BANARAS....spirituality & beyond!
Varanasi, also known as Banaras or Kashi, is one of the oldest living cities in the world. According to the historians, the city was founded some ten centuries before the birth of Christ.The city is a center of learning and civilization for over 3000 years. With Sarnath, the place where Buddha preached his first sermon after enlightenment, just 10 km away, Varanasi has been a symbol of Hindu renaissance. Knowledge, philosophy, culture, devotion to Gods, Indian arts and crafts have all flourished here for centuries. Also a pilgrimage place for Jains, Varanasi is believed to be the birthplace of Parsvanath, the twenty-third Tirthankar. Vaishnavism and Shaivism have co-existed in Varanasi harmoniously. A city which, since it is both an exalted place of pilgrimage and an idealized center of faith, has been likened to Jerusalem and Mecca.
With a number of temples, Mrs. Annie Besant chose Varanasi as the home for her 'Theosophical Society' and Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, to institute 'Benares Hindu University, the biggest University in Asia. Ayurveda is said to be originated at Varanasi and is believed to be the basis of modern medical sciences such as Plastic surgery, Cataract and Calculus operations. Maharshi Patanjali, the preceptor of Ayurveda and Yoga, was also affiliated with Varanasi, the holy city. Varanasi is also famous for its trade and commerce, especially for the finest silks and gold and silver brocades, since the early days.
Varanasi has also been a great center of learning for ages. Varanasi is associated with promotion of spiritualism, mysticism, Sanskrit, yoga and Hindi language and honored authors such as the ever-famous novelist Prem Chand and Tulsi Das, the famous saint-poet who wrote Ram Charit Manas. Aptly called as the cultural capital of India, Varanasi has provided the right platform for all cultural activities to flourish. Many exponents of dance and music have come from Varanasi. Ravi Shankar, the internationally renowned Sitar maestro and Ustad Bismillah Khan, (the famous Shehnai player) are all sons of the blessed city or have lived here for major part of their lives.
Varanasi's prominence in Hindu mythology is virtually unrivaled. A city where the past and present, eternity and continuity co-exist. The city of Banaras is situated on the west bank of the holiest of all Indian rivers, the Ganga or Ganges. Life on the banks of the Ganga begins before dawn when thousands of pilgrims - men, women and children - come down to the river to wait for the rising sun when immersion in the sacred river will cleanse them of their sufferings and wash their sins away. The city of Varanasi is on the Western bank of the River Ganga with few buildings on the Eastern bank, allowing for a spectacular view of the rising sun. The scene of pilgrims doing their devotions in the River Ganga at sunrise set against the backdrop of the centuries old temples is probably one of the most impressive sights in the world. This is best experienced from a boat in the river….So, get up before day-break & hop onto to one of these river boats.
Banaras is also symbolic of a wide variety of ghats, some of the popular ones being Panchganga Ghat - the meeting of the five rivers, Manikarnika Ghat - the main cremation ghat; Dasaswamedh Ghat - the main ghat and site of the large evening aarti; & Assi Ghat - a popular place to stay with many hotels, restaurants and internet cafes.
The best option for viewing the ghats is to charter a boat and see them from the river. Boat rides are very popular, especially at sunrise and sunset. The most popular sunset ride is to start at Dasaswamedh Ghat and gives you thr experience of the much popular ‘Ganga Aarti’ at sunset. If you go Nishadraj ghat, a few minutes walk from Assi, you can find a boat driver named Bhomi, a local singer renowned for his incredible voice and charming, beautiful songs; during the boat ride he sings anything from local folk songs to modern film songs and old devotional ones, and often improvises lyrics over his own songs to communicate with you and the various people gathered on the ghats.
The holy city within Banaras is called Kashi "The Luminous One" or the "City of Light". The most famous temples to visit is the Golden or Vishwanath Temple dedicated to Shiva the most important of the trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara, the Lords of this universe. The original temple was located across the road, but it was destroyed by Aurangzeb who had built a mosque over it. The present temple was built by Ahalya Bai of Indore in 1776. This temple marks the postcard face of banaras and therefore is a must visit!
Banaras has always been associated with philosophy and wisdom. A place of learning for many years, the Banaras Hindu University carries on this tradition. The University campus, to the south of the city, was established in 1916, has a student population of 25,000, most of whom live within the 7 sq. km campus, thus making this University one of the largest in India. Banaras Hindu University - a very green and peaceful campus. Few actually know that this University was built during the Indian freedom struggle and is known as Oxford of the East. This is the largest residential university of Asia, with 124 departments. You can also visit Bharat Kala Bhavan, a museum of Art and Archeology inside the university. There is also a huge white marbled temple called Vishwanath Temple which was bulit by Pt. Madan Mohan Malviya, the founder of the university.
To breed national unity during the freedom struggle for India’s Independence, in the 1930s and 1940s, Mahatma Gandhi built a temple where the deity is a three dimension map of India. The map is made up of about 700 individual cubes of marble, showing the respective mountain ranges and the rivers across the country. The idea was that people of different faiths and religions would come and pray for the country. Today, this building is considered a place of worship, and it is given the same respect as a temple.
Today the city is renowned for its silk weavers, who prepare the finest types of woven silk fabrics.Silk weaving in Banaras is a cottage industry and in many areas of the city, especially the Muslim quarters, one can see looms at work all day. Entire families are involved, children often pick up the art from the elders at an early age. Banarasi silk is coveted possession & makes an appreciated gift. Be sure to pick up a handful!
The city is also an acclaimed foodies paradise. With its wide variety of street foods to choose from, Banaras gives you the appetite of yeti. Eating out in Banaras is no big deal, really. In as little as 25 rupees, it is entirely possible for the backpack tourist or pilgrim on a shoestring budget to depend on the streets for his everyday meals. In the narrow, congested gallis leading to the ghats, and in the bustling, polluted market places, there is always somebody making alu tikkiyas, papri chaat and golguppas. Every locality has its own specialist. And the business goes by his name. One galli is more popular than the others for this kind of food and has come to be christened Kachodi Galli where the kachodi has many avatars. You will also come across the papad bhandar where Banarasi businessmen with names like Agrawal and Gupta make and sell papads, after-meal mouth freshners called "mukhwas", pickles and murabbas. Other delectable snacks you can eat off the streets are the potato chaat, the spinach and besan pakora; the potato and peas samosa with chutney; dalmoth, chura, papad, and the sweet and sour masala flavoured kanji to wash it all down. There are also sweets, hot, crisp jelebis dripping syrup, rabri, barfi, chumchum, malaipaan, ladoos, rasogullas.
Banarasis have a passion for milk-based drinks. The lassi is one, sherbets in all colours and flavours are another, but the thandai is the speciality. A spoon of bhang in the thandai makes a world of a difference. Bhang is mixed with milk, ice and cream, and added to the thandai to produce a kick! It can make you sing, it can make you dance, bhang can drive you deliriously happy or as depressed as hell. Lace your thandai with it cautiously. The lassis are thick, creamy and sinful. They are sold in little mud kulhads, five rupees a small kulhad, ten for a big one. When you finish your lassi, the custom is to smash the kulhad on the pavement outside the lassi shop.
With options galore, the hungry need never starve in Banaras, they will find something to eat at any part of the day or night. Banaras is hospitable, it is economical, and most enterprising.
Banaras in well known for 5 things: the banarasi Ikka (horse carriage), banarasi thag (conmen), banarasi paan, banarasi gali & banarasi saree. Be on the lookout for all….some you may want to experience!
Summers can be tough in banaras, so plan your trip between the months of October & march. Trains are the easiest way to reach Varanasi, with multiple daily services to cities including Delhi, Agra, Lucknow, Mumbai and Kolkata. Varanasi is served by two major railway stations. Many trains arrive at Varanasi Junction (IR station code : BSB) in the heart of the city, and many others arrive at Mughal Sarai Junction (IR station code : MGS). Buses also provided good connection with most cities. Tourists also have the option of flying in with banaras’s airport facilities.
Commute within Varanasi is an experience of its sorts. With many of the sights being in the tiny narrow winding alleys of the waterfront walking is the best choice. But be ready to be hot, sweaty, and lost - locals are usually happy to point you in the right direction. The names of ghats and signs pointing to restaurants and hotels are often painted on the walls in Roman letters. For better orientation, walk into any book store and pick up a small guide/map book that will have the list of all the ghats and their historical background.
A lot can be done, not only in banaras, but also around it. You could plan a half day trip to Sarnath – where itt is believed that Buddha gave his first sermon to his disciples after getting enlightenment. There is also a Museum in Sarnath. The location is also known as Deer Park. Sarnath is 13 Km from Varanasi and is very peaceful. Several Asian countries have built Buddhist temples there following their own ancient architectural traditions. Another place of tourist interest could be the Ram Nagar Fort - the fort of the King of Kashi which is situated at the other side of the river.
Varanasi is not a city with distinct tourist destinations; the joy of the experience comes from watching the spectacle of life and death- on the river and in the eyes of the people who come to the Ganga- as well as in meandering through the alleys of the old city, trying to fathom the ways of a very mature culture. Varanasi grows on you, like it did on millions for the past thousands of years! They say that people who visit Kashi never come back. It simply means that once you visit Kashi, you are changed forever. You are not the same after the visit.
-an article by Shristi Singh