A city as old as time. A place where death is celebrated; the land of the Naga sadhus and the Aghoris; where the Ganges purifies believers of their sins; where people go to breathe their last, for it is believed that dying here promises moksha. Varanasi, a city with a history dating back to over 5,000 years, is said to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Named in reference to the confluence of the rivers Varuna and Assi, Varanasi’s ghats are timeless! Varanasi, also known as Banaras, is home to all that is magical and mystical. One can’t help but encounter a variety of experiences here. Here’s what you can do if you only have 48 hours to spare...
I decided to take in the best of Varanasi by staying at its oldest property — the Brijrama Palace Hotel — this is nearly three centuries old, but has been recently restored and converted into a heritage property. I was picked up by the hotel concierge and taken to Raj Ghat to begin my Varanasi experience. Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India. That the best way to see the ghats was on one of the ‘bajras’ (traditional boats) was something that I was aware of, but that these boats could be as luxurious as I wanted them was a revelation. An affable guide narrated milestones from the history of Banaras in the 15 minutes that it took to float from Raj Ghat to Munshi Ghat. I quickly freshened up at the hotel, ready to begin the first part of the trip — the temple circuit.
Timings: 9 am - 10 am
I started my spiritual sojourn with divine blessings — a trip to the magnificent Durga Temple. Constructed in the 18th century by a Bengali queen and built in the North Indian nagara style of architecture, the temple is painted red with ochre and terracotta to match the colours of the presiding deity, the goddess of strength and power. The next stop was the Sankatamochan Temple, built by Tulsidas. Located a little off the Assi Ghat, the temple was renovated by educationist and freedom fighter Pt. Madan Mohan Malviya (the founder of the BHU) in the early 1900s.
Timings: 10 am - 12 noon
Legend has it that Brahma once weighed Kashi against heaven. And despite heaven being where gods reside, Kashi rose upward! It is said that Kashi is the epicentre of all the knowledge contained in the universe. The next logical stop in the city were the haloed grounds of the Banaras Hindu University. It also has the new Vishwanath Temple, and the Bharat Kala Museum that has a collection of over one lakh artefacts, Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, pictures, manuscripts, Mughal miniatures, brocade textiles, contemporary art forms and bronze statues from first to 15th century. Pottery, metal craft, ivory goods, jewellery, terracotta beads. A rare collection of Gujarati, Rajasthani and Pahari miniature paintings are also on display.
Timings: 12 noon - 2 pm
I headed back to the hotel at lunchtime to be a part of the rich gastronomic sojourn that is the Banarasi thali. Nine hearty dishes, including Banarasi dum aloo, matar nimona (mashed pea curry) and ghuguni (Bengal gram curry), along with crispy, colourful sago papads seduced my palate; the last course was, of course, the world-famous Banarasi paan.
Next, I decided to indulge in the material pursuits that Varanasi is famous for — Banarasi silks and ornate jewels. Shops in Vishwanath Lane, Thateri Bazaar, Chowk and Godowilia left me spoilt for choice while an array of textiles: neelambari (with a blue warp), ring-paar (a sari that can pass through a ring), shwetaambari (cotton on a white background) were flashed in front of me. Post the shopping spree, I explored the by-lanes of Varanasi.
Timings: 2.15 pm - 5 pm
Apparently, Varanasi declined during three centuries of Muslim occupation, beginning in 1194. Many of the city’s Hindu temples were destroyed, and learned scholars fled to other parts of the country. The next stop was a destination that is testimony to this part of history. Kashi Vishwanath Temple stems from the belief that Varanasi is the only place where Yama has no jurisdiction. This is why it is believed that embracing death here, or being cremated here, or performing the last rites here ensures a straight passage to the heavens, and breaks the cycle of rebirth. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the original temple was destroyed by Aurangzeb, and Alamgir Mosque was built in its place. The current temple was rebuilt in 1776 by Ahalya Bai Holkar of Indore with 800 kg of gold plating on the tower and dome, supplied by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore. I also visited the Mrityunjay Temple and the Kashi Karvat Temple that are nearby.
Timings: 5 pm- 6 pm
I headed back to Brijrama Palace to sit on my chartered ‘bajra’ to witness the most touchingly spiritual evening of my life. Varanasi practically lives by its riverbanks, called ‘ghats’. Wanting to feel the true pulse of Kashi, I decided on a boat-ride along the ghats. As the bajra parked itself opposite the Dashashwamedh Ghat to allow me to witness the evening aarti, the thousands of diyas simmering like molten gold on River Ganga and casting a brilliant luminous hue during the ritual, the reverberation of the conches, and the collective devotion of people all around made the atmosphere truly hypnotic and mesmerising.
Nowhere in the world is death welcomed with such anticipation and hope as it is in Varanasi. Manikarnika Ghat, a place where cremations take place non-stop, will manifest the strongest experience of Varanasi. This is also known as the Mahashamshan where the ear jewel of Goddess Sati had fallen.
Timings: 6:30 pm - 7:30 pm
Overwhelmed, I returned to the hotel to enjoy live classical music and dance performances. But not before sampling the chaats of Varanasi. I also topped it up with lassi. The final digestive to settle everything down was ‘Laxmi Chai’ at a local eatery by the same name, and one of the oldest tea shops in Varanasi that serves the most amazing malai toast.
Timings: 7.30 pm - 8.30 pm
The ‘Subah-e-Banaras’, a spiritual and cultural extravaganza that takes place at Assi Ghat, begins before sunrise with yoga sessions followed by music recitals and a yagya. Having checked the previous day for exact timings, I was prepared.
But I was also surprised to see the city bustling with activity at the crack of dawn — from sages and mystics taking a dip in the river to a sadhu deep in trance, to flower-sellers hawking their fares. Witnessing the sun rising over the horizon while taking a ride in the boat along the holy Ganga is a quintessential Varanasi experience.
Timings: 5.30 am - 8 am
Post this sublime morning, I sampled the traditional Banarasi breakfast of poori-kachori and samosa-jalebi at a traditional eatery. It was with these amazing flavours in my mouth that I bid adieu to Varanasi — with the promise to come back again.