Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Vibrant Varanasi


Varanasi was the last part of our Christmas trip where we decided to stop over after the Madhya Pradesh tour (the one I narrated in one of my previous posts) and before returning to the mundane day to day work life of Kolkata. We were not too religiously inclined and were more interested to have a feel of the spirit of the city (one of the oldest living cities of human civilization) rather than temple hopping. So my account would not be one through the eyes of a devout but rather through the lens of a wanderer.

The Onward Journey

We took the Bundelkhand Express from Gwalior to Varanasi in the evening after a full day’s tour of Orchha and thankfully the train was stationed at the correct hour unlike our experience at the Gwalior station on the previous day (when we could not find any suitable train to Orchha since all the trains were delayed or running late). Gwalior was the starting station, so most of the compartments were empty and there were four passengers missing in our coupe of six.

Srimanta (my friend and traveling partner) started conversation with a fellow passenger, a young BSF soldier from Coochbehar who was in Gwalior for an armed forces’ sports meet. It was overwhelming to learn that he coming from Bengal and participating on behalf of Kolkata Police earned gold medals in horse racing. He was on his way to his posting at Guwahati and tale telling the life and experiences of a soldier.
Meanwhile I was more concerned with our dinner options. We did not have a proper lunch in the day and were devastated to learn that there is no pantry in the train. Skipping dinner as well would have lead to starvation and the only feasible alternative that we could figure out was to buy some food at the next station Jhansi. The fact that the train stops only for a few minutes at Jhansi was not something that excited us and we decided to buy whatever food we could find quickly.

It was Jhansi where our co-passengers also got aboard. They were a family of foreigners (an elderly couple and two grown up children) speaking some strange language amongst themselves that we could not make out a single word of. One of them was reading a newspaper for a while and the scripts looked non familiar as well. It was late in the night and we were eager to go to bed (at least sleep would ward off our hunger) and did not feel much urge to befriend them and find out which country they came from. However between Srimanta and me we thought that they might be from Israel. The discovery though lacked any actual logic and bore more proneness to the common saying in our part of the world that anything one does not understand anything about is in Hebrew. Jokes apart, the elder lady had a swollen foot (which she feared had a fracture) and the entire night someone or the other provided medication to her and consoled her and the father went for a smoke (though it is not legal to smoke on a train) almost every hour. So, in between our sleep, we spent the night like watching a foreign film without sub-titles.

The train reached Varanasi the next morning without much delay. However it stopped far too often in between almost every 15-20 minutes apart which gave us the expression that we were traveling in a passenger train rather than an express one.

Hotel Hunting

We did not have any prior reservation at Varanasi and we booked an auto rickshaw to take us to any decent hotel in medium tariff range in the Godhulia locality which is like the heart of the city. The auto driver charged us a meagre rupees twenty to our disbelief. Though it was only a couple of kilometers away from the station, but still the fare seemed far too little given the fact that Varanasi is a popular tourist hub. We were taken to around 5-6 hotels but all of them were fully booked. I was cursing Srimanta as it was his idea not to pre-book any hotel and that was not much favoured by me. The driver kept telling us that due to Christmas and some other occasions there was an enormous influx of tourists in the city. But one hears all such things whenever one visits a busy tourist place. At last we could settle for one hotel for 1000 bucks (though it might be a bit inflated). The auto rickshaw driver must have had his share of commission since he perhaps spent more on petrol than the fare. We were exhausted from hunger and fatigue. Soon after checking into the hotel I took a refreshing shower and gorged on the food (at last some non-vegetarian food). Soon afterward we went for an afternoon nap keeping beside any plan for city travel.

The Sarnath Trip

In the late afternoon we thought of doing some rounds of the city. But the receptionist at our hotel suggested that we could make a trip to Sarnath (which is around 13 kms away from Varanasi) on that day and schedule the city tour on the next day. We were keen to experience the “sandhya aarti” on the ghats in the evening and instructed the driver of the auto rickshaw, we booked (for two way journey at rupees 250), to get us back by then.

Sarnath is one of the four prominent pilgrimages for people of Buddhist faith, the others being Lumbini, Bodhgaya and Kushinagar. It is where Gautama Buddha preached his first sermon on “Dharma” to five disciples. We noticed many such pilgrims many of them from foreign countries as well (mostly south-east Asia, I guess, where Buddhism is much followed). There were many Indian tourists as well, many of them with spiritual inclination. Even in Hindu mythology, Buddha is considered as an “Avatar” (an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, not the James Cameron movie). And then there were some who were being simply tourists, like us.

The auto rickshaw driver arranged a guide for us from the union that all guides are affiliated to (at least that is what we were told). And to our dismay, he charged us rupees twenty only. Later we figured out that the actual income again comes from the commission and the nexus continues. The guide showed us around some temples built with financial help of devotees from foreign countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka and enlightened us with some facts about Buddha. There were some images from the Jataka tales within the temples. One of the temples included a large sculpture depicting Buddha preaching to his disciples.

We also witnessed the Dharma Stupa, a massive stone structure (128 feet high and 93 feet in diameter) built by Emperor Asoka, which enshrines bones and other relics of Buddha. There were relics of some structures like Dharmarajika Stupa but nothing exists today except the foundation. I am not too sure if those brick foundations even date back to before Christ or if they were relayed later.

The guide then took us to the place which he was more interested in, I presume, - a handloom store. On our way he told us how a village full of weavers, just around the corner, in Sarnath weaves Benarasi Silk and how they are being helped by some government programmes and the union that he represents. And he chatted more about silk and sarees than he ever talked about the history or the monuments. And though he talked us into the shop only to show us how they weave silk, but once inside, the salesmen were more keen to show us the ready to sell sarees, only for display and we were not obliged to buy, as they always say in the stores. We were getting irritated at the idea of spending our time at a saree shop and the growing pursuance of the salesmen as well to try sell at least some of those fascinating workmanships (which they claimed comes much cheaper than any city store, but I am no expert to either confirm or deny) and after a few minutes, Srimanta and I could finally make our way out somehow convincing the salesmen that we do not have any female in our entire clan to buy a saree for.

The guide was waiting outside and he looked indifferent and apathetic to take us anywhere further and we left him by himself, calculating his lost commission at the handloom store, and went to see the stupas one more time from close proximity and take some snaps. Evening was creeping in and the sun was slowly setting across the horizon. That meant we had to skip visiting the archeological museum so that we could reach the Ganga ghat in time for the “sandhya aarti”.

The Sandhya-Aarti

We reached the Dashashwamedh Ghat just in time and the “sandhya aarti” was about to begin. It is the ghat nearest to the Kashi Vishwanath temple and remains crowded with devotees all day long and in the evening a group of priests perform the “sandhya aarti”. All the front row seats (the steps of the ghat nearer to the river Ganga) were taken and we had to sit a few meters away in the middle. Five priests were performing some rituals and chanting some mantras. Soon some “bhajans” were played and some of them were in Bengali to my surprise. But then again Varanasi has long been the second home of Bengali worshippers and pilgrims and of course destitute widows. After some time the priests began jugglery with large lamps along with some dancing steps. Soon, a trance began to spread and at last people could concentrate on the “aarti” rather than the tea vendors and the roaming cows. Some started taking snaps and the large zoom lens helped. Neither I nor Srimanta could take any good snap from that distance (and owing to the fact that our cameras were not that good enough) but the magnificent view remained in our memory. The “aarti” was followed by setting afloat small lamps along the river that created a magical scene.

The Ghats

The next morning we decided to visit the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Though we were not too religiously inclined but being to Varanasi and not visiting the Vishwanath temple would not have seemed right. We took a cycle rickshaw and reached the temple entrance in less than 10 minutes (which included a few minutes’ walk since the rickshaw was not allowed after a certain point). The best part of being in Varanasi was that we could converse in Bengali, our mother tongue, as most people understood the language. The rickshaw puller was enlightening us with some folk lore about Lord Shiva and mentioned something about how Shiva left Varanasi once and ended up in Bengal at Tarakeshwar. By the way both Vishwanath and Taraknath are other names of Lord Shiva. I do not recall the exact tale but remember the part that one Shivalinga was unearthed and the Tarakeshwar temple was later on built at that place. Srimanta coming from that part of the world, near Tarakeshwar, was butting in with his knowledge though I am not sure how much is he conversant with Hindu mythology. Anyway, most of the colloquial versions of the mythological tales are not even accurate as they have been mentioned in the “Puranas” and even different “Puranas” have different versions of the same event or the same individual.

Once at the gate of the temple, we learnt that we could not enter with our cameras and the “pandas” encircled us and threatened that it would take ours to enter the temple unless we take the “short-cut” with their help at the expense of some cash of course. Now at most of the holy places I visit (and I do not enjoy visiting them much to be honest), I find anything but divine sanctity and it is difficult for even the devout to sustain the spiritual thoughts in such an atmosphere of chaos and pandemonium. We decided to postpone our visit to the temple and headed for the ghats.

I had heard that there are 84 ghats in total in Varanasi. Earlier, I read somewhere that the name Varanasi has its origin from the names of two rivers, Varuna and Assi and the place Varanasi is their points of confluence with Ganga and so it's not queer to find so many ghats.

We started with the most popular and the one nearest to the temple – Dashashwamedh Ghat. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Brahma made sacrifices of ten horses in a “yajna” over here and hence the name. And next to it is the Dr. Rajendra Prasad Ghat commemorating the first president of India.

If it were the “pandas” at the temple, here at the ghats, we were constantly accosted by boatmen. The boats ferry people to the other side and to the Harishchandra Ghat where ancient king Harishchandra stayed for some time. However, we decided against a river ride since I was having a cough and cold problem from the previous night and the morning was quite windy and a boat ride could have aggravated my cold.

To avoid the rush we spent more of our time in the less crowded adjacent ghats like Ahilyabai Ghat, Munsi Ghat, Man Mandir Ghat, Prayag Ghat, Scindia Ghat etc. The ghats are not segregated as such, that is, there is no clear demarcation between two ghats and the way I saw it was that they were continuous flight of steps that ran along the banks of rive Ganga. Of course at some points the steps have broken down (in lesser popular ghats) and it becomes difficult to continue one’s walk. But unless one looks up at the signs bearing the names of the ghats one does not understand at all times when one leaves one ghat and enters the next.

We witnessed all types of people starting from the ferrymen calling out to the tourists to priests doing sacred post-funeral rituals, where the kindred of the bereaved perform “shraddh” and offer “tarpan”, to body builders and wrestlers undergoing their daily excersize routines, to massage men looking out for customers, to “sadhus” (saints) just passing their idle time smoking “ganja” (grass) and so on and so forth.

There were many hotels located just where the ghats ended and mostly foreign tourists favour those and some of them even spend months in such hotels. Some shutterbugs (mostly foreigners) with huge camera lenses were busy taking snaps of the surroundings. A couple of elderly men were engrossed in a game of chess sitting on top of one of the extended structures of the ghats. It seemed that their game was to be continued till eternity and they did not even bother looking at the tourist taking some close shots of them with his camera. A foreigner family (including two small children) was found completely relaxed spending their leisure time by the banks of the river and it seemed they have become completely acclimatized to the surrounding. The woman was seated in a “yoga” position in Indian clothes hinting that they might have spent quite some time at Varanasi. Then there were the hippies (that is what I felt from their looks and attires) roaming around aimlessly.

We ended our tour of the ghats with the Manikarnika Ghat. This is one of the oldest ghats of Varanasi and is reputed as a sacred Hindu cremation ground. Even during the time we spent there, we witnessed two funerals. By the side of the ghat, there were shops dealing in piles of wooden logs to be used for cremation and live funeral taking place with those woods a few steps away. That was quite an experience, I must say.

The Lanes

The sun was hitting hard and it was almost noon. We left the ghats and marched into the famous serpentine lanes of Varanasi. At first we wandered around the narrow lanes encircling the main temple itself. There was this tunnel kind of place where poor old women were resting in the shades and begging for alms. I read in the books that it was a common practice in the old days to abandon Hindu widows in Varanasi as destitute, sometime with a little token pension, in old age homes to spend the rest of their living days in the refuge of God. But in many cases young widows would also find their fate taking them to Varanasi denied of their share of the family property or castigated from the society. Not sure about the stories of these women but most of them looked really old and might have been spending the major part of their lives here. We even came across one such old age home or “briddhabas” as they are called during our pursuit.

At another turn of the lanes we found a temple modeled on the Pashupatinath temple of Nepal and the unusual part of it is that one has to take a spiraling flight of steps downwards to reach the temple. Interestingly, here we found a “toll” or school for teaching Sanskrit with young pupils reciting the “mantras”.

After we finished our tour around the temple we headed for lunch at a nearby Bengali “pice hotel”. We learnt about the place from the rickshaw puller in the morning and decided to have our afternoon meal there only (instead of going back to the hotel we were staying at) and even took directions from him to reach the same. But when the time came we wronged at following the direction properly and ended up in a different lane. Realizing the error, we took a side alley assuming that it would lead us to the correct place. But after some time we were completely lost with no clue whatsoever to follow which lane as there were innumerable diversions. And to add to our woes, the lanes lacked the presence of any human being to guide us. It reminded us of the Feluda flick, Joy Baba Felunath, where Feluda was attacked by the accomplices of the villain Maganlal Meghraj in one such lane. At last we met a man who guided us back to the main street and we felt relieved to come out of those winding lanes.

Kashi Vishwanath

After lunch we tried our luck again at the Vishwanath temple and this time not many “pandas” were around as it was during the hourly afternoon break when no one is allowed to enter the temple. The queue of devotees waiting to enter the temple was also not that long. We kept our shoes and mobile phones (left our cameras at the hotel) in a nearby shop selling “puja” offerings for the divine and entered the temple. The security at the temple is very tight due to the fear of a possible terrorist attack anytime. Inside the temple complex, there are so many monkeys hovering around the extended parts of the temple dome trying to snatch away food offerings that the devotees bring for the God.

Just before entering the main temple there was absolute chaos with people pushing others to get inside and once inside to get nearer to the Shivalinga. The policemen on duty there were not able to manage properly but one can not entirely blame them for the mismanagement. At first I was looking around everywhere for the idol of Lord Shiva and only after some time realized that the only deity was the Shivalinga and that too placed quite interior, probably what is known as the “garva griha”. Soon we came out of the temple and were happy to grasp the fresh air again after the claustrophobic confinement of the temple where one is being pushed from every side by other devotees. We made a small stop at the adjacent Annapurna temple and made our way out of the temple complex. But the unfortunate part is that we were not allowed to exit via the gate we entered but another gate which is beside the mosque. The Vishwanath temple had been invaded and destroyed a number of times in the medieval period and the temple in its present state was built by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore in the late eighteenth century. When the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb destroyed the temple, he built a mosque at the place and we took our exit from that side. We did not know which gate we came in through and wandered clueless, bare foot, again through the winding lanes searching for our entry gate and the shop we left our shoes at. There were freely roaming cows and bulls at almost every bend of the lanes and we had to make our way around them and also had to be alert not to step on the cow dung. The bull is believed to be the “vahan” or vehicle of Lord Shiva and so they roam around freely without being harmed and are actually treated as sacred. Finally we found the gate and the shop and thankfully our pursuit ended.

BHU and The Other Temples

The next day we started early to visit some of the other temples of Varanasi. We took a rickshaw and first went to the Tulsi Manas temple which is dedicated to Lord Rama and commemorates the penning of the epic Ramcharitamanas by the famous poet Tulsidas. This temple has been built quite recently, around fifty years back and unlike other temples is a very calm place. The next destination was the Durga temple which is another famous temple of Varanasi built in the eighteenth century and this place also had an unlikely sereneness, may be due to the fact that there were fewer devotees present then. We went around the temple in circles - what is called “pradakkhin”. I noticed a palatial but ill maintained house nearby which used to be the rest house of the royal family of Tripura. Not sure who lives there now but building is currently in quite a bad shape.

We contemplated to visit the Benaras Hindu University in the afternoon after lunch but when we realized that it is not far from the place we were at, we decided to pre-pone our visit to the university complex and excluded the Sankat Mochan temple from our list of places to stop over as it was in a slightly different route from there.

BHU is the largest residential university in Asia and it was founded in the early twentient century by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, a statue of whom is present at the gate of the university. The campus is huge, spread over around 1400 acres and even on a rickshaw it took us quite some time to cover only a part of it. The university comprises almost every department one can think of ranging from medical to engineering and technical, science, and arts and so on and so forth, and enroll thousands of students. Even there is a hospital within the campus and a Birla temple too. We were missing our cameras badly which we had left at the hotel since our initial plan was to visit the temples only and most of the temples bar people from entering with cameras.

On our way back to the hotel we made a brief stop at the Til Bhandeshwar temple. This temple is also dedicated to Lord Shiva and my assumption is that it is a temple of South Indian origin. But then I saw the name of the temple scripted in Bengali as well along with some Dravidian script. My mother on her visit to Varanasi with her family nearly forty years back stayed near this temple, so she asked me to make it a point to visit it. Not far away from here is located the “Bengali Tola” or the neighborhood with major Bengali population.

Peda and Pan Masala

Our stay at Varanasi was coming to the end and it was time to collect the items that I was specifically told to bring back from there. I had two such items in my list and no, Benarasi Silk was not one of them. Both were food items, the special Benarasi Pan Masala and “Peda” a special type of Indian sweet. The pan masala was easier to get since there were many such shops found along the road to Dashashwamedh Ghat just opposite to the Vishwanath temple entrance. We bought an assortment of various varieties of pan masala from a shop named Bishur Zarda (the name was in in Bengali script) and the shop attendant gave us a business card and informed us that we could even order over phone from Kolkata or for that matter any city and they would courier the pan masala (only above one kg) after receiving a demand draft (adding the courier cost of course). Later on I even found them enlisted in Justdial.com. Now that is truly an exemplary example of modernization where even a pan masala retailer is going international. As for the “Pedas” we were undecided on which confectionary shop to buy from. I made a call to my aunt and she suggested one shop near the Til Bhandeshwar temple and tentatively named it Kheer Sagar. She also last visited Varanasi probably more than twenty years back and was not confident of taking the right name. A few enquiries and we soon found out the sweet shop and yes she was bang on – the name of the shop is indeed Kheer Sagar. This is probably the most popular confectionary shop in the locality (as it appeared from the footfall) and is located at a place called Sonarpura. I would very much suggest people visiting Varanasi to try out some of their sweets. They taste outstanding and I am a big fan of sweets anyway.


The vacation was over and it was time to make the journey back to Kolkata. Though we missed out on some of the places (like the Ramnagar Fort and some of the ghats) due to dearth of time, nevertheless we were contented since we came to get a hold of the pulsating character of the city and we were lucky to experience the vibrancy of the city which is still very much alive and lively even after all these thousands of years and we would cherish the memories of our visit for years to come.