By Anju Gupta
The Magic of Benaras
Benaras ‘happened’ over a leisurely autumnal lunch at India Habitat Centre’s The Deck. There was much gaiety and merriment at the table, mainly because it was the first time that we, the women of a large, extended family, were meeting without the men of the said family. Bathed in the warm glow of sisterhood, a voice said, “let’s do a women only holiday together.” It was a yea all round followed by a very excited yea for Benaras when names of places were tossed around.
‘Benaras Beckons.’ It was on this alliterated group that the frenetic and excited activity took place in the two months that followed. Four days in mid- December seemed to be the only time when schools appeared to have run out of tests to give, and sundry activities to involve kids in. In a splash of nostalgia, it was decided that the journey from Delhi would be by train, complete with pooris, aloo, achaar, and ghar waapsi by air. In the to and fro on matters of import, mainly food to carry for the journey (theplas, cake, matar kachoris, boondi laddoos, fruit,makhanas, a couple of more veggies- and of course the pooris, aloo, achaar…) less interesting matters such as the bookings of train tickets were pushed to the back burner. When realisation dawned that we had a menu but no tickets, there was panic and a scramble to check tickets availability. Alas, by this time, the super-fast trains were all booked and on a late afternoon day in a December in which cold had set in early, we found ourselves sitting in a coach of MLDT Express.
Dear travellers headed for Benaras, do a train journey in the foggy winters of North India only after due consideration. If you do embark on one, make sure to carry enough food. Also, travel with some elderly and some kids- the former to keep you motivated with their fortitude and the latter to keep you in splits with their antics. We got down at Benaras, unscathed by our journey on a train, which even though tremendously behind schedule still had the insouciance to do pit stops at fields to pick up milkmen and other bhai bandhu, only because we had all three with us.
Benaras, aka Varanasi, didn’t suck me into its magic at once. The ride from the railway station to the hotel we were booked in, took one through sights normal for a person who has spent considerable years in Uttar Pradesh’s mofussil towns. The first ooh of delight came when we reached our hotel. Hotel Ganges View is a boutique hotel perched on the Ganges edge. It is an extremely well done up and well-maintained property on Assi Ghat. The rooms on the first floor are charming and open out onto a terrace laden with blooming bougainvillaea and luscious greens. A huge shout out to Travel Ease in Delhi for booking us into such a nice hotel. The only downside to the place is that the breakfast served has extremely limited, or almost no, options. It’s a very continental breakfast of toast, butter and jam, coffee and juice. Maybe the think-tank of Ganges View feels duty bound to not feed guests any cholesterol rich, fat laden dishes- seeing as almost anyone visiting the city would sooner than later be gorging on the food the city is famous for.
The city’s spiritual side hits you many times and for different reasons. We got our first peep at this side within minutes of checking in. One of the two rooms on the ground floor had the smoke of incense and the low sound of prayers sneaking out of it. Discreet enquiry in a hushed voice revealed that a family had brought a loved one, whom doctors had given very few hours to live, to die here. Benaras is considered to be so sacred that to die here is said to be a fast track to moksha: liberation from the endless cycle of rebirth. When we returned in the evening from a saree shopping jaunt, we learnt that death had indeed kept its appointment.
What we did and saw in Benaras
Well, there is no beating around the bush for this: first day, first thing we did was some serious saree shopping. One of us in the group was a Benaras veteran and we surrendered ourselves blissfully in her immensely capable hands. She knew just where to take us for our threads. The best places for sarees, it turned out, are not showrooms in crowded markets but places where one can’t ever imagine thousands of wondrous five and a half yards being housed.
While we looked at sarees, we were treated to cups of kulhad chai, tamatar ki chaat, and more delicacies. We staggered out some hours later, with loaded hands, lighter wallets and bursting tummies.
Evening Arti at Dashashwamedh Ghat
We took a boat ride for an uninterrupted view of the evening aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat. There are many boats on the river at this time, with each boatman jostling to give its occupants the best view of the arti. The arti itself is a treat of colours, clash of cymbals, ringing of bells, banging of drums, smell of incense, flames of divas, sound of conch shells. It sucks you in with its sheer magic and you are struck into silence at the splendour unfolding before you. For that moment in time, you feel you have glimpsed the soul of your country. The priests performing the puja, young men wearing dhotis, orange kurtas and stoles of the same colour across their shoulders, stand on raised platforms and move the puja lamps in orchestrated and synchronised movements. The river is dotted with floating diyas, cast by believers with a prayer on their lips. The warm light casts a glow on the devotees and the richly saturated evening makes for great photographs.
Mangla Arti at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple
We got up around two in the morning for the sacred Mangla Aarti at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. It is not easy to get approval for the aarti but we were able to get it because of our dearest Benaras veteran. The Mangla aarti is the first aarti in the morning and performed during the auspicious “Brahma muhurta” hour, which is one and a half hour before the sun comes up.
One has to walk through a narrow alley to reach the temple. Security is tight, and there are many security procedures in place. Passport or Aadhar card is mandatory for identification purpose. One enters through a nondescript door into the temple premises. Kashi Vishwanath is a beautiful temple, and the sanctum sanctorum takes one’s breath away. Mangla Aarti involves an elaborate ritual of bathing the Shiva Linga with milk, ghee, honey, curd etc; followed by buckets of water. The lingam is then dressed in sandalwood paste and fresh flowers. The full brass of head priests conducts the aarti. Bells clang, signalling the end of the aarti. There is a collective ooh and aah when flowers used for the ritual are flung towards the devotees. One falls right in my daughter’s lap and we, mother and buas and taiji and daadis, all prognosticate that Shiva’s blessings will see her getting married soon. That she is still blissfully single is of course no reflection on the Lord. It has to be the sins she didn’t wash away with a simple dubki in the freezing waters of the Ganges!
The Sacred Ganges
Benaras is a story that Ganga, the enchantress, tells. The river here is magnificent and majestic. It is sacred and proud. It knows it is the lure that attracts lakhs of pilgrims and tourists. Early morning and late evening are the best time for Ganga darshan.
The Ghats at Dawn
Ghats are the giant ceremonial steps leading down to the sacred river, where devotees take a dip to cleanse their souls of sin. We dipped our toes in the freezing water and unanimously agreed that we hadn’t sinned enough to warrant a dip. We came to the ghat straight from Kashi Vishwanath temple and were fortunate enough to witness the sun rising over the river. Even at that early hour, a yoga session was in progress. We walked around the ghat, soaking up the remarkable atmosphere of faith and devotion. The east bank of the Ganges is a sandbank that one sees through a haze of smoke coming from the cremation fires at Manikarnika.
The lanes of the city
If there is anything that truly defines this old city, it is the maze of its galis (alleys is too pedestrian a word to capture its joie di vivre.) As one walks through the tightly woven lanes with cows as companions, one feels as if Time has forgotten to move on from here. The galis are lined with shops selling everything on earth. There are shrines and deities in tiny alcoves, homes painted in pink and yellow and other vivid colours. The sacred cow suddenly stops to do its business and you wrinkle your nose to escape the smell of cow dung. You look around and realise that nobody else is bothered by the smell. The locals have an air of energy yet manage to loiter around at nooks, having conversations about everything and nothing.
Sarnath is just about a 45 minutes’ drive from Benaras. Even if one slept through the sonorous voice most teachers of history acquire over time, one would have been truly asleep to have missed the historical significance of Sarnath. It is one of the most important sites for Buddhists because it was in the deer park in Sarnath where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma, and where the Buddhist Sangha came into existence. It is an island of calm after the bustle of the city. The stupa itself is out of bounds but the museum is open and its artifacts, pictures and remains of the time tell the story of how Buddha’s moment of epiphany became the touchstone of noble living for millions of people across the world.
Benaras has food for all seasons and for every reason, apart from the obvious one of satisfying hunger. The streets are home to some of the most delectable food options, whose recipes have been perfected over centuries.
This is what we ate
Kachori with aloo sabzi: A very popular dish,testimony of its popularity being that there is a gali named Kachori gali. Though the stuffed and puffed pooris were good, but they turned out to be a classic case of carrying coal to Newcastle since, as a family, we love our bedmi-aloo and cook it well. The dish is a staple at most of our family get togethers.
It is here, after almost three decades, that I ate again the most delectable dessert one can think of. In Kanpur, where I spent almost all my school summer holidays, it is called Malai Makhan. In Benaras it is Malaiyo or Mallaiyo. This flavored milk froth, garnished with slivers of pistachios and almonds and served in a small earthen bowl is so light to the mouth,that one almost wonders,’have I eaten it or haven’t I?’
We also had choora matar, Tamatar Chaat, Samosas, jalebis, tikkis- all good.
One evening, birthday of the sweetest and cutest nephew, we had the most amazing Italian fare at Assi Ghat. Sitting under a star-spangled sky, bathe by the light of the lamp posts lining the ghat, we ate clay oven pizzas, lasagne and other signature dishes. I may be wrong on this one, but I think the name of the place was Pizzeria Vaatika Café.
I carried home some freshly made, amazingly good mithai for the men at home, my neighbour and the Pandit ji of our colony temple who had given very specific instructions of what he wanted from ‘Kashi.’
Call it by any name: Kashi, Benaras or Varanasi (the last a reference to the two tributaries of the Ganges, the Varuna and Assi, that come together in the city) the city is frenetic and intense, colourful and chaotic. It is magical and sacred. It is a maze that entraps you with its sans souci. And every time you try and navigate the maze, you come across something new: A sadhu with his face covered with ash and neck with colourful beads, a man getting his ears cleaned on a street corner, men with glistening bodies wrestling on the ghats, classical music concert being held on the river front, people coming here to breathe their last. The city is older than Methuselah and newer than Nora Fatehi’s latest jiggle; it is a shock to the senses, it is crowded and fascinating, bizarre and exciting. Historically it has been a breeding ground of politics, philosophers, poets and piety. It is the city of Mahadev, of ghats and narrow lanes. It is a photographer’s delight, a foodie’s paradise.
I love what Mark Twain, the indophile, wrote of the city, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
As the plane powers up for a take-off, engulfed completely by the magic of Benaras, a promise is made: See you again, Benaras.