Varanasi- Exploring The Holy City Like A Local
- October 13, 2020
- Tanushekha Agnihottri
Varanasi is a city that holds the treasures of the past with the utmost diligence. And when I say treasures of the past, I mean the bits from Lord Shiva’s existence.
As I entered the streets of Varanasi again, a wave of nostalgia encompassed me. These are the lanes where I had spent the majority of my elementary school days. This city gave me the immense joy of teenage.
The first glimpse of Varanasi could be overwhelming for you. It gives you feelings of claustrophobia, but if you look beyond the crowd of Varanasi, this could be the place of ultimate nirvana. One of the most sacred rivers in Hindu mythology, Ganga, flows through Varanasi.
It is no wonder that you might bump into a foreigner at the Ganga ghat who has left everything behind to settle down in Varanasi or someone who keeps coming back to this place every year religiously. For them, nothing could be more surreal than the vibes of this holy city.
Varanasi lies between the river Varuna and Asi stream hence named after them. It was formerly known as Kashi and fondly known as Banaras. The word Kashi translates into the City of Lights, and the city lives up to its name.
Every year Varanasi draws millions of pilgrims to dip into the holiest Ganga and visit famous temples like Kaashi Vishwanath, Durgakund and Sankatmochan. You would find temples lined up by the roads, streets and literally everywhere throughout the city.
One of the temples called Tulsi Manas Mandir is situated at the same place where Goswami Tulsidas composed the ancient Hindu Epic Ramcharita Manasa. The walls of temples adorn the excerpts and scenes from the epic. There must be hundreds of temples in the city with such unique significance. You will never be bored with listening to the stories behind the temples and their deities.
Impact of Pandemic
The tourists and the locals together maintain the vibrance of Varanasi. The pandemic has slowed down tourism in the city. The temples opened up again only a few days back with the majority of them not allowing people to come closer to the shrine.
One of the major attractions of the city, the flamboyant Ganga Aarti is set to resume from Oct 15 2020. For now, only two priests are performing the ritual at Dasashewamedh ghat. You might have seen photographs of Ganga Aarti on the internet, but the live experience immerses you in the divine aura.
People of Varanasi party in a way that we never thought would be fun. Watch them dancing their hearts out at a festival celebration like Mahashivaratri, Durga Puja, Sri Krishna Janamashtami and even on Holi. Though the pandemic has affected their spirits this year, most of them are hopeful for a grand 2021.
The boat guy who ferried me through the ghats was quite upset about the restrictions imposed by the government in light of current pandemic for the celebration of festivals. “Festivals are the peak time for us in terms of earnings. No celebrations would mean no tourists and no income for us,” he told me with a heavy heart.
Strikingly, the river Ganga runs from south to north in the direction of Lord Shiva, and its bend resembles the crescent moon on his forehead. Varanasi has more than 80 ghats along the bank of river Ganga that boasts the architecture of the past. There are even forts of kings that once ruled the city, and till today people continue to live in houses as old as a hundred years. The ever increasing human inhibition resulted in a maze of buildings that go as far as you can see.
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River Ganga at the Dawn
I started my three days tour of the city with a boat ride at the time of dawn. I expected deserted stairs of the ghats. But much to my surprise, the ghats were crowded, even the pandemic could not stop people from early morning gatherings at the ghats). In the pre-COVID world, mornings at ghat used to be extravagant with Subah-ae-Banaras. A cultural program conducted every morning by the bank of river Ganga. The sounds of flute and other classical instruments put all the demons at peace.
I asked a boat guy to take me for a ride, the best way to escape the chaos of the ghats. Though some of them remain quiet and calm but floating on the waters is much more peaceful.
Once the sun starts to dazzle, you would obviously crave for some food. The lanes of Varanasi are equally famous for its food as its breadth. Yes, the lanes of the old Banaras are so narrow that you might need to shrink your shoulders to pass through it. But interestingly these lanes are the foundation of one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world.
Banaras has real authentic flavours of Indian cuisines for you. In particular, the morning breakfast on the streets of Varanasi is my favourite. Though not healthy, something worth your guilty pleasures. Don’t miss the morning tea with toast and butter & cream at Lakshmi Chai Vala near old Kashi Vishwanath Temple. This shop is around 50 years old and has been run by several generations so far. The toasts are prepared conventionally on a charcoal sigdi, and when served with cream, each bite would melt in your mouth.
As the clock hits 7 in the morning, the nukkad shops start to prepare Kachoris that is served hot along with the delicious curry. And then who would even dare to miss piping hot Jalebis prepared in desi ghee. Have you tried them with curd? Absolutely yummy !! In the cantonment area, Ram Mishthan Bhandaar is a must-go place for the morning breakfast.
BrijRama Palace is situated just beside the banks of the Ganga and offers a great view along with good food.
Lip Smacking Snacks
You can indulge more awesomeness in the evening when streets of Varanasi lit up with dozens of cafes and local shops serving Lassi, Chaat, Golgappas, momos and much more. Blue lassi in Kunj Gali, Lucy’s Heritage cafe near Govind Ghat and Kashi Chaat Bhandaar near Girjaghar are places not to be missed for lip-smacking food.
Sarnath is situated just 15 KM away from Varanasi. It is one of the four religiously significant places for Buddhists (others being Bodhgaya, Lumbini, and Kushinagar). Gautam Buddha delivered his first sermon in Sarnath. The main attractions of the place are Dhamek Stupa complex that has the majority of excavated ruins and Dhamek Stupa, the archaeological museum and a few temples.
The Thai temple and monastery has the renowned 80 foot-tall stone Buddha statue, the tallest Buddha Statue in India. If you’re someone who couldn’t survive the hustle of Varanasi city, then Sarnath is your escapade. A peaceful tiny little establishment that certainly sets itself apart from the chaos of Varanasi.
Summing Up Varanasi
Varanasi is known for its temples, Ganga ghats, the world-renowned Banaras Hindu University, the tempting cuisine and attitude of people. The kids plunging into the river, the aghoris smoking chillums, the vendors selling soul soothing tea, artists showing off their skills on the ghats, people in colourful attires, the fading sound of the temple bells, the chaotic traffic, the locals hurling slangs, not in anger but love, the silence in the corners of the ghats, and the people celebrating their nirvana. That’s Varanasi, the holy city that is drunk in divine yet so full of life and vibrant.
The city that celebrates life and death equally. And when you see so much happening around you, you either love it or hate it. There is no in-between. I recommend aiming to do little and let the place work its magic on you.
The Serene Ganga Ghat- https://unsplash.com/photos/OPWM488DfeQ
The Street- https://unsplash.com/photos/MQXXPYJX3Cc
Feature Image- https://unsplash.com/photos/rJcakYQpxkw