If Varanasi had a form or figure, it would be called Shiva! The city that is said to be the home of the deity who not just did his tandav (divine dance) there but was founded by himself as mythology would say it. It is one of the sacred 7 for the Hindus, many are happy to go there and die!
Benaras– What do you expect? Dirt, color, faces lined with experience, saints, sinners, doers, non-believers, life, death, laughter, cry, pain, hope and in the midst of all this- belief!
They say Gautam Buddha gave his first sermon ever there and the Sarnath temple came to be. A hypothetical estimate of 84,000 sermons and 8400 stupas have been built around the country (the guides say so) and Varanasi has Hindus and Buddhists come alike and together to this holy haven.
How to go?– An hour and 20 minutes by flight from Delhi. More than 15 flights per day starting early morning…19 hours by train.
Where to stay? – We chose to stay on the ghats and settled with the boutique property called Suryauday hotel which has an old world charm; a courtyard nestled in the Shivala ghats. The other hotel on the ghats which is worth dining/staying in is Brijrama palace with a fort like facade and interiors of the Maratha heritage.
For a more luxurious and a royal experience, Taj hotels have acquired the Nadesar palace in the city and converted its rooms into limited suits for the guests. From Jawahar Lal Nehru (Former late Prime Minister of India), His Holiness the Dalai Lama to many British royals having stayed there…the property is truly a personalized expanse of land which provides yoga, croquet and carriage services amidst its mango orchards.
Varanasi, Benaras or Kashi came to be the holiest of all cities due to its pilgrimage and evidence of spiritual/religious amalgamation. Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism pay tribute to this city as a way of being.
The aarti or the prayer to the holy Ganga (one of the sacred rivers of India). imagine 4/500 people facing 7 podiums with 7 pundits (holy men) performing their sacred duties with candelabras bigger than our abdomen on colossal platforms. It’s not just a ceremony, it’s an act of devotion, of faith and a performance (if I can say so). The bells ring through every cell in you, waking up each atom to be alive, to be present. Tourists, Chai-wallahs, passersby, residents all come together to be a part of something bigger than reality. Our organizer, Mr Samir says “I cannot ever get bored of Kashi, I can just come and sit on the ghat and watch the world move!” Our driver Mr Pramod who spoke in between chewing paan and complaining incessantly about the traffic claims “He will never leave no matter what happens!”
Imagine- Life as ying and death as yang. The line between the two…I would call Benaras! Not to be gory, we saw cremations and celebrations adjacently. Cry of pain and joy; Tears of a culminating experience.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple– One of the holiest temple dedicated to lord Shiva or the ruler of the universe (Vishwanatha). The temple which cannot be seen from the outside goes unnoticed through the alleys which define Varanasi. As you enter the site though…you can see gold, stone and etchings which tell us tales of who all have donated, dedicated and designed the holy house. Built and destroyed multiple times; finally completed in 1780, by the Maratha ruler Ahilya Bai Holker of Indore. It is believed that lord Shiva came there after the death of Sati Devi, who later became goddess Parvati.
Paan– One cannot go to this city and not give this adventure a go. The little digestive made in a betel leaf and Areca nut combined with tobacco for some and mukhwas (mouth freshener) is eaten by every inhabitant and represents a strong culture. Though I wouldn’t suggest it to any tourist who has a weak gut and doesn’t want to walk on the wild side! We had one too many during our time there and I can almost relive it again as I think of it. You can chew it or spit it as you like, the street walls and roads are marked by the red spit that comes of it.
Other things to be eaten and tried is the chaat (street food) which its widely popular for. The gol gappas with yogurt in them, the kachori and papdi is a must.
Open Hand cafe is a great american joint for breakfast and all day dining with scrumptious and freshly baked goods, milkshakes and meals.
Thandai– The milk based creamy drink has multiple variations and needs no occasion to be consumed. With strong flavors of cardamom, nuts, saffron, black pepper, watermelon seeds, fennel and more. It is a staple during the prominent Hindu festivals Holi, Maha Shivratri and Kumbh Mela.
Clothing– Since many have recreated their own versions and photographed editorials in the same, we decided to go minimal instead of the trite. The city being so colorful and bold itself, the monotones and earthy hues with a bit of color seemed appealing to us. Urvashi kaur and her easy silhouettes, the dhoti pants with the woven blazer were light and easy options for the urban traveler. The abstract blouse with the blue draped pants stood out against the morning sun.
Accessories– Meaning to work with Dior India for sometime now. The minimal clothing needed their counterpart and the S/S’17 collection of monochromes ideally fit the bill. The vintage astrological jewelry, the cross mini bag, the sunglasses prominently framed my face. Just one problem…was this juxtapose going to work?!
Gilli Danda– The local bat and ball, the street cricket or softball. The boys play this game all over India…in between dreams, reality and now; You strike the bat waiting for an answer. I witnessed boys of varied age groups playing this along the ghat while life carried on, not caring if the Ganga swallowed their hope. I had a dire urge to join them!!!
I’d say take me back to see what a full circle looks like.
Thank you team Urvashi kaur, Sanya Dawar from Team Christian Dior India, Our guide Mr Samir and our Driver Mr Pramod.
My best friend, family and many people in one- Raghav Bhalla (the true bhakt/worshipper of lord Shiva) for the sweetest/funniest memories and a gift that will stay with me for lives to come.
A little secret– I’m always nervous when I finish an article, not because I’m worried how many people will read or like it; Because the finality of this ending hits me.
I hope you can see what I saw and live it in your own way. When I was younger, I didn’t care about travelling much around my own country and that feeling has changed over time, washed with a sense of pride at how warming and beautiful Hindustan truly is!
Photography– Between the three of us on Iphone and a Canon.
Bums, Thank you for reviving another passion that I yearn for.
Zina Singh for (the wanderer in me) Terrible Twos