It was just past sunrise. The water in the river Ganges was shimmering like a sequined stole in bright morning sunlight. The horizon was dotted with silhouettes on one side, and striking, bright colours on the other. Our boat was gently being guided through seemingly placid waters of Ganges. Our boatman, a confident young man who had grown up on the ghats of Varanasi, was sharing what he knew about his city. Varanasi, he said, has been named after its 80 ghats. The first ghat in the sequence is Varun Ghat, and the 80th ghat is Assi (80) Ghat; Varun and Assi together led to the name, Varanasi.
River Ganges is the soul of Varanasi (also variously referred to as Kashi and Banaras). Besides the now-institutionalised Ganga Arti every evening, another must-do here is a sunrise boat ride.
The sights include normal morning rituals like locals bathing, women washing clothes, kids doing yoga, monks immersed deep in prayers, and wrestlers wrestling; and fixtures of the city like colourful buildings bathed in the golden light of the morning sun, temples of all shapes and sizes, hotels – both modest and opulent, an unending array of steps leading the ghats, boats – both, big and small, and many more. If you are looking for beauty of nature, you must check out the myriad hues of Ganges in the morning.
Like the leaning tower of Pisa, there’s a leaning temple just past Manikarnika ghat, called Matri-rin temple. This temple was built by a son, as a pay-off of all his debts to his mother. When he went and told his mother that here is a full and final settlement of all the debts he owed to her, she came and had a look at the temple. And, the temple partially sank as a result of mother’s curse for his son’s arrogance.
It is considered a holy city. In fact, 2 ghats – Raja Harishchandra and Manikarnika are cremation ghats. Legend has it that anyone whose last rites are performed in one of these 2 ghats, his soul goes straight to heaven.
If you thought Varanasi only offered River Ganges, that isn’t so. In fact, less than an hour’s drive away lies Sarnath. Here, Gautam Buddha gave his first sermon.
For heritage hunters, the place offers a lot. The archeological site has Dhamekh Stupa and myriad ruins of ancient Buddhist monasteries. The venue of the first sermon is now the Sri Lankan Temple. Besides this, there are other beautiful structures like the Japanese temple, the Tibetan temple, the Thai temple, etc.
Varanasi – Food, anyone?
Varanasi is also a gourmand’s delight. Once here, you can’t give the poori-bhaaji breakfast a miss. The mithais (sweetmeats) here are considered the tastiest, and chaat here is finger licking good. Sweet Lassi (a yogurt-based shake) is to die for, especially if you go to one of the famous lassi outlets. And, in season’s time (summers), you’ll find countless varieties of mangoes here.
Varanasi also boasts remarkable handicrafts, especially silk. Banarasi sarees have always been famous across the Indian community. The weavers here have always woven magic in silk.
The city is also noted for its pre-eminent place in Indian Classical music. Music department of Banaras Hindu University is replete with teachers for whom music has been a way of life for generations. It is the seat of famous Banaras Gharana, which has carved its name over centuries in Indian Classical Vocal, Tabla and Sarangi.
One thing though – the city roads are pathetic. Even distances as short as a couple of kilometres may take around half hour to navigate. Considering that the city is on the itinerary of most foreigners visiting India, I seriously wish the local authorities do something about it, and soon.
Despite the obvious lack of infrastructure, a 2-3 day trip to this city will definitely have something to offer for any traveller of any age group. It is sure to tickle your senses and leave you asking for more.