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Varanasi - The City Of Souls

We believe that; for a travel company, we should have perspective of different individuals and their experiences, how they were able to discover life in their very own way while travelling to their favourite destination. So; we invited Ms. Roshni to write about Varanasi, in our blog and her favorite places to visit in the ‘City of  Souls’

Let us know if you would like to share your experience about your travel to India and we would be more than happy to make them a part of our blogs:

 

Varanasi has been the lure for the spiritual seeker from time immemorial. ´╗┐It is so difficult to describe Varanasi. Her classical antiquity has an  unmistakable charm that seems to have existed from the beginning of time.

Ensconced in the cradle of the meandering majestic Ganges and her many rivulets exists Kashi, the eternal Kashi, illuminating light that transcends through centuries over centuries. Kashi derives its name from the word Kasha which means light, a space created by Shiva and Parvati. Varanasi, as it is known in the modern times, is a seat of learning, culture and spirituality all intertwined in one. Kashi has been the ultimate destination of the millions of devotees who believe that dying in Kashi is the ultimate freedom or moksha from the cycle of birth and death. However, as I discovered through my travels, the vibrant city is not just about spirituality and Moksha. Visitors  - both national and international - throng to the city to experience a way of life that is older that civilization itself.

For me, the main attraction is the stretched and continuous river front and the steep broad staircase that makes it seem as if the city flows into the river.  Ascending the ghat steps after a dip in the Ganges is so uplifting for the devout that it seems like a transcendental journey.  

I found Varanasi dotted with ghats, but, among the numerous ghats in the riverfront the ones that  I found spectacular are :

 

1.Assi Ghat: It is situated at the southern most part of the city. Assi ghat finds mention in the Puranas and the ancient texts. It is believed that Tulsidas wrote the epic, Ramayana, in this place. 

 

2. Dashashwamedh Ghat: The name literally means the Sacrifice of 10 horses. This is the main area near to the Kashi Viswanath Temple. The spectacular Ganga arti is held here in the evenings. This was a spell bounding experience for me . The entire area is illuminated with lamps and priests hail the river with dazzling lamps. Arati is a Hindu ritual of honouring or worshiping god or any aspect that need to be revered. For a pantheist, nature is God and God is nature. What can be more revered than a river that is life giving and nurturing? The Arati is held at the crack of dawn and the evenings. It is a  spectacular sight as the priests hail the river meticulously in keeping with strict methods of worship, with three tier lamps and balls of fire accompanied by the blowing of the conch shells and the ringing of temple bells.  I had goosebumps by just being a part of the atmosphere. This incredible ritual can be seen while sitting, either from the Ghat or a boat in the river. I would recommend the frontal view from the boat. There is something remarkable about the ceremony. The ghats are full of worshippers in the evening to see the glow of the lamps rise with the smoke of the incense creating a surreal hue.

All of this is a remarkable worship of the elements, as if evoking and thanking the Mother Ganges for nourishing and nurturing the human kind. 

 

3. Manikarnika Ghat: This is in fact a revered cremation site where devotees cremate their near and dear ones with the belief that whoever is cremated here, attains Moksha. Many mythological stories are related to these ghats. An unending saga of myths and legends and mention of these places in the ancient Puranas and Vedas create an enigma that defies rationale, sometimes. I found my time at the this cremation ghat to be a very philosophical one. It is a universal truth that we are all born the same way and without our choice . The Manikarnika ghat reveals how the fire or death consumes us equally irrespective of our achievements and our failures. So, if we are equal in our birth and in our death, then, why is the journey in between so disparate ? I guess this is the intrigue of Varanasi.

 

4. I loved the boat ride at dawn along the ghats, and, feel that this is a must for all visitors seeking to imbibe the spirit of Varanasi. The Siberian birds in winter are a thrill to watch. Taking a boat ride from Assi ghat to the Manikarnika ghat and beyond was a soothing experience, to say the least. A local artist well versed in classical Hindustani singing on a boat enthrals by adding to the spiritual aura of the boat ride, with his subtle nuances of his artisanal voice. With the eastern sky just being adorned by the molten gold of the rising sun, the original tenor of such an artist can transform the listener to a surreal space effortlessly.

You could also expect the boatman to break into a tune or two unexpectedly thrilling his travelers with the earthy tenor of his full voice.  

Varanasi is all about faith, a feeling of devotion and a-feeling of connect to this land were the Aryans settled and flourished in the 2nd millennium BC. 

Varanasi, today, is a center of education, philosophy and commerce. It has a thriving silk, perfumery and food industry.

 

I would also like to highlight the experiences that encapsulated the spirit of Varanasi for me :

I believe that a stay in Varanasi would be  most enriching in one of the many Heritage Havelis that have been converted into hotels along or near the ghats. This is where all the actions happen . 

I was fortunate enough to stay in one such hotel, but, there are many heritage hotels that offer an exquisite experience of a traditional way of life. The moment one enters such a hotel premises, there is a feeling of reenactment of a traditional lifestyle. The courtyard, the veranda and a terrace full of blooming flowers,all recreate an ambience of a relaxed pastoral lifestyle that has been engulfed by the technology driven world of today. The dining hall on the ground floor is decorated with portraits, furniture and designs that are ethnic and the feel of the place reflects an indigenous lifestyle. The menu of the food served is also home style north Indian and laced with seasonal vegetables and fruits. The biggest take away is that these hotels are near the Assi Ghat and one can stroll or sit near the ghats to capture the changing hues of the river as the day unfolds from dawn to dusk. There is something so relaxing about the place, as one sits on the ghat steps and just watch the river flowing at in its own pace: neither hurried nor still. Life and traditions unfold on the banks at every predetermined turn and twist of the river. 

Another place that I found of great spiritual interest was Sarnath, just 10 kms away from Varanasi. The Deer Park is a center of great interest as this is the place where Lord Budhha held his first sermon after attaining Nirvana in BodhGaya. Apart from the main Stupa built by emperor Ashoka, there are many more smaller stupas in the complex. I was specially moved by the air of peace and calm in the entire area. Stone carvings, beads, figurines of Budhha and other motifs found at the site. Their recreated  souvenirs are available in the vendor stalls outside.

Some of the enterprises uphold the uniqueness of the city in the most arduous ways, one of the places that is very much impressed me is the Shri Shivay Restaurant. From the ambiance to the traditional brass plates and bowls in which the pure vegetarian fare is served, was a unique experience. Each item in the menu was served in small quantities first for sampling the taste, so that specific dishes could be subsequently ordered. The cutlery was an absolute delight. It had the feel of an elaborate gourmet spread of the yesteryears. The food is prepared in strict hygiene standards was sumptuous and nutritious at the same time. ShriShivay is truly Banarasiya: the term used to define all things that carry the unmistakable taste and feel of Varanasi. 

The Benaras Paan is iconic, with many a popular Bollywood numbers based on it. Paan is a popular treat throughout north India but in Varanasi it has a special place of endearing importance. Paan is in fact a betel leaf folded with nuts and condiments in it.The betel leaf has its own place of importance in Hindu rituals and religious methods. However, the iconic Banarasi paan that is, in fact, a betel leaf folded with areca nuts and other condiments and slaked lime is a post meal freshner. The betel leaf is considered medicinal in Ayurvedic texts. 

Another gourmet highlight for me was the Banarasi chaat, a spicy mixture of condiments and fritters . It is a famous street food of the city and the many street side chat stalls serve mouth watering and spicy fare. 

For the ones who do have a sweet tooth there is an array of sweets like peda, rabri, jalebies etc. These sweets are all time favourites all over north India and in Benaras they get a  special significance on the way they are prepared and sought . 

I also was spoilt for shopping options in Varanasi. Silk, muslin and cotton weaving is a prominent home manufacturing enterprise which has attained an iconic status due to the fine silk sarees created here. A superfine red Banarasi silk saree has been an essential part of an Indian bride’s trousseau since ages. The very humble roots of the weaving community defy the exotic creations that they make using very basic weaving tools. I found it to be an eye opener visiting 

the weavers’ village and workshops. The visit is truly worthwhile to understand how painstakingly the expert craftsmen weave the six-yard exquisite wonder. 

With so much of sentimentality blended in the ethos,no wonder Varanasi is a thriving blend of culture, ancient knowledge and spirituality. This place is truly an enigma, both progressive and regressive at the same time, a blend of opposites that is bound to prompt a visitor to philosophical musings.

With the Kashi Vishwanath Temple Corridor project that would make the temple  visible from the ghats of the river, nearing completion, a visit to Varanasi would add a new dimension for both the devout and visitors who are on a culture trail.

 

If the above information catches your attention, connect with Trinetra Tours for planning your best tour to Varanasi, and get ready to pack your bags for a spiritual holiday 


Varanasi