ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY find meaning by the riverfront in one of India’s holiest and longest continuously inhabited city.
In the maze of ghats (embankments) and galis (streets) where ruminating cows impetuously halt traffic, the stench of stale flowers mingles with the smell of sweat and sweets, pilgrims lather themselves vigorously on the banks beside boats advertising Navratan tel or Rahat rooh, while others unmindful of the slurry bottle away the muddy Gangajal like elixir. To some, the organized chaos of Varanasi may seem too much to bear, but the soul of the city resides not in its temples and shrines but in the river that silently passes by.
Continuously inhabited for thousands of years with a history paralleled only by Jericho, Varanasi is a city like no other. Sacred to Shiva-Parvati, Kashi or the City of Light is one of the saptapuris or seven holy cities that grant moksha or salvation (besides Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Kanchi, Ujjain and Dwarka). People come here to die, to live, to lose themselves in the sea of humanity and to find themselves in its quiet anonymity. Kashi Vishwanath is one of the twelve jyotirlingas in India while Vishalakshi Temple stands on the spot where Goddess Sati’s earrings fell.
Varanasi’s strategic location on the Gangetic plain at the crossroads of north India’s busiest road made it the centre of an important trade route from Mauryan times. Sher Shah Suri further improved the Badshahi Sadak or Sadak-E-Azam (Grand Trunk Road) from Bengal to Peshawar. Varanasi became a marketplace for shawls from the north, diamonds and gold from the Deccan, muslin and silk from the east, armaments from Lucknow, food grains from across India and perfumes, horses and elephants. Caravanserais and dharamsalas proliferated and the incessant crush of people led to the constant rebuilding and reshaping of this unique riverine habitat.
Down by the Ghats
Various rulers paved the ghats with stones and built temples and palaces for pilgrims. Having a presence in Benares was the religious equivalent of having a corner office at Nariman Point. It provided recognition of one’s political and social importance. From Raja of Gwalior, Bhonsale, Scindia and Ahalyabai to the Maharajas of Darbhanga and Nepal, the ghats even bore the stamp of faraway Rajput kings like Maharana Pratap of Chittor (Rana Mahal Ghat) and Raja Man Singh (Manmandir Ghat) of Amer.
Sawai Jai Singh built the rooftop observatory of Jantar Mantar while Raja Balwant Singh erected a red sandstone fort at Ramnagar, the bastion of the kings of Kashi. Just 2km from Shastri ji’s statue and ancestral house stands the Sumeru Devi temple at Purana Pokhra with the loftiest spire in Varanasi, rich with carved figures supporting an impressive roof.
On our sunset ride culminating with the magical Ganga arti on Dashashwamedh Ghat Dipu the boatman rattled off the names of the various ghats associated with mythological, royal and literary characters. ‘Parvati lost her mani-karnika (jeweled ear ornaments) so Shiva cursed the ghat to become a cremation ground. At Das-ashwamedh Brahma performed ten horse sacrifices. No one bathes at Narada Ghat for fear of inciting fights. That’s where Kallu Dom employed Raja Harishchandra. Mir Ghat is associated with Mirabai while Tulsi Das wrote the Ramcharitmanas at Tulsi Ghat.’
In the rains the Ganga floods its banks and spills on to the ghats, shifting stone blocks and causing structures to collapse. ‘That’s not because of the river’, Dipu pointed at the lop-sided temple. ‘That’s Kashi Karwat, made to tilt by a woman’s scorn whose son wanted to return the favour of his mother’s milk.’ While the river was the domain of the boatmen, the ghats were a shared heritage for priests, pilgrims, mendicants, hoteliers, wrestlers, washermen and an endless stream of visitors.
While many consider Varanasi to be the epicentre of the Hindu universe, it hides within its many layers other influences. It was a few kilometers northeast at Sarnath that Lord Buddha preached his first sermon. The Digambar Jain Temple at Singhpuri marks the birthplace of the 11th Jain tirthankar Shreyansanath while Parshvanatha, the 23rd tirthankar was also born in Varanasi at Bhelupur. Gurdwara Guru Ka Bagh commemorates Guru Nanak’s visit on Shivaratri in February 1507. St Thomas Church at Girijaghar crossing in Godowlia is one of the many symbols of Christian colonial rule.
For a city that occupies such a central position in Hindu culture, it is ironic that Varanasi’s oldest religious monuments in active worship are mosques. No Hindu shrine predates the reign of Aurangzeb, who razed spectacular temples like Vishwanatha and Bindu Madhava in 1669, replacing them with the Gyanvapi and Dharhara or Alamgiri mosques. From the Delhi Sultanate to later Mughal rule, Islam has been around for nearly 800 years, with a succession of rulers choosing sites and forts around the city as their headquarters – Sasaram, Jaunpur, Allahabad, Faizabad, Lucknow, Chunar and Rohtas. A survey in 1827 by James Prinsep noted 333 mosques and 1,000 temples in Varanasi. His series of drawings of Benares in 1833 is seminal.
Seat of Education and Culture
Besides local specialties like peda, banarasi pan, banarsi sari and the carpets of Mirzapur and Bhadohi, the people also took pride in their local heroes. India’s PM Lal Bahadur Shastri, legendary for his simplicity, once swam across the Ganga as he was short of 2 annas to give the boatman. Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya set up Banaras Hindu University, Asia’s largest educational campus. From Kabir to Ravidas, some of the greatest Indian writers lived and found inspiration in this city.
Renowned Indian surgeon Sushruta, author of Sushruta Samhita lived in Varanasi, which remains a centre for Ayurveda and yoga. Adi Shankara wrote his commentaries on Hinduism here while Tulsidas wrote much of his Ram Charit Manas on the banks of the Ganga. Munshi Ghat was named after Hindi writer Munshi Premchand, a native of Benares whose ancestral house lies in Lamhi village on Azamgarh Road. Novelist, poet and playwright Bharatendu Harishchandra was conferred his famous title in 1880 at Kashi.
‘This was the spot where Bismillah Khan used to sit and play the shehnai,’ an old gentleman indicated with his wobbly chin. ‘Soooo… many music maestros’ chipped in a guy reading a newspaper. ‘Ravi Shankar (sitar), Gopal Mishra (sarangi), Pandit Chhannulal Mishra (singer), Kishan maharaj (tabla)…’ Pandit Ram Sahai (1780–1826) developed the Benares tabla gharana two centuries ago.
After learning tabla from his father at the age of five, he became a disciple of Modhu Khan of the Lucknow gharana. When Wazir Ali Khan, the new Nawab of Oudh, asked if the 17-year-old lad could perform a recital for him, Modhu Khan agreed, but on the condition that Ram Sahai would not be interrupted till he finished playing. Ram Sahai played for seven consecutive nights. Shortly after this performance, he returned to Benares, went into seclusion for 6 months and laid down the tenets of a new gharana by adapting the Banaras baj (tabla playing) as per the style of gayaki (singing).
‘There’s no better time to immerse yourself in Varanasi than the famous Ramleela at Ramnagar’, said Pandit Ravi Shankar Pandey, priest at the Vyas Temple inside Ramnagar Fort. Kashi Naresh Maharaja Udit Narayan Singh started the tradition of staging the episodic play across various locations of the city in mid-19th century. ‘The first act is the birth of Ravana followed by Bhagwan janam at dawn. Then there’s Taraka, Ahalya, Phulwari, Dhanush yagya, Vivah, Vidai, Kevat, Valmiki ashram, Chitrakoot, Bharat Milaap, Panchvati…’ Pandey ji’s voice trailed off. ‘Come for a month,’ he said quite seriously.
Not far from the place where Ved Vyasa started writing the great Indian epic Mahabharata, the Saraswati Bhawan Museum had a nice collection of royal possessions and a rare handwritten manuscript by Tulsidas. Bharat Kala Bhavan at BHU with costumes, decorative art, postage stamps and miniature paintings was another treasure trove. And crammed in between were shops selling boondi, khoa, paneer, lassi, peda and everything under the sun. Locals firmly believed that due to the blessings of Ma Annapoorneshwari, Banaras would always remain the land of plenty…
At a Glance
Resting on the mystical trident of Shiva and bracketed between the rivers Varuna and Asi, Varanasi lies on a curve of the Ganga between Rajghat in the north and Assi Ghat to the south. The 2.5 mile (4 km) distance between these two confluences is littered with temples and Hindu pilgrims do the Pancha-kroshi Yatra, a 5-mile round trip journey ending with a ritual visit to the Sakshi Vinayak Temple. However the city also occupies an important position for Jains, Budddhists and Muslims.
Things to Do
Every evening around dusk the Dashashwamedh Ghat resonates with the sound of conch shells, bells and bhajans. Priests in silken clothes ceremonially offer dhoop (incense), arti (lamps) and pankha (fan) to Mother Ganga, before gently lulling her to sleep. Go early to grab a vantage point on the steps of the ghats closer to the action for the 7pm spectacle.
Experience life and death on the Ganga with a sunrise or sunset tour of the ghats with Varanasi’s greatest storytellers. Prices may vary (approx Rs.150-200/hr) depending on the boat, the boatman, the duration and overall experience, excluding tips. You can bargain for a better rate for a full tour of the ghats for Rs.400-500.
Sarnath Buddhist tour
Just 13km away at Sarnath is the Deer Park where Lord Buddha had preached his first sermon. The old names Mrigdava, Sringpur and Sarangnath (from which Sarnath is derived) allude to the deer (mrig, sringa, sarang). Mulagandhakuti Vihara, where Lord Buddha spent his first monsoon, has murals by Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu. The massive Dhamek Stupa and remaining brick foundations of monasteries date back to Ashokan and Gupta periods. The severed Lion Capital of the Ashokan pillar, the inspiration behind India’s national emblem, was damaged in Turko-Islamic invasions and is housed in Sarnath Museum.
Varanasi is a renowned centre for Yoga, Ayurveda, Meditation & astrology with various schools and institutes offering short and long term courses. Try Banaras Hindu University, Bhring Sanhita Kendra Bhadaini, Centre For Yoga & Meditation Nirala Nagar, Prangya Yoga Institute JagatGanj, Sampurnanand Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya, Gayan Pravah. Kashi Yoga Sangh Sankat Mochan and International Yoga & Meditation Centre Nagawa
When to Go
November to March is the best season to visit Varanasi. The month-long Ram Lila at Ramnagar during Dussehra (Oct-Nov) is a great time to visit. All night, open music concerts are also organised at Sankat Mochan and other temples during festivities like Holi, Kajari and Chaiti Mela.
By Air: Nearest Airport: Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport located at Babatpur, 21 km from Varanasi Cant Station.
By Rail: Varanasi Junction or Varanasi Cantt Railway Station is one of the busiest and highest revenue generating stations in India, serviced by over 240 trains a day. The Dufferin Bridge constructed over the Ganges from Kashi station links Varanasi to Mughalsarai (16km), a major railway station of the East Central Railway.
By Road: Varanasi lies at the junction of many important highways. GT Road (NH-2) extends from Kolkata to Allahabad, Kanpur, Aligarh, Delhi and Agra. NH 56 connects Varanasi to Lucknow via Jaunpur while NH 29 connects it to Gorakhpur via Ghazipur. NH 7 the longest National Highway in India links it to Jabalpur, Nagpur, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Salem, Madurai and Kanyakumari.
There are four road access points to the riverside from Rajghat, Dashashwamedh, Harishchandra and Assi Ghats. Autos and rickshaws are better suited for Varanasi’s narrow streets though people often prefer to take a boat from Rajghat to reach various points on the ghats.
Varanasi’s street food goes beyond aloo-poori, papdi chaat, chhole-samosa, kachoris and veg thalis to rooftop, riverside and tiny cafes serving exotic fare. Try Japanese and Thai at I:ba, Tibetan and Nepali dishes at El Parador and Lotus Lounge on Mansarowar Ghat and Middle East and Israeli cuisine at Yafah. Bakeries like Bread of Life at Shivala Ghat, Brown Bread Bakery at Tripura Bhairavi, Pumpernickel German bakery and Mona Lisa Café are great hangouts. Wash it down with some ‘Siwon’ lassi (Korean for cold). Don’t miss the famous lal peda at Rajbandhu on Kachori Gali and Sankat Mochan. Numerous shops on Chowkhamba lane sell papads, pickles and gajak (a dry sweet made of sesame seeds).
WelcomHeritage Jukaso Ganges
CK/14, Patni Tola Chowk, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221010 Ph 0542-2406666-8 http://www.welcomheritagehotels.com Tariff Rs.8,500-9,500
A 200-year-old riverfront Yadava haveli at Guleria Ghat, Jukaso Ganges has been painstakingly renovated by WelcomHeritage into a boutique luxury hotel. Built out of creamy Chunar sandstone, most of the 15 immaculate designed rooms open to a view of the Ganga with a riverside café and a terrace restaurant. The 800-year-old Vishnu idol in the meditation room is stunning.
B-4/25, Shivala Ghat, Nepali Kothi, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221002 Ph 0542 2276810/11 http://www.amritara.co.in Tariff Rs.7500-12,000
Overlooking the Shivala Ghat, Suryauday Haveli was built by the royal family of Nepal in early 20th century as a retreat for the old. The hotel has no menu with food prepared by a maharaj (traditional Hindu cook). Besides a master suite, there are 8 river facing rooms and 5 en-suites with yoga classes organized on the terrace.
Rashmi Guest House/A Palace on River
D, 16/28-A, Manmandir Ghat, Dasaswamedh, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221001 Ph 0542 2402 778/856, 6544126, 6940362 http://www.palaceonriver.com Tariff Rs.2,500-6,000
With 16 air-conditioned rooms offering a partial view of the river, the riverside hotel is adjacent Man Singh’s Observatory. Free wi-fi and its central location make it a popular haunt with nice food served at the rooftop Dolphin restaurant.
The Clarks Varanasi
The Mall, Cantonment, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221 002 Ph 0542-2501011-20 http://www.clarkshotels.com Tariff Rs.7,000-8,000
One of the oldest and most well known hotels in Varanasi, Clarks offers 104 well-furnished rooms, including 19 executive rooms and 2 suites with an outdoor swimming pool in a serene garden.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the Jan-Mar 2013 issue of Time Out Explorer magazine.