One month prior to my visit, when I told one of my friends about my plans to visit Varanasi, he had a hearty laugh. “But why Banaras?”, he asked. ( Banaras is a former name of Varanasi.) “Are you a foreigner to visit this temple city or do you want to become a Baba(a saint)? There are better places to visit.”
Traveling for me is a way of learning irrespective of good/bad experiences. I do not think much about what ifs and I am always ready to pack my bags when the opportunity comes knocking the door.
It all happened when I met my childhood friend after a long time. After all the empty talks and vain laughs over a few drinks, he told me that he is visiting Varanasi( it’s his native place) and asked me in a casual manner if I would be interested in joining him. Poor guy had not realized my madness until then. Though he was a little surprised that I actually made it, he was very happy to host me at his place and I was pampered too much by all his family members throughout my stay for which I am indebtedly grateful. It was love that made my journey successful above all the other experiences I had in Banaras.
But “Why Banaras?” This was a question I carried secretly throughout my journey. Does that question ring in your head too?
Here’s the answer-
Mornings in Banaras
Mornings in Banaras are a treat for one’s soul! A ball of molten gold rising above the horizon, temple bells ringing, Pundits reciting mantras paying obeisance to the holy Ganga, some taking dip in the river chanting lord’s name while others doing yoga on the river bank; tourists flocking around, clicking photographs, while some taking boat rides and the morning prayer at Assi Ghat collectively radiates such positive vibes, which I feel, is always important to start the day.
Peace amidst all the chaos
Although the ghats of Banaras are a sight of chaos throughout the day, there is a sense of peace that wander around the ghats. I always used to find myself a little bit away from the crowd and I could hear the bells ringing, chants and sound of motor boats from a distant; rhythmically arranging themselves, slowly fading away with the mesmerizing view of Ganges.
Sarnath, a Buddhist pilgrimage is also one such peaceful sight. It is at Sarnath where Lord Buddha passed his learnings to his 5 disciples after He got enlightened.
Unity in diversity
Despite the cold war between the Hindus and Muslims, the normal life runs quite smoothly here with temple and mosque close to each other( Gyan Vapi mosque and Kashi Vishwanath Temple). The credit goes to the security near Vishwanath temple who helps in maintaining the discipline. The foreigners seem to gel up well with sadhus and aghoris although they look like crooks to me and I never dared to talk to them.
The acceptance of the ultimate truth: Death
Banaras is one of the rare places where death is celebrated rather than being mourned. On an average, 200- 300 bodies are cremated daily at Manikarnika Ghat. It is believed that the bodies cremated here receive moksha ( freedom from the cycle of birth and death).
I remember my first experience of being at Manikarnika Ghat. Burning bodies openly, at first, was a taboo for me. The smell of ghee ( clarified butter ) used in the burning process with smoke polluting the air and the sound of head crackling like crackers completely stunned me! The ashes of the cremated bodies came pouring down from the air falling on my body. It ridiculed me, then made me quite and calm. I began contemplating my life. After all, this is the truth and no one can run away from it- Death.
Taking dip in the holy Ganges
I would generally start my day by taking a dip in the holy water of Ganges. A bath in Ganges, with the chants all around and watching the sunrise, was the most delightful and spiritual experience I ever had. Given the foodie and lazy person that I am, a heavy breakfast following the bath and a nap after that made me utmost happy.
Houses, Streets, and Food
After bathing in the Ganges, the appetizing aroma of freshly made samosa and kachori attracted me to devour on the various delicacies of Banaras. Being a Mumbaikar, where street food is the cheapest way to fill the stomach, I am myself a die-hard fan of street food. If you are a street food lover, Banaras will never disappoint your taste buds. Aloo Tikki, samosa chaat, gol gappe, kachori chaat are to name a few. Lassi, paan, thandai can make the best dessert.
If you are visiting Banaras in winter ( the most favorable time to visit), Malaiyo is a must try. It is a seasonal dessert available only in winters and is made from milk and dew drops.
The streets here are very narrow, crowded and filled with food stalls and various shops. Taking a stroll in narrow lanes is fun in itself. You never know when a bull enters the lane and you have to stick to the walls to save yourself from a possible attack. Or a sudden honk of a bike behind you may want you to hurry up or make way for them. And in this very narrow street, if a cow feels to sit and relax, she sits there without a care in this world.
Myths, Religion, History, and Beliefs
Banaras is so ancient that every ghat, temple, street have a story to tell. I came across many mythological and historical stories about the temples and ghats as narrated to me by my friend and also lent an ear to guide’s narration to their tourist clients while wandering on the ghats.
Also Read: Mythological importance of Kheerganga
Mythological importance of Gokarna, Murudeshwar
Banaras cannot be viewed from the Hindu’s religious point of view solely. It is a place of many religions welcoming all the people from around the world from the time unknown. Great saints have blessed this place by living here, spreading the word of peace and harmony, irrespective of the religion. Saint Kabir, born in Banaras in the 15th century was one such true saint who never believed in religion and has written many poems and songs which even now inspires to rise above all hatred.
People of Banaras
People here are jovial in nature. They laugh wholeheartedly and generally find an excuse to talk, almost about anything. They can make you feel like they know you right from your birth. They are accustomed to watching the dead and hence are generally fearless. They live to the fullest with whatever they have and hardly differentiate between the good, bad, right or wrong and just do it from the bottom of their heart. Many people here don’t even care to know about the outer world. They know that people who even tour the world, come here to be cremated and so they are proud to be born in this holy land.
Banaras- A Spiritual place
A land of Lord Shiva! They say that the Lord resides here in every being, even in the smallest particle. And it is indeed reflected in the nature of the people here. Just like the people, Lord himself never distinguishes between the good and bad and accepts everyone as they are. Hence, here resides aghoris and saints; thieves and the humble ones.
Read: An adventurous journey to Shiva’s abode: Bhimashankar
Banaras is a reflection of the ultimate truth of the society- be it good or evil. And what else can be purer than the truth itself! Apart from being Hindu’s important pilgrim place, it is a place that thrives on love, compassion, and creation where various kinds of arts and crafts are born and passed on from generation to generation. It is hence the place of spiritual upliftment of all religions.