooked in desi ghee, reflects spiritual culture of this ancient city. Let us start with Kaleva, the morning meal. It is Kachori and Subji. Kachori is of two type, Big kachori stuffed with mixture of lentils and small Kachori stuffed with potato mixture. You have hot, sizzling jalebi to elevate level of your meal. And now, you have two options to finish your breakfast. A hot glass of strong tea or Banarasi lassi, topped with Rabri in a kulhad, an earthen pot. What a heavenly way to start your day.
Makhan Malaiyyo or Nimish is a popular winter street dessert. Milk froth is first exposed to dew drops to whip up creamy froth and then flavoured with saffron and cardamoms and garnished with pistachios and almonds.
The dish is Served in kulhads, and it’s creamy froth literally melts in your mouth. Benares has its own version of this famous chaat, called Tamator chaat. which is made with tomatoes. It is a spicy preparation in which tomatoes are mixed with Hing, pounded ginger, green chillies and spices with the addition of boiled potatoes.
Of course, how can you forget Thandai, a must drink in Shiva’s land. If you are looking for thandai with bhang, some shops do arrange it. Whether it is legal, I do not know. Other famous chats of this city include Choora Matar, Dahi chutney wale golgappe and Baati Chokha.
Moksha Dham Kashi, called Varanasi grows on you slowly. You may call the city surreal. In a sense, it is sublime, complex and also chaotic but it touches your heart and soul. Looks like, it is blessed place.
Since it is considered, gateway to salvation, some make it their abode in their last days. Moksha Dham guest house is one such place. Bhairav Nath Shukla is its manager, who has seen more than 15000 deaths in the last fifty years.
Five gem of advice from those awaiting death:
1. Resolve all conflicts before you go.
2. Karma will always catch up. Take decisions consciously.
3. Acceptance is liberation.
4. Live with integrity. It makes going away easier.
5. Try being kind to others. It really hurts in the end otherwise.