Monday, October 26, 2009

Varanasi – the oldest living city in the world!!

Of days gone by...this March during my solo all India motorcycle journey

After exploring Taj Mahal and Agra over 3 days, I rode a long 650 km stretch in one day to reach the spiritual town of Varanasi (also known as Benaras and Kashi). As I entered the old town, I felt that I have landed in a different era. The retro style of building structure, thin lanes (galli’s), austerity and spirituality in the air just amazed me. This was my 2nd trip to Varanasi. The 1st one was way back in 1991 when I was a 10 year old. The city certainly had transformed over the years as other cities around the world, but in some way it had managed to retain its old world charm. I had a tough time finding myself a hotel as most of the hotels were afraid of admitting a sole dirty looking motorcyclist the day before the President of India landed at Varanasi. Finally, I found a person who was kind enough to direct me to a good hotel that was close to the Harishchandra ghat.

After freshening up, there were some things that I had to do first. First, taste the tea (chai) of Benaras offered in small earthen pots. Second, taste the thick curd (Indian Yoghurt) of Kashi offered again in earthen pots. Third, get my taste buds working over the famous Benarasi Paan. Varanasi, for a long time, is known for its famous thick milk and the ultimately popular Benarasi Paan. They are so popular that there is not a single adult male in Benaras who doesn’t chew and enjoy Benarasi Paan!! After satisfying my palate with specialities of Varanasi, I proceeded to the HarishChandra ghat, which is the only ghat on the River Ganges that has an electrical crematorium. It is believed that if one’s last rites are performed at Varanasi, then there is no re-birth and he attains moksha. After ambling around the ghat and watching the various rituals, I found myself a boatman and struck a deal with him to take me for an early morning boat cruise on the river Ganges. The deal was struck at Rs 600 for a 3 hour boat cruise.

It was an early wake up call for me and my boatman was waiting for me at the hotel reception. Off went both of us onto the River Ganges. The boat was a small 3/4 seater and it functioned using oars. With early sunrise, my boatman took me to all the ghats by the river ganga. It was during this cruise that I came to know about the hypothesis behind the name of this city ‘Varanasi’. The first hypothesis (which is wrong)says that the name of the first ghat is Vara and the name of the last ghat is Assi (meaning Eighty). The city that falls between these ghat extremities is known as Varanasi. The second and the more widely accepted hypothesis is that the city of Varanasi is located between two river confluences: one of Ganga and Varuna and other of Ganga and Assi.

During my cruise, I found out that the river bank by the various ghats is extremely dirty with muck, rotting offerings, flowers and rotting wood. A lot of activity is happening to prevent the Ganges from such pollution, but the onus of preventing the pollution rests with us tourists who are slowly destroying the Ganges in search of spiritual bliss. The river at Varanasi has already lost its prized denizen – the extremely endangered Gangetic dolphin. Even the more rugged mugger crocodile seems to have disappeared from here. And, now, even the locals and tourists avoid venturing into this side of the river bank. Rather, they go to the other bank like how I did to take the holy dip. After a refreshing holy dip in the Ganges, I went to a series of temples on different ghats (Shinde, Lalita, Bachraj, Mana-Mandir and Dashashwamedh) to admire their architecture and to offer my prayers. A pleasant sight to my eyes was scores of students learning and practicing yoga by the holy river against the early morning sun. Certainly, the brighter side of growing up in the ‘city of learning’.

It was post lunch, when I went to the famous Kashi Vishwanatha temple to offer my prayers. The entrance and the vicinity of the temple feels like a war zone as the entire area is always on high alert. There is checking every 10 feet. One can carry only some limited things into the temple. After offering my prayers to Lord Shiva, the presiding deity and Goddess Annapurna, I went to explore the colourful bazaars of the city. It was evening time when I went to Dashashwamedh ghat to watch the Aarti and the Agni Pooja (Worship to Fire). The entire river is resplendent with glittering diyas and it makes for a great sight.

It is certainly a revelation to watch this legendary city in its truest form and this quote by Mark Twain just adds to my belief": “Benares 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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