Sunrise To Sunset: A Day In Circle of Life of Varanasi

Kumbh Mela Diaries: Varanasi

Call it Kashi, Benaras or Varanasi, it remains one of the oldest living cities of India and across the globe and the holiest of them all. The experience of the city is beyond words. 

It is believed that a dip in the Ganga river washes away one's sins.  All 16 different Hindu rituals from birth to death are conducted here. 

Rightly, legendary author Mark Twain, once wrote, ‘Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together’.

Even a year or number of years may be small to explore each and every place of Varanasi, just a day in this pilgrimage town can throw up surprises. 

A ghat in Varanasi. DH photo by Mrityunjay Bose

The name Varanasi comes from two rivers - Varuna nd Assi. 

There is something for everyone from dawn to dusk in this ultimate pilgrimage spot for Hindus for ages. 

The most important aspect of Varanasi is its temples, including the Shri Kashi Vishwanath temple, which is a Jotirlinga and the stretch of 84-odd ghats spread along six kms on the bank of the Ganga river. 

From sunrise to sunset, the day can be very eventful, but not to forget kullad wali chai, Benarasi paan, lassi, puri-subji, kachauri, mallaiyo, chaat, thandai, jalebi and much more. These would keep you busy and energetic. 

"Varanasi is very important. Every Hindu wants to visit Kashi once in his or her lifetime," says Kunal Rakshit of Experience Varanasi, one of the most-experienced tour guides of the city. 

If one asks for two most unique experiences its boating along the Varanasi ghats in the morning and evening. While morning offers one of the best sunrises in India, the evenings are for the illuminated temples and aarties especially the Ganga Aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, a beautiful fusion of music and devotion, which mesmerises one and all. 

Sunrise in Varanasi. DH photo by Mrityunjay Bose

A few years ago, a collective initiative, Subah-e-Banaras was started which involved traditional aartis, Vedic chants, music and yoga at the Assi Ghat.

"The rising Sun, the golden Ganga river and the glittering ghats are unmatched," says veteran writer and journalist Sumant Mishra. 

Rakshit, who is conducting a group of travel writers as part of the Kumbh Mela 2019, said most people who visit Varanasi compulsorily visit the Shri Kashi Vishwanath temple, Kal Bhairav temple, Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple and the Durga temple.

Most of the ghats are bathing and puja ceremony ghats, while two ghats - the Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat - are used exclusively as cremation sites. 

Most Varanasi ghats were rebuilt after 1700 AD, when the city was part of Maratha empire. The patrons of current ghats are Marathas, Scindias, Holkars, Bhonsles and Peshwas - and the names and architecture reflects it. 

The Assi Ghat, Dashashwamedh Ghat, Manikarnika Ghat, Panchganga Ghat and Adi Keshav Ghat are the most popular. In fact, the Shri Kashi Vishwanath temple of Lord Shiva is located near the Dashashwamedh Ghat. 


Ganga Aarti. DH photo by Mrityunjay Bose

Many ghats are associated with legends or mythologies while many ghats are privately owned. "This is what the city is… you have to appreciate each and every structure to be part of it," says boatman Raju as he ferries the group to the Dashashwamedh Ghat for the evening aarti from near the lit up Malviya bridge.

Asked how much time it takes to reach the point of aarti, he said: "Do not worry, we will be there on time, just enjoy and see the lit up ghats as we move ahead." 

The Ganga river is said to have its origins in the tresses of Lord Shiva and in Varanasi, it expands to the mighty river that we know of. The city is a centre of learning and civilisation for over 3000 years. 

With Sarnath, the place where Buddha preached his first sermon after enlightenment, just 10 km away, it assumes more importance. It is also a pilgrimage place for Jains, as Varanasi is believed to be the birthplace of Parsvanath, the 23rd Tirthankar. Vaishnavism and Shaivism have co-existed in Varanasi harmoniously.

Kumbh Mela. DH photo by Mrityunjay Bose

Several major figures of the Bhakti movement were born in Varanasi, including Kabir and Ravidas. Guru Nanak visited Varanasi for Maha Shivaratri in 1507, a trip that played a large role in the founding of Sikhism.

With a number of temples, Annie Besant chose Varanasi as the home for her Theosophical Society and Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, to build the Benares Hindu University, the biggest university campus in Asia. 

Ayurveda too originated in Varanasi and is believed to be the basis of modern medical sciences. Maharshi Patanjali, the preceptor of Ayurveda and Yoga, was also affiliated with Varanasi, the holy city.

A sadhu in river Ganga. PTI Photo

Varanasi is also famous for its trade and commerce, especially for the finest silks and gold and silver brocades, since early days.

Varanasi has also been a great centre of learning for ages. Varanasi is associated with promotion of spiritualism, mysticism, Sanskrit, yoga, Hindi and honored authors such as Tulsidas, the famous saint-poet who wrote Ramcharitmanas, and novelist Premchand. In fact, Tulsidas also founded the Akhada culture in the banks of Ganga and the Swaminath Akhada stands testimony to the fact.

"We are proud that Tulsidas ji founded the culture of wrestling in Varanasi," said Mewa Pehlwan, the chief of the akhada. 

Many exponents of dance and music have come from Varanasi. Ravi Shankar, the internationally renowned sitar maestro and Shehnai player Ustad Bismillah Khan, are all sons of the blessed city or have lived here for a major part of their lives.

A tea in earthern pot (kullad) is something one needs after a boat ride here and then a Benarasi pan - reminding of the the famous son 'Khaike Paan Banaraswala' in Don in which superstar Amitabh Bachchan essays the main role. Lassi, mallaiyo, puri-sabji and kachori-sabji cannot be missed in Varanasi. 

Besides, the handicrafts and Benarasi sarees are something that attracts lot of people across India. "These are some of the finest sarees," says Pradeep Kumar Yadav of Deen Dayal Hasthakala Sankul, a trade facilitation centre. 

The visit was part of the Uttar Pradesh Kumbh Conclave 2019.

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