Known by different names, Varanasi, Kashi or Benaras, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. In the words of famous American author Mark Twain, “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as old as all of them put together.” According to Hindu Mythology city was founded by Lord Shiva and it rests on the trident of Lord Shiva. The city has always intrigued me on account of it being one of the seven sacred cities and a spiritual place for Hindus.
My fascination found respite last year when I decided to visit Varanasi. It was a two-day trip to the holy city of Varanasi with my mother and sister. As the trip started, I was in for the first surprise; the Vande Bharat Express. Leaving Delhi at around 6 AM, the train was unlike any other train; extremely clean with comfortable chairs. The eight-hour ride to Varanasi was very smooth. After alighting at around 2 AM, we went straight to our hotel. The eagerness to explore the eternal city soon took over us and we boarded an e-rickshaw to reach our first destination Godalia Chowk – the nerve centre of the city. You will need to walk around to explore this place with narrow street like roads, amidst crazy traffic and nonstop honking.
As we reached our first stop the whole place seemed raucous, filthy, commercial, chaotic, ancient, yet appalling because of its unique way of life. There was a stream of pilgrims and tourists intermingling with the locals. We were hungry, and to satiate our appetite, we thought of devouring some street food. The city has some really unique and mouth-watering street food. Some of the delectable street food we tasted were Tamatar Chaat, Thandai, Baati Chokha, Malaiyo and many more. We also enjoyed the exotic flavours of the very famous Banarasi Paan. There are countless tea stalls at the Godalia Chowk and drinking tea in Kulhad adds a unique flavour to it. I noticed that people were full of life, sipping tea in kulhad carefree, engaging in conversations, very helping, kind and overzealously ready to tell their “Must do’s” in the city. Most locals have a huge sense of pride in their city, and why shouldn’t they. They proudly hail the name of their protector; HAR HAR MAHADEV!
Another thing that you cannot miss is the variety of shops selling the world-famous Banarasi Silk. Banarasi silk is a part of the rich cultural heritage of Varanasi. It is one of the prized possessions of the city. There is an old charm attached to buying a saree from the traditional saree makers. So we chose to exult in the pleasure of buying Banarasi saree from one of the stores.
Time to witness the mighty flow of the Holy Ganga. Along the banks of the Ganga, there are numerous ghats (piers). We visited the centrally located Dashashwamedh Ghat– the main ghat of the city and the most popular among all the ghats. On our way, I saw a multitude of devotees – locals, tourists from India and abroad – going to ghats to witness the famous Ganga Aarti (evening prayers offered to river Ganga). As we reached the ghat, the massive crowd was a sight to behold. The kind of devotion and excitement among the people to attend the Ganga Aarti is something that one must see and experience at least once in his/her lifetime. The ghat was brilliantly lit and stylishly decorated for the aarti. It begins at 7 PM but people start gathering around 5 PM. As the aarti began the conch shells were blown loudly in sync, illuminating diyas and bells in the hands of priests, amidst the smoke billowing into the sky. The aarti performed by priests in a well-choreographed manner creates the utmost divine atmosphere. There was a festivity in the air. A lot of burning incense, fire, ringing bells, loud music and the ambience was amazing with thousands watching from shores and nearby buildings.
After the aarti, we made an offering with diya into the holy waters of Ganga and watched several diyas floating as they made water glisten with their light. It was something I had always wanted to do.
As we roamed around the city a bit more I observed that city has its own distinctive, timeless character and the lanes and buildings still reflect the ethos of ancient India. Overall, the city gives the depiction of a bygone era. It is a city unlike any other. The city is not one with great malls, cafes, bars but the one with the Ganga, the ghats, the temples, and the overcrowded gallis. It is a city with a vibrant confluence of spirituality, knowledge, architecture, sculpture, handicrafts, music and artistic activities.
Varanasi is also known as the city of temples. So, the next day we visited the prominent temples of the city. There are numerous temples but the one which cannot be missed is the most famous Kashi Vishwanath temple. It is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It enshrines one of the Twelve Jyotirlingams of Shiva. On entering the temple through its little old stone steps I felt a sense of energy and power, a special feeling. Once inside the temple, I only had the time to give my offerings and got the chance to touch the lingam. I felt blessed that I had the chance to be there and the entire experience of walking through the corridors of the temple was indeed blissful.
Another significant temple of the city is Sankat Mochan temple, one of the most revered temples of Hindu God Hanuman. It is considered that temple was established by great Saint Tulsidas who wrote Ramcharitmanas here. After visiting some other temples like Durga Kund temple and Annapurna temple we headed back to the hotel to take our luggage. Around 2 PM, we left for Varanasi station to board our train for New Delhi. With smiles on our faces and contentment in our hearts, we left the city with a wish to visit again and again.
To me Varanasi is more than a destination to visit, it is an experience. This is the place where you can find some of the best moments that will stay etched in your memory for a lifetime. Jawaharlal Nehru describes Varanasi in an apt way,
“Benaras is old and hoary, decrepit, dirty, and yet much alive and full of strength of ages. Full of charm and wonder is Kashi, for in her eyes you can see the past of India, and in the murmur of her waters you can hear the voices of ages long gone by.”