Destinations - India Heritage

Varanasi 1 – Lost in Transition!

Written by Poorna & Brinda

We were listening to Finance Minister Jaitley talk about “Clean Ganga & Varanasi” in his budget speech on last saturday. That’s when it stuck us that a post on this fascinating city was overdue. Through these wanderings we will try and capture the essence of the city.

 We were in Varanasi aka Benares aka Kashi in Oct 2011. This was part of a long road trip Khajuraho, Orchha, Lucknow, Mandu, Maheshwar, Udaipur etc…..

Lost in transition? Yes, this is the caption of the story. This is what happens when you reach Varanasi which is “One of the oldest continuously lived cities in the world”. The first experience is one of getting lost in a nowhere land. Amid chaos. Amid dust and dirt.

We leave Allahabad after a quick visit to the Ghat and Ananad Bhavan which we recounted in An Afternoon in Allahabad. Getting out of Allahabad town is a task in itself even as we manoeuvre through narrow roads in peak hour traffic. It is late in the evening when we hit the highway. We are on the G T Road or Grand Trunk road which was one of the longest roads in Asia connecting Dacca with Kabul. At present, NH 2  as it is known now is one of the busiest stretches of Golden Quadrilateral. We could see hordes of two wheelers occupying the left side of the road and the right side being the monopoly of the truckers. We are left to manoeuvre between the two. In between you have “cattle”to take care of ! 

We leave the highway and enter bypass road to Varanasi around 7.45 PM. It is dark. There are no street lights. We are immediately greeted by a big pot hole. Next comes the traffic. There is utter chaos on the road. We had heard about Varanasi’s chaotic traffic and were also forewarned. But this was only to be driven in and believed! Driving in Bengaluru seemed to be a pleasure! From here on to it takes us another 45 minutes of driving through the worst traffic and narrow lanes to our hotel which is in Assi ghat . We decide not to take out our Scorpio for the remaining part of our stay and commute in Auto-rickshaw.

We get a river facing room in one of the loveliest hotels in Varanasi – Ganges River view – and drop dead after an excellent dinner. We want to take it leisurely next day and get up late. We are to spend three days in Varanasi.  The first thing we do is to get a guide. The hotel folks arrange one and Mukesh Tripathi joins us in our exploration of Varanasi for next three days.

Varanasi

The panoramic view of Ganga from the hotel

Varanasi

Another view of the river. You can see the bridge over the river at far end.

Varanasi, Assi Ghat

A typical scene on a ghat. This is Assi ghat the farthest ghat in Varanasi. This is just opposite our hotel. The water levels had increased submerging the steps leading to the river. Once water recedes and steps are cleaned, one can walk from one ghat to another – there are around 85 ghats on Ganga in Varanasi – all along the river.

Varanasi

Sadhu and his friend. This guy was staying permanently outside the hotel and many times we have noticed this monkey with him. It is giving him a service of removing the lice from his hair!

After a leisurely breakfast, we meet Mukesh, our guide to chalk out the program for the next three days. Winter has not set in and it is hot outside. Exploring a city like Varanasi is a challenge and is likely to take days. We have three days to experience the place. We give him our list of things to do

Ghats
Ganga Aarthi
Cremation ghats
Sunset cruise
Sunrise cruise
Temples
Sanchi
Mirzapur for carpets
Banaras Hindu University
Local cuisine, Thandai and Pan
Silk sarees
Aghoras!
Ramnagar fort
Ramlila @ Ramnagar
Ustad Bismillah Khan’s house

Mukesh is surprised at our list. Since it is hot, we plan to start the day with shopping silks!! In the evening we are to visit Vishwanatha Temple, go for sun set cruise, watch Ganga Aarthi, drink Banarasi chai, Blue Lassi followed by eating the Banarasi dinner and pan.

“Banaras” or “Kashi” as locals calls it, is a city that should be savoured slowly. It is a city either you like or dislike at one go. You also need loads of patience to explore it. Yes, like any other Uttar Pradesh city, it is not clean, crowded. If you can give a margin to the filth and traffic, you will start liking the place. There is energy. There is spirit among the people who call themselves as “Banarasis” whether they are rickshaw pullers, merchants or rich. It is an art of living, both passionate and carefree. Banarasis call it as “masti”, “mauj” and “Phakkarpan”. It is enjoyment of life without ostentation. Most of the pleasures are simple – morning bath in Ganges, clean and plain clothing, simple “Puri and Chole” for breakfast. A small parcel of delicate milky sweets, a mouth full of pan – betel nuts and other condiments wrapped in the tenderest and most succulent green pan leaves, a tall frothy glass of Thandai with a dose of bhang – these are the finest pleasure of the day. In the evening there will be clang of temple bells and perhaps, later some music. It is an ambience of urbanity, good living and culture all which comes to be synonymous with the word “Banarasi”. Banaras is a place where living and dying is celebrated. A city where death is celebration, where people come to die for in belief of obtaining moksaha.

It is mid afternoon when we decide to step out. We catch hold of an auto-rickshaw. The auto-rickshaws in Banaras are six seaters!! There are two baby seats on either side of the driver and we see five people comfortably travelling in an auto-rickshaw. This is the only place where we saw ingenuity of having a seat next to driver – we did not see anywhere else in UP.

We hop in and Mukesh takes us to a big shop which has variety of stuff made of silk – sarees, salwar suits, bedspreads, wall hangings etc. The work is exquisite and intricate. The colours blow us off our feet. Brinda is very pleased and start short listing sarees and stoles to start with. Laxman, the owner is an enthusiastic bloke and is willing to show the latest designs woven in the factory. Some sarees with zari work and delicate are very expensive. The crowning glory happens to be the beautiful silk bed spreads. They are astonishingly elegant. However, we have to be content in just looking at them as they are exorbitant. The wall hangings are nice too. Finally Brinda picks up sarees for her, her mother, mother-in-law, sister and for whole family!! 

Varanasi

An array of silks!

Varanasi

Brinda busy in selecting…..

Varanasi

Sarees – Different hues….Vibrant colours

Varanasi

The crowning glory – Silk bedspreads. Notice the rich colours and exquisite design

Varanasi

Another intricate design

We ask Laxman to show their factory and he takes us through narrow streets to the place where the weaving happens. Group of youngsters are busy in weaving intricate sarees.

Varanasi

The factory where sarees are weaved

Varansi

The narrow street leading to the factory. Varanasi is a labyrinth of these narrow allies.

We bid good-bye to Laxman and his weavers and head to a carpet showroom. Unfortunately, this happens to be a Kashmiri carpet shop which we are not interested. We now move to the place where heart of Varanasi is – Kashi Vishwanatha Temple. We are now to experience the legendary traffic chaos of traffic in Banaras firsthand. There is absolutely no road discipline as everyone jostles for space. In the bargain, we are stuck like a duck for an hour. We pat ourselves for our decision of resting Scorpio and take the auto-rickshaw.

Varanasi

Traffic chaos. A common scene in Varanasi

Varanasi

Varanasi

The ubiquitous pan shop. You see them everywhere. Pan chewing is a favourite pass time in Banaras and part of Banarasi culture. As we wait for traffic to clear, Mukesh gets us a pan to chew!

The auto driver somehow squeezes past the traffic and brings us to the chowraha or the round about close to the temple. We walk a small distance of 300 meters before Mukesh asks us to enter a narrow street.

Varanasi

Finally we arrive at Chowraha from where we walk to the Ghat for sunset cruise and Ganga Arati.

Our journey in the labyrinth of Varanasi starts now!

Travel Information

Getting there

By Air – Varanasi is well connected to all major cities in India by air.

By Train – Varanasi has three railway stations – Varanasi, Varanasi Cantonment and Mughal Sarai. Mughal Sarai is a major junction on Delhi – Kolkata route. It is around 15 KMs from Varanasi. The city is well connected to different parts of India by rail network.

By Bus – Though state transport has bus service to different cities in Uttar Pradesh, it is badly managed. Not recommended.

Stay Options

Varanasi has options to suit every budget. You have swanky palace turned hotels to free guest houses. We stayed in Ganges View Hotel, a Heritage hotel. A charming little hotel with superb view of the river.

Other Tips

  • We will share as we start exploring the city in this series.
  • One need patience to explore the city. This is not a luxury trip. This will be an experience of life time. True India in its real avatar.
  • Apart from patience, you need energy to walk. Varanasi is a city that can be explored by walking alone. Especially the allies around the Vishwanatha temple.
  • There is no sight seeing here. Whatever you see here is a sight to behold! It is experience.
  • Leave your reservations once you enter Varanasi. The adage “Be a Roman in Rome” holds true to this place – “Be a Banarasi in Banaras”.

Glossary

Ghat – The bank of the river with steps for people to take holy bath.

Pan – A mixture of betel nut, spices with Gulkand (Sweet preserve of Rose petals)  rolled inside a betel leaf.

Thandai – Milk shake with Almonds and other spices

Chai – Spicy Indian tea

Lassi – Sweet yoghurt

Aarti – Hindu ritual religious ritual of worship, in which light from wicks soaked in ghee (purified butter) or camphor is offered to one or more dieties

Puri and Chole – An Indian snack 

Saree – A draping garment worn by women in South Asia

Bhang – Crushed opium leaves

Next Post in the seriesExploring the labyrinth of Kashi!

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About the author

Poorna & Brinda

We are Brinda and Poorna from Bengaluru, the “Silicon city” or “Garden city” of India.

We travel together. We caught the travel bug 20 years back. On our honey moon, we traveled over the sea, in the train, by bus and in an aircraft! Our adventures probably started in that year. It continues, ever since.

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