You may call it Benaras, Varanasi, Kashi or Banaras, but essentially this is a place which totally changes your perception towards life and spirituality. As Mark Twain famously said once – “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together“.
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BENARAS THROUGH MY EYES…
It’s a rainy morning and I am sitting next to the window sill, sipping a hot cup of coffee and watching as the world goes by amidst the strong winds which threaten to even blow away the rain which is hammering the windows. It is reminding me of something and much as I want, I cannot put my finger on it. I am getting restless. Finally I realise, I am missing Benaras also known as Kashi or Varanasi.
I get this sudden urge to revisit the memories of this place, of Benaras, which, as they say, is as old as history itself. The memories now come in strong gushes of wind and I am transported to this vibrant amalgam of colours and smells….
Three trips in 2 years to a place I never ever considered worthy of being visited, speaks volumes about the kind of pull that Benaras has. I want to tell my story, the way it happened….and on the way you will also understand the city that Benaras is…
Journey from Prayagraj to Benaras
I am on my way to Benaras after attending the Kumbha Mela at Prayagraj, along with a couple of my friends. We have heard a lot about Benaras and its food and culture and being the foodies we are, have decided to pay a visit to the city.
This is our first time. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I would fall in love with this mystical city so much that all other things would become secondary.
Our taxi driver seems to have recently gone through a breakup and is playing sad songs which irritates us to no end. He misses a turn and now we are on some other route.
This longer travel time is getting very frustrating. It is a tiring journey and we just want to reach our hotel in Benaras and rest. We plan to have dinner once we reach the city just to save some time on the travel.
We enter Benaras and feel dismayed. The city looks dirty and very crowded. What is this place we have come to? The taxi driver is unable to find the hostel and the Google map is making us go round and round in circles. We joke that even Google can’t understand the streets of Benaras.
There is absolutely no space to park the car. The cacophony of vehicles is making us nervous. Somehow, the driver manages to stop the car and we find a gentleman sitting on a chair and chatting with his friends. We ask him about the hostel we booked and he advises us to let the driver go.
The hostel is a half a kilometer walk away and involves walking through the narrow alleys or ‘galis’ as they are known. Benaras is famous for its galis.
Reaching our hostel
We have a lot of luggage, it is 11 at night, we are tired and hungry. The first impression of the city is really bad and we start questioning this impulsive decision to make this trip in the first place. We get lost in the maze of these alleys of Benaras.
At one point, we encounter a cow and we are unable to cross her and go to the other side. A person coming from the other side understands our trepidation and gently pats the cow and she moves a bit. She is blind, he tells us. That scares us a bit more but we also feel sorry for the poor animal. Cows are aplenty in the city as we discover soon and are revered by the locals.
We find a lot of street dogs and it feels like they are ganging up on us. Finally, we reach the hostel (Bunked up) but are unable to climb the stairs. Dogs are sitting on the stairs and are looking at us menacingly. We call up the hostel and a sleepy person comes down. He carries our luggage. After completing the formalities, we are shown to our room.
We are shocked because it is essentially a hole of a room with 6 bunk beds. The room is not very clean and the bathroom is super dirty with toilet paper strewn around. We had booked the room based on the reviews it had and the reasonable price. But nothing had prepared us for this. One of the friends is tired and dismayed with the whole thing and starts crying. We are however very hungry.
Search for food at midnight..
It is almost midnight and we have faint hopes of finding any food. Two of us decide to go and get some food while the third refuses to go out. Well, we go out and go looking for food. All the places seem to have closed down. One gentleman sees us two girls and asks if we have lost our way. We tell him that we are looking for food. He thinks for a while and tells us that there are a couple of places near Dashashwamedh Ghat which may still be open.
After a lot of confusion and losing our way multiple times, somehow we reach the place. It’s a small road side eatery hole and we are in two minds as to whether we want to have anything from this place. Well, we are ravenously hungry and is there an option? Among the limited choices available, we decide to have a plate of vegetable noodles and get a plate of fried rice packed for our friend in the hostel.
This frankly is our first introduction to the food in Benaras and we are blown away by it. A simple plate of chowmein as it is known in this part of the country, full of chilli sauce and ajino moto tastes wonderful. And the price..its fifty rupees a plate (less than US$ 1).
Read my post on the ultimate food guide in Banaras here.
Full and happy, we walk towards our hostel. Having heard a lot about the famous lassi (a cool yoghurt drink), we want to try it. However, everything is closed.
We find a small sweet seller who is going to down the shutters and on a whim ask him if he has lassi. He shows us kulhads (earthen pots) filled with dahi (Indian yoghurt) telling us that though he doesn’t have lassi, his yoghurt is better than the lassi. We decide to share a kulhad and absolutely love it. Back to the hostel, we sleep immediately but not before deciding that we would change the hotel the next day.
The first day begins..
EARLY MORNING VIEWS
The next morning, we get up early and are told that the breakfast is being served on the terrace. Grudgingly we take the stairs only to be greeted with a lovely view of the tranquil Ganga or the Ganges River.
If there is one reason why it made the stay at this place worth it, it was the location, just a minute walk to the Holy Ganges river. For those of you interested, the name of the hostel was Bunkedup Hostel. And yes, we absolutely did not like our stay here except for the view of the sunrise from the rooftop.
BREAKING OUR FAST (BREAKFAST :-))
We decide to explore a bit in the morning and to check out the narrow alleys. A mouthwatering smell of hot kachauri takes us to a very small place simply known as Tarun Da’s Kachauri. We have amazing kachauri sabzi and jalebis and feel shocked to pay an amount of 13 rupees per plate.
Sated we go back to the hostel and tell the manager that we are checking out. He gets very surprised and tries to dissuade us but we move out. We come to the main road and incidentally meet the same uncle who had helped us yesterday. He takes us to a small but decent hotel and we are grateful to him. He asks us to visit his collection of Banarasi sarees which he keeps at home and we promise him that we would try.
MEETING LORD SHIVA AT KASHI VISHWANATH TEMPLE..A SURREAL EXPERIENCE
Somehow we feel much better than yesterday. Filled with a positive energy, we decide to visit the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas, the holiest of Shiva temples in India. It is however, MahaShivaratri time and we underestimate the kind of crowd which is there. Long serpentine queues greet us and we realise that it would be a Herculean task to visit the temple. There is a lot of police everywhere.
With great difficulty, and after the longest time, we are able to enter the temple. I have only ever heard about some temples having different energies. This is the first time I feel it. The air is heavy with the intoxicating smell of flowers and incense. There is a chanting of the Mahamrityunjaya mantra going on and I can hear a loud chorus of ‘Har Har Mahadev’. I feel overwhelmed and for a moment forget everything that is happening in my life. The darshan lasts only a few seconds but I feel great. We decide to sit for sometime and soak in the atmosphere of the temple. It is a surreal feeling for I cannot think of anything else than an overwhelming feeling of oneness with Shiva. My heart is beating very fast, as if some untouched emotions are making me question my own existence. We take our fill of the place and then decide to move out. It is a place and a feeling which will stay forever with me.
More details about the temple viewing can be found at https://www.shrikashivishwanath.org .
EXPLORING STREET FOOD IN BENARAS
From Kashi Vishwanath temple, we go to the famous Deena Chat Bhandar on Luxa Road, near Godaulia, a prominent place for shopping and eateries. We have aloo chat and golgappes to our heart’s content.
We have lassi and makhan malai also known as ‘Malaiyo’ which is a soft and creamy concoction made by churning dew exposed milk and is available only in winters.
VISIT TO THE BANARAS HINDU UNIVERSITY
Full and happy, and generally feeling lazy, we take a rickshaw to take us to the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), established in 1916 by Madan Mohan Malaviya, with co-operation from Annie Besant. With over 30,000 students residing in campus, it is the largest residential university in Asia.
We love the rickshaw ride and the views of the green and well kept campus. We visit the New Vishwanath Temple in the Campus premises and are told that most of the BHU students visit the temple especially during their exams to get the blessings of the God. There is a chaat shop nearby and we have some lovely samosa chaat.
ASSI GHAT TO DASHASHWAMEDH GHAT, AND THE EVENING AARTI
It is evening time and we decide to go for the evening aarti which is conducted by the Kashi Vishwanath trust. But instead of going to Dashashwamedh Ghat where this aarti takes place, we decide to hire a boat at Assi Ghat, another of Varanasi’s well known and beautiful ghats.
We book a boat for a ride from Assi Ghat to Dashashwamedh Ghat after having some lovely lemon tea in small kulhads. Ghats for those of you who are not aware, are riverfront steps leading to the banks of the River Ganges. Benaras has around 88 ghats. While most of the ghats are used for bathing and puja rituals, Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghat are used for cremation of dead bodies.
Everyone is in a quiet mood taking in the wide expanse of the Ganga and the ghats which pass us one by one. The boatman is in a chatty mood and tells us the history about many of the ghats.
DEATH IS THE ONLY REALITY..AT MANIKARNIKA GHAT
We feel overwhelmed when we pass ‘Manikarnika Ghat’ since we can see some cremations taking place. It makes me think about how death is the only thing which is certain and still till the end, sometimes we are unable to find the purpose of our life.
We decide that we would take a walk through the Ghats the next day.
EVENING AARTI AT DASHASHWAMEDH GHAT, BENARAS
After almost forty minutes, we reach the Dashashwamedh Ghat and the boatman anchors the boat for the evening aarti. The aarti begins and we get lost in the enchanting mantras and bhajans for some time. It’s a beautiful sight with holy sounds and the smell of fragrant incense all around leaves us mesmerised.
tamatar ki chaat at kashi chaat bhandar, benaras
We leave the boat and decide to walk to Kashi Chaat bhandar for our dinner. This is again at Godaulia. We have the famous tamatar ki chaat and finish the meal with a gulabjamun, an Indian sweet delicacy.
and lassi at blue lassi
Greedy souls that we are, we decide to have lassi at the famous Blue Lassi (also featured in Lonely Planet). The lassi is good but nothing out of this world.
It is a very long and fulfilling day. We suddenly realise that we are already looking forward to the next day. How is it possible we wonder, when a day before we were regretting our decision to come to Benaras.
Benaras just grows on you and it really catches you unawares.
Its almost ten o clock and we get a call from the friendly uncle reminding us of our promise to visit his house. We tell him that it is late and he says that it is the night before MahaShivaratri and the whole city is awake. We decide to oblige him and meet him at a house where he shows us a lot of sarees and other things. We end up buying a lot of stuff. We come out.
It is past midnight now. But wait, what is this? It has started raining. People say it always rains during Mahashivaratri and these are things which normally only fanatics believe. Well, I was a cynic once but now having visited Banaras twice on the occasion of Mahashivratri, and witnessing the rains out of the blue, I can say that I have turned into a believer. Anyway, crossing puddles, we reach our hotel and almost immediately go to sleep.
and the next day begins..
with the morning sunrise at Dashashwamedh Ghat
I get up in the morning and wake up my friends. We decide to visit the Dashashwamedh Ghat to see the morning sunrise. We have doubts about the sunrise given the rains which fell throughout the night. It feels like the sun is playing hide and seek but the sun chooses to surprise us and it is a most beautiful view.
It’s also the day of Shivaratri and the ghat is pretty crowded. A difficult thing to explain, but sometimes one finds peace among chaos. That is what is happening to me. We sit on the ghat stairs and watch people offering puja to the Ganges, some of them taking a dip in its holy waters which is said to wash away all your sins.
breakfast at the famous ram bhandar
We witness a beautiful sunrise and then decide to have our breakfast at Ram Bhandar, famous for its kachauri sabji which gets sold out by 10:00 AM in the morning. The roads are slippery and muddy and with some difficulty, we manage to reach Thathari Bazaar where the shop is located. There is a queue outside and we contemplate whether to wait or to leave.
The smell of the kachauris being fried in pure ghee is too tempting and we decide to stay. Finally our turn comes and we chat a bit with the owner. He gives us the Kachauri, sabzi with a chutney and hot, fragrant jalebis. We love the food and this place is absolutely worth a visit.
exploring the city and falling in love
Breakfast done, we decide to visit some ancient temples. We start with the Maha Mrityunjaya temple at Daranagar. It is a beautiful and peaceful temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. We see a well and an old person sitting there tells us that the water in the well can cure several diseases. The temple opens early in the morning at 4.00 am and closes at midnight.
From there, we go to the Kaal Bhairav Temple which is dedicated to Lord Kaal Bhairav, also known as the ‘Kotwal of Varanasi‘ or protector of Varanasi. The door of the temple is guarded by Bhairav’s mount, the dog. And in fact, it is then that we notice that there are lots and lots of dogs in the city, and whereas we are scared, they are almost revered in the city, being the mount of Lord Kal Bhairav.
We are tired and have a tall kulhad of lassi before proceeding to visit the Sankata Mata Mandir which is is one of the most famous temples in the city. This temple is dedicated to the Goddess Sankata Devi (Goddess of danger). The temple is very serene and is filled with a different kind of positive energy.
All temples on bucket list visited, we decide to walk back to our hotel crossing some of the major ghats. We pass Manikarnika and can see piles and piles of wood which is used for burning the dead bodies on a funeral pyre. On our way, we see some dead bodies and again I start feeling very restless.
We reach our hotel and rest a bit. Then leave and walk to Mishrambu Thandai to have the special Thandai which Benaras is so famous for.
The roads are totally crowded but we don’t feel a thing, no irritation, no annoyance. Its been two days and seems like ages since we know have known Benaras. It is our last day and we decide to again attend the aarti, this time not on the boat but at the Dashashwamedh Ghat.
We go a bit early and take our places. The aarti starts and I feel tears streaming down my face. The impact of the environment is so powerful, it just hits you at all places capable of thinking and feeling.
The aarti gets over and we decide to go visit the Sankatamochan Mandir. It is a beautiful temple of Hanuman or the monkey God. It is very peaceful and we decide to sit there for some time. Some priests are singing a Ram bhajan and their deep, melodious voice sinks right in. It again makes me think about my life and my purpose. It is getting late but I am reluctant to leave. Finally, we have to leave and I get the feeling that I haven’t had my fill of the place. I need more.
That was my first trip after which I have gone twice and each time has made me more resolute to go back again. Benaras has a character of its own and is like a living and breathing person. The filth, the dust, the traffic, the chaos, the cows and the dogs everywhere, the narrowest of alleys, every single thing about the place initially feels like an assault on the senses.
And then slowly slowly you start forgetting it all. Your whole attention shifts to the peace the place brings to you, the ancientness, the culture. You are in awe of this mystical place, and it takes you to a different world.
In your journey through the city, you see how the cycle of life ends and how it is only the name of the Lord which is true. And you may or may not be spiritual, but you will not be able to escape the energy of the place. You will feel you are in a unique place, where amidst all the chaos that life has to offer, you will find your own peace. I found mine.
P.S. : Thank you for reading this blog. If you have any questions about Varanasi, you may ask them in the comments section and I will try to answer. You may find answers to some of your questions here – The top 15 things to do/visit in Banaras