Tag Archives: Lord Shiva

Road to Salvation: Shravan Mela Kanwar Yatra

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY join the saffron tide as they march 105km with kanwariyas from Sultanganj to Deoghar during the annual Shravan Mela  

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‘Why this, why this, why this Bholagiri ji’, the Kolaveri Di parody blared out of tinny loudspeakers. Every few steps, the cacophony changed to ‘Daraibher sainyan’ (Darling driver-take me to Deoghar)’, ‘I love you Gaura’ or ‘Roje-Roj Ganja Bhang’. As global musical trends go, Cher’s Believe may be a thing of the past, but in Bhojpuri music the Auto-tune pitch correct was the next big thing after Jhankar Beats.

Adding to the spiritual soundtrack were tinkling bells, the low hum of a moving crowd and loud chants rending the air. ‘Bol bam ka nara hai, Baba ek sahara hai, Bol bam, Badhe kadam, Bol bam, Doori kam, Baba nagariya door hai, jana zaroor hai (Bol Bam is the chant, Baba is our support, Bol bam, onward feet, Bol bam, distance less, Baba Dham is far away, We must go there).

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From singsong chants of pilgrims to pots bobbing on either ends of the pole, walking was a rhythm. As veterans of religious and rustic fairs from the Baul Mela at Kenduli, Baithurappa Festival at Iritty to the Maha Kumbh at Allahabad, we had experienced our share of processions, but the Shravan Mela was something else. It was the ultimate budget trip, a spiritual marathon comparable to the Santiago de Compostela (St James Way) in Spain, a medieval pilgrimage route to the cathedral of St James where the Apostle’s remains are enshrined. The pilgrims foot the distance without any trappings of comfort.

In India, during the monsoon month of shravan (July-Aug), saffron-clad men carry pots of holy water on kanwars (decorative slings) and pour it over a Shiva linga at the nearest important shrine. In this case, the 105km journey started from the uttar-vahini Ganga (north-flowing, hence holy) at Sultanganj in Bihar to Baba Baidyanath Dham in Deoghar, Jharkhand, one of the twelve jyotirlingas in India. People trudge over hills, across rivers and places with evocative names like Suiyya Pahad (Needle Mountain), Jalebiya Mod (Twisty Turns), Bhutbangla (Haunted House) and Bhulbhulaiya Nadi (Labyrinthine River) – realms akin to the Tolkeinian route to Mordor. As it turned out, it was rather scenic.

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The pilgrims hike 20-25km each day, stopping at makeshift seva-shivirs (camps) for food, rest or sleep. The journey takes about 4-5 days. One class of pilgrims doesn’t stop at any camp but grabs water, food and medicines on the go. These are dak bams, who must complete the journey within a day (usually 15-17 hrs), which earns them privileged access to the Shiva shrine at Deoghar, unlike ordinary pilgrims who must queue up for miles.

We found ourselves in this spiritual obstacle course courtesy Albela Dak Bam Seva Samiti, Telco Colony, Tatanagar – a bunch of friends and acquaintances who left their jobs for a month to run a free, voluntary camp for dak bams near Suiyya, the most treacherous part of the journey. Their daily schedule ran round-the-clock – from rest and sleep arrangements for pilgrims, dispensing water, handing out painkillers, massages with pain balms, making prasad, chopping fruits, morning puja, evening arti and kanwariya songs… By evening, the speakers would crank up and crowds would break into frenzied dancing in a religious rave.

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Nearly 70,000 pilgrims walk to Deoghar each day with numbers touching 3-4 lakh on Mondays, a day sacred to Shiva. Even after Shravan Mela (July 13-Aug 25 this year) people do it through the year till Magh (Jan-Feb). Some arrive directly at Deoghar by vehicles. We met a group that had cycled all the way from Kolkata. Old men, women, children, even those differently abled, all formed part of this motley cavalcade.

And thus, after a customary visit to the Shiva temple of Ajgaibnath, our journey, like that of a thousand others, started at the ghats of Sultanganj. Streets were lined with shops selling custom-built kanwars and religious paraphernalia. Makeshift stalls on the ghats hawked pots, sacred threads and lumps of clay for sealing pots after collecting holy water. In the dark watery theatre of oil lamps and incense smoke, priests chanted appropriate mantras and prayed for a safe journey and good darshan. And we were off…

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Over slushy banks, through busy streets, dodging traffic, past music stalls blaring the latest tunes and videos of kanwariya songs that looked like a mish mash of different art forms – Bhojpuri stage shows, tacky theatre and bad Photoshop. Standing out in this strange flotilla were the two of us – with backpacks and cameras instead of kanwars, shoes instead of bare feet – sticking out like sore thumbs in a sea of saffron.

Some threw taunts at us ‘Aye Jutta bam’, ‘Japan bam’, ‘English bam’ or simply chuckled while inquisitive ones struck up a conversation. One man walked up to us and after a moment’s scrutiny, affirmed to the rest ‘Belgium’, with the confident authority of a head surgeon confirming the gender of a newborn child. Soon, we got used to it. And they got used to us. We walked mile after mile, braving winds and a steady drizzle. When it didn’t rain, we rested by day and walked at nights, stopping at teashops for milky concoctions or rest at wibbly-wobbly benches in dharamsalas and inns. With practically nonexistent sanitary conditions, we watched people run to the fields or behind rocks and trees as we plodded towards the next makeshift loo and bathed near village wells or took community showers.

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Wooden stands were placed at regular intervals where pilgrims could rest their kanwars or water pots, as rules forbade it from touching the ground from the moment it was carried. It was odd to see kanwariyas hold their ears and do utthak-baithak (squats) in penitence for any oversight in protocol before resuming the journey. There were other restrictions too – vegetarianism, celibacy, truthfulness and purity of speech and thought. Using oil, soap, shoes and articles of leather was not permitted. Each addressed the other respectfully as ‘bam ji’ or appended ‘bam’ to one’s name; which did amuse us initially! Grappling with the outdoors on an unfamiliar road to transcendence, we had unwittingly become characters of Kerouac’s ‘The Dharma Bums’.

The path was well laid out with diversions and underpasses that skirted all vehicular traffic. Not too long ago, the tracts were wilder with little or no illumination at night. People often had to fend against wild animals and robbers. Today, they had to deal with beggars, kids dressed up as gods and hastily built roadside shrines. No one knew how long people had been walking this route, but as per tradition Lord Rama was one of the first to undertake this yatra. There was also a reason why this took place in shravan.

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Legend has it that during the samudra manthan or churning of the cosmic ocean, many divine things emerged, including the poison halahala. As Lord Shiva consumed it, Parvati grabbed his neck to prevent the toxic brew from being swallowed, turning his throat blue, hence his name Neelkanth. Yet, the poison inflamed Shiva’s body. To decrease the effect of the poison, the practice of offering water to Shiva started. Hence, his associations with all things cool – the crescent moon, the Ganga and water continuously dripping on the linga. It is said the samudra manthan took place during the month of shravan, characterized by rains and the act of libation was thus a great service to Shiva.

As a form of hatha yoga, some covered the distance by dand-baithak (full body prostrations), taking weeks to reach their destination. They too carried a kanwar, but walked a mile, left the kanwar on a stand, walked back, crawled up to it and repeated the process. For them, it was three times the journey! We were fortunate to meet veteran dak bam Ram Sagar, who was doing the yatra for the thirteenth time that month (he had vowed to do it 15 times).

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We wondered what motivated them to take on this arduous journey that was riddled with masochistic hardship and austerity? A wish unfulfilled, welfare of loved ones, an unbroken oath, problems in life or just out of service or devotion; each pilgrim had a reason. We heard stories of Krishna dak bam, the pious lady from Muzaffarpur who was a regular for the last 35 years! She walked only on Sundays, four times a month, in time for the holy darshan on Mondays. Sumit bam explained “She is considered a divine being and walks in a retinue of 100-150 people with villagers flocking to see her. The police too escort her, blowing whistles and fanning her with towels, as she blazes forth. It’s near impossible to walk with her. Seeing her, even a spectator is energized.”

While there was no competition to reach first, the fastest time achieved was 9 hours, a brother-sister duo from Nepal. Legend has it they died after pouring water. Shwet bam explained “The system is such that till the last minute you are not sure whether you’ll be able to complete the task. Whether the water falls on someone’s back, on the ground, or the linga is hard to tell”. We met a guy who had walked for three days, stood in the line and yet, declined to enter just meters before the temple gate, daunted by overwhelming crowd. But such is life, the next year he went twice. Jha ji chuckled “It is like clearing your backlog.”

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The crowd comes to a stop miles before Deoghar with a waiting period of several hours before one can even reach the temple complex. The sanctum sanctorum has just one entrance, so managing the crowds is near impossible. Temple priests and policemen whirl towels and beat pilgrims with frayed cane sticks goading them on like cattle. JP bam, the most experienced in the group, explained the strategy to us like the team leader of a crack commando unit going over a hostage evacuation exercise… “Once you enter the inner shrine, don’t try to pour the jal immediately or you’ll be crushed. Stick to the walls. Wait for the initial rush to subside. Then dart forward and do the deed. But don’t pour everything on the linga. Save some for Parvati and Ganesha shrines nearby. Watch where you step… The stone floors will be wet. Don’t slip. Don’t fall. One more thing… Keep a tenner handy. Hand it to the priest and he will allow you to bend down and touch the linga.”

The rest followed like a slow-mo war scene. With the crush of a thousand bodies around us, the strange stench of sweat and flowers recycled by the air-conditioning, the crack of cane sticks, trampled toes, shouts and screams, curses and invocations… We have no idea how we made it in and out of the Baba Baidyanath temple, shuffled to Mata Tripurasundari’s shrine and picked out the Ganesha shrine out of the 22 temples in the complex. As we stumbled out, we caught a mixture of emotions on people’s faces – elation, daze, relief, fatigue and an emotional vacuum that comes after achieving an objective at the end of a trek or after scaling a peak.

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To make this endgame a little more humane, the Deoghar temple authorities has made special arrangements this year. As per the new arghya-vyawastha, devotees would be given a bar-coded wristband and a suwidha pass with the time slot and the serial number printed on it. Instead of entering the shrine, they can pour the water outside on a brass alley that directly leads to the jyotirlinga, thus assuring them complete satisfaction, minus the anxiety of a stampede.

Tired and thrilled to have completed the penance, we trawled the narrow streets of Deoghar for its legendary pedas. The best place to buy was Shree Bhagirath Sah Peda Bhandar. A poster warned against imitations and insisted that one should ‘buy only after seeing the photo of its founder’. Pilgrims looked around for souvenirs, devotional CDs, lac bangles, some memento to take home that said ‘I was there. And I survived…’

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FACT FILE

Contact
Baba Baidyanath Temple, Deoghar, Jharkhand
Tel 91 6432 232295 http://www.babadham.org

Getting there
The 105 km journey starts from Sultanganj, near Bhagalpur in Bihar to Deoghar in Jharkhand. The nearest railway station is Jasidih with many special trains during the Shravan month.

Route
Sultanganj-Kamrai 6km, Kamrai-Asarganj 7km, Asarganj-Tarapur 8km, Tarapur-Rampur 7km, Rampur-Kumarsar 8km, Kumarsar-Chandan Nagar 10km, Chandan Nagar-Jalebiya More 8km, Jalebiya More-Suiya 8km, Suiya-Abrakhia 8km, Abrakhia-Katoria 8km, Katoria-Lakshman Jhula 8km, Lakshman Jhula-Inaravaran 8km, Inaravaran-Bhulbhulaiya 3km, Bhulbhulaiya-Goryari 5km, Goryari-Kalakatia Dharamsala 3km, Kalakatia-Bhutbangla 5km, Bhutbangla-Darshaniya 1km, Darshaniya-Baba Baidyanath Temple 1km

What to carry
Kanwar, two water pots, match box, agarbatti (incense sticks), candles, torch, cloth bag, plastic sheet, thin blanket, saffron clothing (two pairs), towel, money

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Walk by a River: Rishikesh to Tapovan

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY journey along the Ganga from Rishikesh to Tapovan in search of Himalayan stories, mystics and adventure

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‘Who was the son of Hanuman?’ Mauni Baba gesticulated with his hands. The Ukrainian scowled, the Russian shook his head, as all eyes turned to us. ‘Baba, wasn’t he a bachelor, sworn to brahmacharya (celibacy)?’ we enquired politely. Mauni Baba gave us his warm benign smile and through dumb charades explained the mythological conundrum. How, on his aerial journey to Lanka a bead of sweat fell from Hanuman’s body into the ocean and was swallowed by a makara (sea creature). The child thus born of it was called Makaradhwaja and became the gatekeeper of Ravana’s brother, Ahiravana. During the Lanka war, the powerful Makaradhwaja came face to face with the monkey god who was baffled to meet his match. When he asked the young lad his identity, he replied that he was his son. Hanuman surely must have been more shocked than us.

It was a helluva story. More so, considering baba had used just gestures to communicate it. At 14,435 ft, our theatrics could have been mistaken for high altitude madness, but there were hardly any people save a herd of Himalayan blue sheep to make such assumptions. The majestic Shivling peak (21,750 ft) towered above us, its head covered in clouds while the Amar Ganga stream flowed silently as if washing its feet. Tapovan, the spiritual retreat of Lord Shiva, wore an air of meditative calm.

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Herds of bharal flocked to Mauni Baba’s Ashram. Besides providing food, shelter and answers to mundane and philosophical questions of humans, the young swami also tended to the salt intake of the herbivores. On a vow of silence since eight years, he was one of the many extraordinary people we met on our Ganga odyssey.

Our tricky descent over mud slopes, rocky paths and glaciers brought us to Gaumukh, the glacial source of the Ganga. It was alarming to see that the path we had taken while climbing had shifted on our return. Deep below our feet, bits of the glacier fell into an unseen abyss with a chilling distant splash. We walked gingerly wondering when the icy path would give way. Global warming was not some phenomenon in the future; it was a reality unfolding right in front of our eyes. The source of India’s holiest river was a trickling expanse of mud and it felt as if time was running out…

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We breezed past the clutch of camps at Bhojbasa, the shady arbor of chir pine at Chirbasa and through Gangotri National Park. We had walked 21km non-stop from Tapovan and by evening we returned to the mayhem of mainstream Gangotri. After thanking the river deity for a safe trip, we crossed the metal bridge to the quieter side and stayed at the Isha Vasyam Ashram. At dusk the oil lamps by the riverside seemed magical as the snowy peaks of Sudarshan and Bhagirathi shone in the fading light.

Next morning, a walking path led us to Gauri Kund, the spot where Lord Shiva took the tempestuous Ganga into his matted locks and saved earth from the fury of her descent. Just opposite Surya Kund, we came to a kutiya (hut) decorated with driftwood and sacred stone arrangements. This was the ashram of Swami Sundaranandji, better known as Clicking Swami or Photo Baba, whose amazing stories kept us enthralled for hours…

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Swami ji came here in 1948 from Nellore and after meeting his guru Tapovan Maharaj, developed a fascination for nature. He took to photography in 1956 with a Rs.25 Agfa Click III camera and went about documenting the Himalayas with amazing detail. A veteran mountaineer who has scaled 25 peaks, Sundaranandji has trekked to Gaumukh 108 times much before there was a path and walked from Gangotri to Badrinath a dozen times. During the China war he showed the way through the mountains to the Indian army. He survived a fall into a crevasse and lowered himself using a rope, risking his life to take photographs of Suralaya Glacier in Satopanth.

He has a penchant for discovering the sacred symbol Om in nature and has captured pictures in stone, leaves, flowers and sky. With several awards to his credit and many exhibitions across the country, a lot of his 8 quintal photographs and 4000 slides had been purloined by visitors. An operation in 2002 ended his climbing career but his lifetime’s work finally bore fruit through a coffee table book ‘Himalaya: Through the lens of a Sadhu’, translated into German and Italian.

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Poring over his glossy photos, Swami Sundaranandji rued that the mountains are not the same anymore. It was unbelievable to see crystal blue waters at Surya Kund when Gangotri was bejewelled like heaven on earth. Swamiji scoffed at the herd of pilgrims who came with blinders on a char dham yatra, with little time to explore the natural beauty or the inclination to climb a hill. “Eshwar mandir ya masjid mein nahin, prakriti ke praangan mein yun hi bikhra pada hai,” he said, meaning ‘God does not reside in temples or mosques, he is scattered everywhere in the courtyard of nature.’

The bus from Gangotri dropped us to Dharali where the Ganga had broadened into a wide expanse. Lazing by the tents of the Char Dham Camp of Leisure Hotels, it was cathartic to gaze at the placid river murmuring past us. At the ancient Kalp Kedar Temple, Swami Narasimh Tirth told us that this was the mool sthan (original place) of the Ganga and that the glacier had actually shifted 21km to Gangotri over centuries! It is common knowledge that the glacier recedes 5m every year but this was a staggering statistic. The temple itself was believed to be 5115 years old, built by the Pandavas. Adorning the façade was an intriguing face of Surya, the sun god or Kalabhairava, Shiva’s fierce attendant.

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Earlier the temple overlooked the Ganga but had since sunk. A famous photograph from 1802 showed us the shrines of Parvati and Ganesha, destroyed in the glacial shift of 1895, which also flattened an 18km stretch from Jangla to Sukhi. Between 1935-38 another glacial shift submerged the Kalp Kedar temple with only the shikhara visible. The temple was partially excavated in 1980 but 6 ft still remains underwater. The priest told us that every Shravan, the Ganga comes up to Lord Shiva and washes the panch-mukhi lingam as an oblation while in the dry season, the submerged temples magically reappear.

It is said that the Pandavas cursed Kalp Kedar to be washed away since Lord Shiva did not give them darshan when they had performed a penance to atone for the bloodbath at the Mahabharata war. The Pandavas took a holy dip to remove the sin of hatya (murder), so the river bears the name Hatyaharini. We continued on the Pandava trail to Mukhwa, the winter seat of the Ganga, where Bhima’s horse left its hoofmarks on a rock while going to Mansarovar. Locals believe that Bhima created the Bhim Ganga waterfall to quench the thirst of the Pandavas.

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Even today, cows and mules step into the same hoof prints while walking up the mountain. Our young guides Gokul and Samridh mimicked Arjun and Bhima shooting an arrow into the mountain. The trail beyond led to Danda Pokhri for views of Mount Sumeru. But we were content with the splendor of Chandraparvat, Srikanth, Himvan and Bandarpoonch. On our walk through the quaint village, the boys insisted we taste the berries and shoots like chuli, shirol and saunf (fennel) that grew on the mountainside.

As we descended via Uttarkashi to Rishikesh, the rise in temperature was palpable. Relaxing at Neemrana’s Glasshouse on the Ganges amidst the mango and litchi orchards of the Maharaja of Tehri seemed like a perfect way to unwind.

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From our perch we spotted yellow and blue dinghies bob down the river and were tempted to embark on a white-water rafting adventure. At a placid stretch, the guide egged us to jump overboard. We needed no encouragement. The icy cold water of the Ganga was like balm to our trek-weary bodies. Sage Bhagirathi hadn’t just assured the salvation of his 60,000 ancestors, he had ensured it for generations to come.   

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was published on 19 May 2013 in the Sunday supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper. 

Varanasi: Divine flow

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY find meaning by the riverfront in one of India’s holiest and longest continuously inhabited city.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Multi-cultural city

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.

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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.

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‘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).

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‘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…

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FACT FILE

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

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Ganga Arti
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.

Boat ride
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.

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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.

Yoga Course
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

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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.

Getting there
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.

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Getting Around
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.

EAT
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).

STAY

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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.

Suryauday Haveli
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.

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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.

Descent of the Ganga: Gangotri, Gaumukh, Tapovan & beyond

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY come across fantastic stories, treacherous terrain and colourful people on their trek to the source of the Ganga 

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‘Sinking Area, Shooting Stones, Sliding Zone.’ The signboards whizzing past seemed more apt for a war zone rather than the road to India’s holiest river. We were in a shared jeep on a bone-jangling drive from Uttarkashi to Gangotri in the Garhwal Himalayas. After rumbling down the narrow bridge at Bhaironghati over a jaw-dropping gorge, our driver pulled over and shook his head helplessly.

An overturned army truck in the middle of the road set the tone for the trip ahead… Forced to alight 8km short of our destination, we set off on foot, knowing that there would be no vehicles beyond Gangotri anyway. The walk was a perfect warm up. Besides, the 1km long line of stranded vehicles on the other side of the truck left us with little choice.

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It was a dusty meandering path between craggy hills and a sheer drop. After a 2-hour trudge, we reached Gangotri by evening, only to discover cops on walkie-talkies still trying to arrange a crane to remove the truck. We had been warned at Uttarkashi to stock up dry fruits, dates and provisions, as ‘there was nothing available at Gangotri’. Humbug. Gangotri was a long row of hotels and shops overflowing with everything from walnuts and pistachios to biscuits and munchies in every flavour, besides every form of religious paraphernalia. 

Isha Vasyam Ashram, located on the other side of the river was our first choice to stay. Sadly, it was booked to capacity as Swami Chidanand Saraswati of Parmarth Niketan Ashram was visiting from Rishikesh with his entourage. So we checked into Purohit, a tidy little lodge overlooking the bathing ghat with the mighty Sudarshan, Bhagirathi and other snowcapped peaks in the distance.

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Down by the ghats, the machinery of faith was in full swing. A mass of shivering pilgrims of all ages taking a holy dip in the freezing waters, groups performing sacred ceremonies to pray for the salvation of departed souls, people filling cans and kamandalas (pots) with holy water, some patiently getting the lids sealed with wax and customers briskly buying an assortment of religious items at the stalls. A pilgrim from Rajasthan observed wryly, “Mano toh Ganga maiyya, nahin toh behta paani” (To those with faith it’s Mother Ganga, or else just flowing water).

At sundown, it was time for the magical Ganga arti, a daily lamp-lit homage to the sacred river. We were fortunate to witness it, in the presence of Swami Chidanand Saraswati, whose mission is to protect the Ganga. Soulful music and sacred chants filled the air as people waved oil lamps to honour and celebrate the river deity. After the ceremony we were invited to learn more about Ganga Action Parivar over dinner at Isha Vasyam. Since Swamiji’s birthday coincided with World Environment Day, he chose to emphasize the need for conservation through a tree-planting campaign, river-cleaning drive and distribution of cloth bags to cut down plastic.

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At the Gangotri temple, priest Semwal ji outlined Ganga’s fascinating story. Sage Bhagirathi wished to bring the Ganga from the heavens to wash the ashes of his 60,000 ancestors, thereby providing them salvation. Jahnu rishi was responsible for building a canal for Ganga to flow through. The celestial elephant Airavat cleaved the mountains to channel a path.

But during her tumultuous descent, Sage Jahnu’s ashram at Jangla was washed away. In anger, he swallowed Ganga. It was at Pachchiyari (literally ‘look behind’) that Bhagirathi turned around to notice that Ganga had disappeared. When he begged Sage Jahnu for forgiveness, he relented and released the Ganga from his right ear. 

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Thus Ganga is known by different names in her course. As she emerges from Brahma’s kamandala in the heavens, she is Sursari; when she tumbles down Shiva’s matted locks, she is Jatashankari; as she lands on earth she is Bhagirathi and after emerging through Jahnu, she is Jahnavi. Hence, the place where Ganga descended came to be known as Gangotri. “Ganga jahan utri, wohi Gangotri”, said the priest. Incidentally, Gauri Kund marks the site where Shiva took Ganga into his matted locks to tame her forceful descent.

Just across the metal bridge near Surya Kund, a small wooden hut decorated with deer horns, driftwood and stones drew us to the ashram of Swami Sundaranandji. This maverick mountaineer and photographer, popularly known as the Clicking Swami, came here in 1948 and documented the Himalayas across seasons like no one else. Eight quintals of priceless photographs and slides, a coffee table book translated into three languages and a cache of stories that he regaled us with…

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The path continued to Pandava Gufa (cave) and their yagna bhoomi (place of penance). It is believed that after the Mahabharata war, the Pandavas came here to perform a sacred yagna in repentance of the bloodshed they had caused. They took a dip in the Hatyaharini and ascended to Kedarnath via the treacherous Bhrigupanth. Colloquially, ‘Going to Bhrigupanth’ is a metaphor for heading towards sure death or taking an impossible path.

The next day, we had charted our own hazardous path. Our Tapovan trek got off on a shaky start. The fickle Himalayan weather had changed drastically. The previous day had been bright and sunny but when we woke up at 5.30am, it was gloomy and shrouded in dense mist. By 6 it had began to drizzle. Our guide Janakshahi, a young Nepali lad asked us warily if we wanted to go, as things could get worse at higher altitude. After monitoring the weather over breakfast and endless cups of black tea, we armed ourselves with cheap raincoats and set off at 8:30am.

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The 9km trek from Gangotri to Chirbasa was a steady ascent tracing the course of the river. Dark jagged mountains swooped up to the left like giants peering over our heads. At the forest check post in Kankhu, 2km from Gangotri, we showed our permit (procured from the Forest Department office at Gangotri jeep stand). Although the Gangotri National Park (GNP) was created in 1989, the region witnessed hordes of tourists travelling on foot or mules on a daily basis, littering and polluting the place beyond recognition. Very recently, steps to protect this ecologically fragile zone were strictly enforced. Spread over 2,39,002.4 hectares at 3250 m, GNP is India’s third largest park with only 150 visitors allowed per day.

In the woods of Chirbasa, we drew in lungfuls of fresh pine-scented air as we padded along. Some sections of the 5km stretch to Bhojbasa were tricky and prone to landslide. As we negotiated the undulating path and crossed a few crystal clear streams on makeshift log bridges, we came upon a big herd of Bharal (blue sheep) on a mountain slope. Their proximity made us whip out our cameras and click away, before continuing ahead.

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After turning a curve, the path got narrower and we were halfway up a barefaced rocky slope with a sharp drop, when we heard a mild clatter of stones. Nearly 250 ft above, a herd of grazing Bharal had dislodged a volley of stones that were crashing down at us. “Run!” yelled Janak. Unable to look away from the rolling stones and simultaneously fearing how one faulty step could send us over the edge, we made a wild dash for cover. But things got out of control.

One projectile smashed into a precariously perched football-sized rock at full speed, sending it hurtling down. Like a scene from 127 Hours, that rock had been waiting all its life with ‘Priya’, written on it. Instead of rolling straight down, it bounded and bounced in an unhinged zig-zag manner as if its only mission was a full impact body blow to knock someone off the mountain. Life decisions had to be made in seconds – running backwards was no-go as it was still raining stones, running forward was suicide, being directly in the collision course of the boulder…

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Escape was only a miracle. With no place to run or hide, an accident seemed inevitable yet the overhang yards away held a possibility. So we bolted ahead on shaking legs, skidding over loose shale. A heart-stopping moment later, it hit…but just grazed the ankle support of a sturdy Size 7 Quechua shoe before plummeting into the abyss below. We were breathing raggedly but could only shake our heads in disbelief.

The remaining trudge to the campsite of Bhojbasa was tackled with greater caution. We opted for the quieter Ram Baba Ashram instead of the popular Lal Baba Ashram.  In these camps a snug bed and hot meals came at Rs.300 per head. Our clothes were soaked and we spent the evening by the kitchen fire. At twilight, the sky cleared briefly and the snowy peaks of Bhagirathi I, II and III were illumined by some divine light. 

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We devoured the food hungrily, embarrassed to ask for more but Gopi a local guide egged us on, “Don’t worry. Ration sarkari hai, par pet private hai.” The morning was bright and we were off for the 4km hike to Gaumukh, named after the cow-faced mouth of the glacier from where Ganga emerged. Some say, the mouth of the glacier was originally near Gangotri but had receded by 18km over the years!

At a small Ganga shrine near the riverbank, Nirmal Baba (not the TV godman) blessed visitors. Looking around furtively, a Bengali trekker scowled ‘Gleshiyarrr kothai?’ (Where’s the glacier?) His guide laughed and pointed at the endless grayish brown mass far ahead. The Bengali mumbled incoherently, as if he had just been gypped.

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While most tourists return from Gaumukh, we continued 5km to the high altitude meadow of Tapovan. The path was barely discernible – just a massive rubble of stone wedged in muddy ice. Small chortens (piles of stones) flagged off the general route. As we climbed higher, the sun was harsh and the incessant sound of snowmelt was broken only by the occasional rumble and crash of ice chunks falling into the river. Often we seemed surrounded by crevasses, chasms and fractures. Janak’s constant chant ‘Yahan bahut danger hai’ goaded us to move swiftly.

If the 2½ km glacier walk was tricky, the final 1½ km ascent was a true test of endurance – a near vertical incline with the Amar Ganga stream rushing down the rock face. Our breaths were heavy, but our feet were light as we were afraid of dislodging any loose rock that could accidentally trigger a stonefall. About halfway up, we faced the challenge of fording the stream and lumbered on, before hauling ourselves over the lip of the mountain. The vision ahead was sublime – Shivling loomed up at 21,750 ft like a gigantic cone of ice.

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A short trudge along the murmuring Amar Ganga and we reached Mauni Baba’s Ashram. Though sworn to silence, he never refused anyone who knocked at his door for refuge or food – including the blue sheep that flocked in the evenings for salt. Curious visitors would barrage him with questions – ‘What is your real name? Where are you from? How old are you? Why are you silent?’ And he would patiently scribble answers, shake his head, laugh and gesture crazy replies. Warmed up with tea, hot chocolate and his divine food, we were cajoled into a round of devotional singing, before we crawled into bed.

The night was biting cold. When stepped outside in the morning – the landscape was awash in white as tiny snowflakes fell in fairytale fashion to the wet earth. The night’s storm had made the young dreadlocked mystic switch from saffron and white robes to blue thermals. Donning glares and a hat someone had gifted him, Mauni Baba seemed more like the frontman of a reggae band instead of an ascetic. He insisted that we eat breakfast before leaving.

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When we bade goodbye, the weather was clear. Like stages in a video game we tackled the tricky descent, glacier crossing, stone hopping, landslide zone, bridges and trekked 23km straight from Tapovan to Gangotri in one day.

The trip would have been incomplete without a visit to Mukhwa, the winter seat of Gangotri, where the idol of Ganga shifts after Diwali. Leisure Hotel’s luxurious Char Dham Camp at Dharali, with riverside tents in an apple grove set in an amphitheatre of hills, was the perfect base. Swami Narasimh Tirth at the Kalp Kedar temple nearby made us unlearn everything we knew.

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‘Many kalpas (eons) ago, all four dhams (Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath) were said to have been located in this region. Jahnu rishi drank the Ganga and released it from his mouth not his ear, hence the place was called Mukhwa. And the place where Ganga reached the earth (dharaa), became Dharali! Nearly 240 temples stood between Dharali and Sukhi, all submerged in the great flood of 1802, barring this one.’

It was here at Dharali that Sage Markandeya composed the Markandeya Purana after being blessed by Shiva with the Mahamrintyunjaya Mantra. This was where the demon Jalandhara’s pious wife Brinda cast Vishnu into stone is Hari Shila (Harsil). Even the Pandavas came here in exile. And so did Pahadi Wilson…

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Frederick E. Wilson or Pahadi Wilson was an adventurer who deserted the British army after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. He came to Garhwal and on being denied sanctuary by the Maharaja of Tehri, Wilson fled to Harsil and married Gulabi, a local girl. He built a fortune and gained notoriety for smuggling fur, musk and timber.

After chopping forests of deodar, he would cleverly float the logs down the Ganga. He even supplied wood to the British government to make railway sleepers from Rishikesh to Calcutta! To strengthen his local standing, Wilson married again – at Mukhwa and Dharali and constructed large wood houses for his extended family.

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At Dharali, the 300-year-old Panwar House of Wilson’s wife Ruda Godavari has an old Bhagavathy temple with woodcarvings by Himachali artists. After forcibly marrying her, Wilson took her to the British cantonment in Harsil but left soon after on an errand. He returned after a month to find Godavari had run back to her parent’s home.

Wilson came on horseback to take her by force but Godavari hid in the Bhagavathy temple. Rumour has it when Wilson barged into the sanctum with his boots on to drag her out, he received a shock, went mad and was carried away, never to return. Sadly, Ruda Godavari was ostracized for her alliance with a foreigner and stayed alone in a cubbyhole below the house.

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We walked across the bridge to Mukhwa village where local children played guides, leading us to the jharna (waterfall), where imprints created by Bhima, Arjun and their horses were cast in stone. But there were other trails – Danda Pokhri for a view of Sudarshan and Sumeru, Sat Tal on the opposite side or the Pandava trail to Kedarnath via the proverbial Bhrigupanth. We were ready to take on anything, but not this time…

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the August 2012 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways magazine.