Where Every Bylane has a story to Tell
Most people regard Varanasi as a spiritual centre. But the city has more to offer. Street food, a breathtaking boat-ride on the shimmering waters of the river Ganga, the spellbinding evening Arti, gorgeous Benaras sarees and lots more. Aayushi Sharma, a native of Benaras takes the reader on an enchanting journey through the bylanes of the city that have an interesting story to tell.
Varanasi is said to be situated atop Lord Shiva’s Trishul (Trident). Located on the banks of the river Ganges, this city is celebrated and revered as the seat of Vedic culture and as the spiritual capital of India. But this spiritual legacy has been celebrated more by foreign travellers rather than its natives. I was lucky enough to be born in Varanasi. Living here taught me about secularism even before I knew this word. From celebrating Shivratri(a Hindu festival that celebrates the wedding occasion of Goddess Parvati and Lord Shiva) by taking out a Shiv Baarat to taking out Taajiyas on Muharrum (The first month of the Islamic calendar), the city is a happy amalgam of different cultures and traditions. But for me Varanasi is much more than just the spiritual capital of India.
People dream of witnessing a glorious sunrise from a boat Well! this city, makes such dreams come true. Benaras (as it was originally called) is home to more than 88 ghats. A boat-ride on the blue expanse of the river Ganga is perhaps one of the most enchanting experiences for anyone travelling to Varanasi. From my personal experience I can say that a boat ride is much more than an adventure. It is a spiritual quest, a journey that gives a cosmic perspective. I woke up at 4 o’clock to visit the Chausatti Ghat, where one can hire a boat for the ride across Ganga. A few helmsmen approached me, offering their boats for the ride. Honestly speaking, I was a little nervous as I was boarding a boat after six long years. But much to my surprise, as soon as we started moving away from the land, I grew less anxious and more excited. Soon enough, the grey sky turned a beautiful blue and as the sun rose, the sky was splashed in shades of pink and orange with pristine white clouds adding beauty to an already gorgeous canvas. I could hear the temple bells pealing across the water. I could feel the ripple of excitement among the devotes and onlookers on the banks as they prepared for the prayers and Ganga-snan (bath in the Ganges). My anxiety dissipated and a sense of serene calm enveloped me. I felt confident enough to take the oars from the helmsman and row the boat. My boatman was a garrulous storyteller who regaled me with lots of folktales about the ghats. Perhaps the most interesting tale was about the Leaning temple. Yes! There exists a leaning temple called Kashi Karat. According to the helmsman, this temple was built by a servant of King Man Singh. He constructed the temple as a tribute to his mother’s love and sacrifices for him. But the story goes that after the construction of the temple, he boasted that he had now repaid the debt he owed to his mother. But as soon as he said this, the temple broke from one side and leaned over as though admonishing him for his arrogance in trying to put a value to a mother’s love.
After one hour of the boat ride, I stepped out on the Dashashwamedh Ghat. The day had begun on a very beautiful note, and I did not want it to end. As I stepped out onto the streets of Varanasi, I was assailed by delicious aromas from the food stalls lining the streets. It is a delight to see people enjoying Lassi, Dosa, and Kachori-jalebi with some warm tea in the morning. Even if you are not a foodie, the aromas beckon you to just sit down and enjoy the taste of every bite of the culinary delights on offer. I chose to eat kachori-jalebi that morning. The next day, I could not resist going back to sample more of the delicious offerings. Benaras offers you ‘chaat’ like no other city in India. I went twice to Vishwanath Lane. During my first visit, I went to Vishwanath Chaat bhandar (a shop which is more than 45 years old) and I had an amazing bowl of the ‘Banarasi Tamatar Chaat’ and ‘Dahi Puri’. Tamatar Chaat is a lip-smacking snack with a blend of cottage cheese, potatoes and mostly tomatoes, whereas Dahi puri is more on the sweet side with the flavour of curd titillating your taste buds. I also decided to explore the Vishwanath Gali (narrow lane) which is popular for its amazing range of sweetmeats and dairy desserts. I have lived in Varanasi for many years, but I didn’t know the range of sweets these little shops offered until I went on a tour. I started with my favourite Lassi (buttermilk) and then moved on to Rabri and Malai. My favourite dessert of course is ‘Malaiyo’, a sweet made of milk cream, but this secret Banaras recipe is only available in the months of December and January. This is one of the reasons why the ideal time to visit Varanasi is considered to be the winter season. Whether you have a sweet-tooth or are spicy-ophile, this place is heaven for food lovers.
Next day, I decided to take a look at the local market. Hand woven bags, bangles, carpets, were just some of the amazing goods on display. The Dashashwamedh market is the place to go to if you are looking for artifacts. And if you are a ‘saree’ fan and want to see the magic of Banarasi saree weavers, you need to head out to Gauriganj, as I did. Even after the establishment of electric handlooms, the famous Indian designers still come back to these places to get the more intricate work done by these weavers. Intrigued by their work, I talked to the weavers. While talking to the weavers I realised, how badly the pandemic had affected their livelihood. And yet their passion for their work gave them the strength to survive the pandemic generated economic downslide. It takes a weaver almost 3 days to make one designer Banarsi saree, but every little detail, every bit of embroidery is done with complete dedication and focus. One of the weavers was spinning a purple saree with golden details. Who wouldn’t want to wear these gorgeous confections? I surely would.
But apart from the food and religion, I observed two very different and beautiful moods of the natives of the city of Benaras. They are extremely cool about their lifestyle, their identity and most importantly, their problems. They have an in-built swag which keeps them grounded and happy. Second, they are art lovers. One day, I was struck in a traffic jam on a narrow lane and a man from the back shouted, “Driving in Benarasi Galliyan is an art!” Well, jokes apart, Benaras truly worships art. On breezy afternoons, you’ll always find poets writing poems in their diaries and painters painting on their canvas on the Assi Ghat. In addition to this, on Sunday mornings and evenings, there are yoga events, Indian Classical dance and music events organised on the very same ghat. The sages and sadhus that abound here also, come up with their unique stories to enlighten the public in a lighter way. Here, everything is an art.
The last evening of my trip was spent watching the Ganga Aarti. Five priests on every ghat, perform an aarti (which is an Indian custom to worship god). Thousands of diyas flicker and glow even as night descends, lighting up the atmosphere and reflecting off the shimmering waters of the sacred river. It is a mesmerising sight. People witness it either from the boats on the river or by sitting on the stairs of the ghat. This spellbinding Arti starts at about 7.30 pm(summers) and lasts for about 25 minutes.
People tell me, my city is beautiful, but more than that it is the lively spirit of this city that makes it different from any other city in the world. People go to other cities, to live their life, but people wish to spend the last days of their life in this city, hoping for salvation and a release from the cycle of life and death. Benaras is also a home to the Manikarnika Ghat which is the burning ghat. People desire to get cremated here. I remember, going to this ghat with my brother once. It was a life changing moment. The sight of burning pyres make you realise how ephemeral life is and how death hovers over everyone. So, it is important to live every moment of life. Perhaps the people of Kaashi believe in living every moment, because they see Manikarnika every day. They know and realise that death is the ultimate truth!
Varanasi is not just a spiritual or religious centre. Varanasi is for seekers, for poets, artists and most importantly, listeners because every lane has a story to tell, every person has a life lesson to teach.