The City of Life, Death and Everything Else
Varanasi is certainly not for the faint-hearted. It takes either thirst for adventure or passion for the divine to dive headlong into this city
The fragrance of incense mixes with the odour of garbage, the cobbled streets are painted red with paan, and the sadhu’s chant is interrupted by a buffalo’s bellow. That’s Varanasi for you. One of the oldest cities in the world, it is as famous for temples and culture as it is infamous for filth, trash and other such unsavoury items.
Varanasi is certainly not for the faint-hearted. It takes either thirst for adventure or passion for the divine to dive headlong into this city. Even its name epitomizes its multifarious nature. Varanasi isn’t just Varanasi. In ancient times it was Kashi, the city of light. It is also called Banaras, referring to the juice (ras) of life. For Shiva devotees, it is Avimukta, the land that will never be forsaken by him. For spiritual seekers it is Anandvana, the forest of bliss. For the old and dying, it is Mahasmashana, the great crematorium where death is a pathway to mukti or deliverance. And of course, for democratic India, it is the Prime Minister’s VIP constituency.
The most unique aspects of Varanasi are the burning ghats, where corpses are cremated on the banks of the Ganga. Yogis, thrill-seekers and the just plain curious make a beeline to the most well known of them, Manikarnika. For me, the undeniable fact of life that I was mortal had somehow escaped me – until I visited this place. It was not so much the corpses and pyres that affected me. It was the almost casual way in which death was dealt with by the caretakers here that imprinted itself into my bones. To think that my death could be no more than a business transaction for someone was a very sobering thought that put my life in perspective.
After my curiosity was more than satisfied at Manikarnika, I headed to the Vishwanath Temple. One of the 12 Jyotirlingas, the temple is among the most important in Varanasi. It is dedicated to Lord Shiva as Vishwanath, the “Lord of All.” The Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb destroyed the original temple in the 17th century and built a mosque on the site. Rani Ahalya Bai, queen of Indore, built the current temple, which stands next to the mosque, in 1776. This chequered history leaves its legacy on today’s Varanasi. Anyone entering the temple has to go through multiple security checks and pat-downs.
Many rituals take place within the temple throughout the day, but the Mangala Aarti at 3 AM, the Saptarishi Pooja at 7 PM, and the Shayan Aarti at 10.30 PM were among the most unique and wonderful events I have experienced. Be sure to enquire beforehand at the temple for passes if you want to get a reasonably comfortable seat.
Besides these well-known spots, there are many places off the beaten track, though they are of great historical significance. I paid a visit to Kabir’s samadhi, where his body was laid to rest, and the Omkareshwar and Madhyamaheshwar temples, which were once important places in Kashi.
Those days are gone now. I found all three places almost deserted, with only a thin crowd. At the Omkareshwar temple I had to actually go and call the priest from his house next door, since I had turned up at 6 AM, much earlier than they usually receive the few worshipers who come to the temple every day. Even if you travel with a guide, I’d recommend carrying a map or at least Google Maps on your smartphone. These places aren’t frequented very often and many guides themselves often ask directions from people living in the areas.
Varanasi has more to offer than temples alone. Spend some time along the Ganga’s banks and be sure to shop for some Banarasi saris. And don’t forget to try out the Banarasi paan, not to mention the lassi laced with bhang, if that’s your cup of tea!
Varanasi is a foodie’s delight, with chaat, snacks and a million flavours on offer in pushcarts, street-side cafes and posh hotels. Pick your eatery with care if you have a weak stomach. Few places give any guarantees about hygiene here!
It’s advisable to check out the accommodation before you get to Varanasi and avoid all the touts. Look through guidebooks for a range of choices. My recommendation is the Jaipuria at Godowlia Chowk, which is centrally located and offers clean, basic rooms.
All in all, Varanasi is a “dynamite” package – a microcosm of all that India has to offer – the highs and the lows. Mark Twain once said, “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
I couldn’t agree more!
Alka Pratap is a culture buff and travel junkie. She maintains a website on various facts about India, and recommends taking a look at this blog post on Kashi, for more information on the nature of ancient Varanasi.
by Alka Pratap