Benaras, Varanasi, Kashi… names of an ancient city, one of the oldest living ones, evoking images of the Ganga, sadhus, Shiva, temples, tourists, widows, cremations. That’s a lot to take in. And the city throws all of it at you and more. There is no holding back here.
The crowds hit you like a sledgehammer. Especially if you are in a hand-drawn rickshaw - very commonplace here. People, cows, bikes, autos, rickshaws...all throng the busy streets into the old city. You are from Mumbai and you think you have crowds covered. Mumbai has nothing on Varanasi. You wonder how your rickshaw man is going to maneuver his way through it all. But maneuver he does, weaving himself and his load through, leaving you with that feeling of distaste - you have indeed treated a human being like a pack mule.
You leave that feeling behind, soon. Now you maneuver through the throng on foot. Cows are maneuvering too...and it’s best you get out of their way if you don’t want to be headbutted by the holiest of the holies. The smell of dung is pervasive. There are a lot of holy men - with matted hair and trishuls and ochre robes. You stop to look at some knick-knacks and soon you are engulfed by hawkers. You try to lose them and make your way, along with a thousand others, to the river. Everyone is heading to the river.
Because it’s time for the Ganga arati. The water level in the river is too high - so the arati is performed on a platform high above. It’s all prayers and lights and some strange dance-like posturing by priests in satin dhotis - a bit tacky and touristy. But it draws you in, even if you are disappointed it’s not on the river bank as in the famous pictures..
|The Ganga Arati|
We walk down to the river and even in the darkness we can see the filth. I slip and my shoe-clad, jean-clad leg goes into the water. I can’t wait to get to my hotel to wash it.
The next day is an early one. We leave the hotel at 5.30 am to see the sunrise on the Ganga. The sun though, is already up. We make our way once more to the water. We climb into a motorized boat and we see the city from the river. Ghat after ghat make for pretty pictures. There is even one where a body is being cremated. Men and women immerse themselves in the muddy water, washing their sins away I presume. That water is punishment enough for any manner of sin, I think. We step off the boat into the bylanes of the old city. Narrow lanes, bright coloured doors, painted walls. Some lanes bring European ones to mind - until you look down and see the cow dung and the plastic in the drains. But there is some peace and quiet and you are grateful for it amongst the chaos. We see a lot of stacked wood in one of the lanes, along with a weighing scale. People die and wood is weighed for the pyre. This is serious business for a Saturday morning walk, I think.
|A Varanasi dawn|
|The Lord of the city|
|A quiet narrow lane|
|Weigh the wood for the pyre|
We make our way through the lanes to the Kashi Vishwanath temple. We stand in queue, are frisked again and again, and finally get pushed into the sanctum sanctorum. The gold on the gopuram shines bright. But the lingam itself is immersed in liquid that people throw on it. It is small, we get a glimpse of it and we are packed off by the milling crowds behind us. And that was the darshan. Before getting off the temple trail, we buy sealed containers of Ganga jal - we couldn’t bear taking the real deal from the river.
We drink tea from mud cups, but run away from other street food. All those food joints recommended by guide books are on the ghats… and getting back into those narrow crowded lanes is an experience we aren’t willing to go through again. We prefer the relative neatness and symmetry of Sarnath, half an hour away.
Sarnath has a museum where we are dazzled by the lion capital of Asoka and the delicate 5th century Buddha and all those ancient sculpture. The museum is lovely. As is the excavation site with the ruins of the Asoka pillar and the monuments commemorating the Buddha’s first sermon. We take in the dose of Indian history, buy some knickknacks and escape back to the unremarkable comfort of the hotel.
And so the weekend trip to Varanasi is over. We come back to the pictures of Varanasi and discover the ghats all over again. So much of it is broken down and yet everything is held together too. There is an element of Wabi Sabi, I suppose - a quiet sense of beauty in all those ancient run down buildings. The camera does see things the eye does not.
|Indeed some beauty|