One of the oldest living civilization, nestled on the banks of the Holy river the Ganges, where the confluence of the river Varana and Asi takes place. This is how the sacred place, well renowned for the salvation of the Hindus, attained its name, the name that it’s known by today; Varanasi. Apart from that, the place is well renowned with names such as Kashi, Benares, Avimukta, Anandavana, Rudravasa, and Mahashmahana.
“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together” – Mark Twain.
So how old is Varanasi? Archaeologists believe that the first settlements in Varanasi happened in the 11th or 12th century BC. The recent excavations and findings even suggest that it maybe as old as 1800 BC. The mention of this place can be found in the Vedas, Puranas, the epic Mahabharata and Ramayana, along with much Buddhist as well ass Jain religious texts. There is a constant effort to find more about the history of the place, find some artefacts or remains to support their belief. An abode of the Hindu Lord Shiva, no foreign invasion could dismantle the strong Hindu faith in this region.
Travelling to Varanasi today takes you back in time. I do not know how the livelihood was back in those days but, when you walk past those narrow alleys embellished with age-old buildings, shops around every corner, the ringing of the bicycle bells and, the slow paced enormous bulls and cows walking along your side, it makes you realize, how well the city has retained its charm. The moment I stepped onto the old part of the town, I had a vivid imagination about what it would have looked like when there were lesser people, commercialization hadn’t crawled in, the holy river was much more vigorous and pristine. However, I’m not complaining. I love every bit of the chaos this city has to offer. Sometimes I think to myself, if I were to be born in some other nation, I wonder how I would have made it through as I strongly believe, I was born to embrace the chaos that India and its various cities have to offer. With utmost delight I would get lost in its narrow lanes, making it more constrict with my presence in the bustling crowd, where some are rushing towards the temple and ghats and at the same time, others are just as lost as I am.
When I first visited Varanasi, it was during the wedding season. Oh! What a sight to see. It isn’t every day you order your food in a cafe and while you wait for it to come, you see a bride and groom pass through the narrow alleys every 5-10 mins, to get married in the ghat of the holy river Ganges.
The Ghats. The ghats are basically the stairs that lead us to the river. Any pathways here leads you to the Ghats. You might get lost, only to find yourself on the banks of the river Ganges. And when you reach the Ghats, the sight that you may comprehend is like no other. Where is it that you often get to see from temples to the flower shops, fruit stalls to residential houses, from massage stalls to open air barber shops; everything in such great proximity to each other. One moment you hear the chanting of the Mantras and two steps further all you hear is the assorted voices of people trying to sell something or the other. Just walking past one ghat to another, meeting new people, seeing someone take a dip in the holy water with such devotion is extremely enthralling.
One of the highly recommended activity in Varanasi is the boat ride. Be it the morning or the evening boat ride, you get to appreciate the beauty of the city from a distance. The city is said to have 87 Ghats in a total of which Harishchandra Ghat and Manikarnika ghat are one among the very few important ones. As you pass through these ghats from a distance, its lot easier to picture the day to day life of a person living in Varanasi. You also get a glimpse of the cremation grounds. Once your boat ride is over, be a part of one of the biggest thanksgiving ceremony for the Hindus in the world. The ceremony is conducted every day, throughout the year.
Another important thing to do in Varanasi is a visit to the Ramnagar Fort. If you go there expecting one of the finest examples of the Mughal architecture, you might as well be disappointed because this fort is a lot smaller in comparison to the other forts you may come across. Now, it is more or less a museum with a collection of fine weaponry, vintage carriage, and other machinery as well as some attires, used by the then King and Queen. The only drawback to the museum is that it lacks maintenance hence it is not so popular among the visitors.And brace yourself. The traffic on the way to the fort is outrageous but I did enjoy the temporary bridges which you come across before you make it to the fort. If time permits, you may also visit Sarnath. 10-12 km away from the main city. Sarnath is the place where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon. It is one of the very famous places for Buddhist pilgrimage. Due to lack of time, I couldn’t make it to Sarnath but there’s always the next time.
If you would have noticed, I haven’t really discussed the cremation grounds in this article. I saved it for the last because it is one of the very critical sights to see. Varanasi has one of the largest Hindu cremation ground, which burns approximately 80 bodies a day. It is said that a Hindu who is cremated here earns salvation(moksha). When I first reached the cremation ground, all I felt was uneasy on being there at that point in time. The very thought of being a spectator to someone’s grief and not being able to comfort the family members in any way, rather just add up to their miseries by considering it as just another tourism spot; I couldn’t stand there a minute longer. I was severely displeased by the ignorant attitude of the people around. It is such an emotional moment for someone who has lost a family member, someone close to them, and all I could see was the spectators flashing their fancy phones and cameras and take a picture. No, it’s not illegal, it is not written anywhere but what about being ethically correct?
Do your moral values allow you to do so? How would you react if one of the close member of your family is getting cremated and there are some ignorant people taking pictures? No doubt your Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram feed would look tremendously attractive with pictures so raw but the question is, how far would you go?
It was in 2013 during my trip to Thailand, I took a picture holding a tiger cub. I was beyond delighted to have taken that picture. I completely ignored the fact that those cubs are kept hungry all day long so they would concentrate more on the fiddling bottle rather than excoriating our face. Till date, I feel bad about being so ignorant and selfish that I couldn’t really see beyond the fake brave woman I was pretending to be.
I know, I cannot change a thing as eventually, people will do what they have to do. But how about capturing good moments because every time you look at that picture, it takes you back in time. And not all moments are meant to be captured.
BTW, when in Varanasi, do not miss out the “Blue Lassi” where they do the most