3 days in Varanasi but a journey of a lifetime

Varanasi jolted us from the illusion we called as ‘digital age’. Every corner street has a cyber cafe, but the famed Banarasi silk sarees were still being painstakingly woven through wooden looms. We were fortunate enough to experience one such beautiful cream-red silk saree being woven in a loom at the Sarnath Art Gallery in Sarnath city, 12 kms from Varanasi; the gallery houses handicrafts, sarees, blankets, carpets, sculptures and more made by the ‘Poor Labourers Buddhist Society’.

We ended up buying three sarees here, not only as a gesture of support but also because they were very pretty. Every silk thread was made of 108 silk threads that the weaver artfully inserted into the holes in the wooden loom, weaving and designing gold silk motifs on the way – paisleys, roses, flowers, leaves all weaved with the help of mathematical calculations and the will to create the perfect Banarasi saree.

Banarasi silk saree weaving
A weaver at work, Banarasi silk sarees

How we ended up at the Sarnath Art Gallery is also an interesting story, will reveal more of it in my Sarnath adventures below.

People visit Varanasi for a number of reasons: the most prominent of all being religious. Also called as the spiritual capital of India, Varanasi is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism, and played an important role in the development of Buddhism. In fact, Guru Nanak Dev had visited the city during Shivrathri in 1507, a trip that played a significant role in founding Sikhism. But, the Mister and me visited as tourists, pilgrimage can be pushed for old age!

Varanasi is such an ancient city that it’s been called by many names over the ages. The present name comes from the two tributaries of Ganga – Varuna and Asi that bound the city. Ancient name Kashi was used by the pilgrims from the Buddhist days, and has been mentioned in the Rigved and Puranas as well. Legend has it that Lord Shiva founded the city, calling it his royal palace.

The Mister and me had pre-decided that our three days in the city will not be hurried ones, having us jump from one tourist must-see, must-do to another. We wanted to soak in the city, its culture, its people.

For a city built around the banks of the Ganga, Varanasi has 84 ghats, many of which are private. Our guest house was at the Assi ghat facing the mighty Ganga, with the Ramnagar fort looking hazily at us from the right. We started with a walk across the ghats, after casually browsing through the Ravidas Park nearby.

The first half was spent walking, sitting, clicking pictures till Harishchandra ghat, the ghat for Hindu cremations after Manikarnika, the ghat dedicated only to cremations. These are the two ghats where cremation will ensure the soul is truly free. There’s amazing cups of ‘lebu cha’ or ‘lemon tea’ to be had while you are on Assi ghat: small cup Rs.5 and big cup Rs. 10. You can also watch out for the fishermen with their varied techniques, to catch fish along the banks. People taking morning boat rides are also a beautiful sight to see.

Ghats buildings
A few of the random ghats for the beautiful architecture

But, there is everyday life also mingling with the ancient and cultured city. Along the steps of the ghats are strewn numerous washed clothes left to dry. Men are taking baths too, the water was foamy near them. The Ganga takes it all – effluents, washing soaps, clay lamps, human and animal waste, and possibly some of their sins too.

The Ganga
The Ganga

When our feet began to complain a few ghats from Harishchandra ghat, we climbed up the steps to enter the city streets. Very congested roads with shops, establishments and more on each side. There’s food, handicrafts, woollen wear, silk sarees and an assortment of Indian languages being spoken in the streets. And, watch out, these are two way streets meant for the buffaloes, bikes, three-wheelers and you the pedestrian!

The Mister bought short kurthas in cotton and khadi fabric, while I bought a woollen poncho at one of these shops. We somehow survived our way out to the main road. We ate at the local hotels where the kitchens are on the outside. Rice, roti/puri, sabzi, dal, pickle and jalebis. I bought some glass bangles and an embroidered chappal too, off the streets.

Top left: kachori-sabzi and jalebi, Top right: laung laata, Bottom left: Dahi wada, Bottom right: Puri sabzi
Top left: kachori-sabzi and jalebi, Top right: a sweet – laung laata, Bottom left: Dahi wada, Bottom right: Puri sabzi

We returned to Assi ghat, our guest house, atop one of the cycle rickshaws that form the main transport in the old part of the city, while devouring more cups of lebu cha and bhuja. This is a snack made from puffed rice, several types of grains mixed with a special type of spicy chutney, and not to be confused with jhaal-muri of the Bengalis.

Bhuja is made right in front of you, the maker carefully measures each portion of rice, daals, and heats them along with a salt-sand mixture. Then he filters out the puffed things through a sieve. Now it goes to another guy who adds the spices and the chutney, shakes it all up in a small vessel and gives it to you in a paper bag. This process is repeated for any quantity you buy: rs 10, rs 20 or more!

While on our way back, I learnt there is nothing non-vegetarian served anywhere, except for one place that was selling chicken tandooris. Streets are teeming with paan dukaans, our regular ‘Calcutta meetha’ was replaced with Banarasi paan, a must-have if you are a connoisseur of good paan. The Mister explained that the khattha and chuna used is just perfect for a juicy paan, post lunch. Besides, there is an option to have ‘gulkhand khattha‘ too, the rose adding the royal essence. Here, people were eating one or two, and also taking back with them packets of paan to be eaten with friends (or alone) for the rest of the day!

Making of bhuja and paan
Making of bhuja and paan

The temperature was down to 13-14 degrees C as we made our way out from Assi again, to experience the famed ‘Ganga Aarti’ in the evening. The ritual begins at around 6 pm and goes on for an hour or more, in between of which you only experience a show of lights, camphor vapour and the magic of Hindu religious rituals.

Day one involved absorbing the city and embracing it fully. In the beginning, I was shocked when our auto-rickshaw driver slowed his vehicle at regular intervals just to spit. I was equally shocked that every time anybody opened their mouth to speak, they would first spit some paan on the side. Basically, spitting in public was not considered offensive at all!

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Day two began with a walk to BHU (Banaras Hindu University), one of the biggest residential universities in the world, after having breakfast at ‘Pehalwan Lassi Bhandar’ close to Ravidas Gate. I must have had the yummiest kachori-sabzi here that Varanasi had to offer. A plate of hot golden jalebis is a must for the sweet-toothed ones like me. Then, how can one forget thick white lassi topped with fresh rabri and served in a clay pot?

Lassi, Malaiyo, Thandai
Lassi, Malaiyo, Thandai

There’s something new we discovered, don’t know any other place that serves it. It is available only in winter as it requires thick milk to be laid out in the sun, at that particular temperature to form a frothy, creamy, all natural dessert, served in a clay pot. It’s called ‘malaiyo’, meaning ‘of malai/cream’. We had two cups but the heart wanted more.

The BHU has many centres of research; students both girls and boys wore woollen jackets over their uniforms, cycles seemed to be the mode of transport for many of them. We headed to the mini Kashi Vishwanath temple within the campus and basked in the beauty of the natural surroundings and the architecture of the temple.

We returned to Assi to rest for a while, while we bought some street jewellery, woollen wear on our way back. The evening was reserved for the Ganga aarti at Dashaswamedh Ghat, the main ghat where the rituals are more elaborate and crowd-pulling. We headed to the Dashaswamedh from Assi via a sharing boat at around 5:45 pm. The lighted ghats shone like jewels while we made our way through the crescent-shaped bank in a boat.

The ghats in the evening
The ghats in the evening

Dashaswamedh is a sight in the evening. Five priests stand on wooden stools facing the Ganga and perform a series of rituals. The Ganga Aarti at Assi ghat is also the same, only the scale is smaller.

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Day three was dedicated to Sarnath museum. After having breakfast at our favourite ‘Pehelwan Lassi Bhandar’, we headed out in an auto-rickshaw to Sarnath, 12 kms from Varanasi, armed with well-meaning advice to ‘not visit’ the city at all!

But, visit we did and it was a special trip. A guide appeared from no where, and offered to show us around for Rs 20, we were not keen on having a human walk around with us in the historical place, and push us from one place to another. But, he was hellbent and later we learnt why.

First we visited the Thai temple – Wat Sarnath, which is part temple and part meditation place for Buddhists. There’s another temple, probably a Sri Lankan one nearby, both temples show the four important stages in Gautama Buddha’s life – Birth at Lumbini in Nepal, Enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, First sermon at Sarnath and Death at Kushinagar, Gorakhpur. There’s the Sri Digambar Jain temple too; Sarnath is the birthplace of the Eleventh Thirthankara of Jainism.

Deer at Sarnath
Deer at Sarnath

Sarnath, also called ‘Mrigadava’ meaning ‘deer jungle’, was a densely forested place teeming with deer when Buddha came here. Now, the deer can be seen through an enclosure at one side. Our guide knew quite a lot of things, he has been trained at the Buddhist school nearby, although he isn’t a Buddhist himself.

Our guide then took us to the Sarnath Art Gallery and showed us the handloom, I was given the privilege to touch the silk threads and feel its fineness as it makes its journey into a beautiful silk brocade saree. He left us to shop there, but returned promptly to guide us to other places. We had bought three sarees and a wooden Buddha in the meditative posture.

Sarnath, in its peak, was a major centre for monks and Buddhism flourished in the city. Today the site is in ruins, after being invaded by Turkish Muslims in the 12th century. They looted the site for building materials, while taking away a very significant part of history.

Dhamek Stupa Sarnath
Dhamek Stupa, top: site, bottom: ancient engravings on the stupa

Much of the excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India shows a beautifully structured city with stone-carved sculptures of the Buddha and Boddhisattvas. All these finds are now in the Sarnath Archaeological Museum, carefully documented and preserved for those who believe ‘history repeats itself’. There’s rich history to be found from 3rd century BCE to 12th century AD of Sarnath. Although photography isn’t allowed at the museum, the stone sculptures will remain in your mind.

The Lion Capital from the Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath has also been found and restored in the Sarnath museum. The Dhamek Stupa is at 128 feet high and 93 feet in diameter, no wonder it was impossible for the Turks to break it. There are many such Stupas in the city, our guide says Buddhist monks face the stupa while in meditation. A stupa is a solid dome structure build in layers of bricks.

An 80.9 feet high Buddha statue was built in layers by a Bangalore architect recently. The base takes you through the four important stages in the Buddha’s life through replicas of the place. Do make a note of his mudras or sacred hand gestures.

Buddha postures Sarnath
Little Siddhartha Gautama in Baal mudra at birth, Bhumisparsha Mudra at Bodh Gaya, Dharmachakra Mudra at first sermon in Sarnath,

Apparently, the Buddha inspired people to do great things, one small layer at a time!

We returned to Assi in Varanasi, bodily tired but mentally enriched with what human civilization had and lost over the ages. We did not eat anything, a glass of lemonade sufficed us.

The second half we decided to visit the main Kashi Vishwanath temple near Dashaswamedh. Kashi Vishwanath temple has an interesting survival story. It has been destroyed and re-constructed a number of times in history; the last structure was demolished by Aurangzeb, who constructed the Gyanvapi Mosque on its site. The current structure was built on an adjacent site by the Maratha monarch, Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore in 1780.

The temple has three domes made of pure gold, and is heavily protected by police teams. You cannot take your bags, wallets or mobile phones inside, everything must be kept in lockers. The temple does not provide lockers, but one can hire a free locker in the numerous small shops nearby. In return, one needs to buy flowers and other offerings to the god.

Our journey was never a religious one, and also we didn’t want to be late to check out the cremations at the Manikarnika ghat. Looking at the crowds and estimating our time here, we knew we had to take a call. Both the Mister and me decided to walk into the ghats and watch corpses being burnt instead!

I looked from far, the Mister went closer. He saw half burnt bodies, an endless stock of firewood, men ensuring that corpses burnt nicely while casual mourners watched in silence. I clicked one picture, reluctantly. They say the funeral pyres at Manikarnika have been burning ceaselessly, since the first ever cremation ages ago!

We walked across the Lalita Ghat and then to the Dr. Rajendra Prasad ghat adjacent to Dashaswamedh. The Ganga aarti had started at the Dr. Rajendra Prasad ghat, and it wasn’t much different from the other evening aartis. This time the Mister and me sat right in the front and experienced the whole series.

We returned to Assi in a cycle rickshaw, while breathing in the cold Varanasi air. The Mister had his last Banarasi paan, while our cycle guy was also treated to his favourite paan. Nobody said a word, we didn’t return to our guest house, we stopped at the Assi ghat instead.

We sat on the steps and hoped to turn back the clock. But alas, life only moves forward!

Mary and her 3 little lambs
Mary and her 3 little lambs

A good while later, we walked to our guest house and returned to our reality, thanks to the Wifi setup there. I checked my inbox, whatsapped a few images, listened to Bengali numbers on gaana app, while the Mister went about photo-blogging his Varanasi travel diaries on Instagram. All we were left with were hashtags – #varanasi, #traveldiaries, #instatravel but they meant so much more now.

Happy 2016 to all my readers! May peace be with you 🙂