Varanasi-city of love, light and life

“Two days in Varanasi wasn’t enough at all – I want to go again”- Sahana and her mom kept saying this after their 2017 trip. Wondering why they loved it so much, I watched the movie “Masaan.” The burning ghats they showed in the movie shocked me. I watched the movie “Mukthi Bhavan” later. Strangely I was intrigued by Varanasi’s death scenes more than the lively vibe that Sahana explained to me.

Deciding that Varanasi is a city where people come to die, we landed there on 2022’s first day. My opinions varied drastically from the 1st to the 6th day of Varanasi. When people asked me if it was my first time, I wondered if people had come here multiple times. But now I know why travellers are addicted to Varanasi and go for more again. It is one city where you can feel two different emotions simultaneously. Here is why-

Varanasi is not where people die, but a city that shows you how to love & live in happiness

1. Chaos & charm of Banaras

Brutally honest – The first day was overwhelming with jam-packed roads and honking. The cycle rickshaws and cows pushed us from corner to corner in the narrow alleys. One deviation from the main alley could take us to a calmer alley. Still, we couldn’t take the buzz.

The same chaotic alleys felt like a mysterious pathway leading us to something more above by the third day. We knew how to give way to scooters and pat cows. We became masters of avoiding stepping on cow dung. Our minds heard more bhajans and Tabla music from the houses by the alleys than the scooters honking. We observed and admired Havelis more. The colourful doors were the day’s talk than the colour of dog poops. We learnt how to be one with the vibe to turn chaos into charm.

2.Poverty & Positivity

There are rich and also poor in Kashi. Those who own Saree gaddi look simple but are millionaires. Then there are bird food sellers and boat rowers whose income depends on tourists’ arrival. Some hardly make 300Rs/day, and others may make 1000/day during peak season. A morning chat with a bird food seller showed Sahana that positivity in life isn’t only proportional to wealth.

He said, “Irrespective of what I earn, Kashi is my Anand Nagari- happy place” If there are more tourists, he makes more money. He said if not, he gets to spend more time with family. Every chai seller, bajji maker and driver hardly whined about money. They said, “Whenever Bolenath wants to give, he will give. I have the patience to wait”, with a broad smile when we asked them on a Wednesday when most states in India went under the third lockdown.

3. Grievance & Joy

 The mighty Ganga is lined with ancient buildings on the west and a vast sandy beach on the east. Feeding Siberian seagulls while going on boats in such an ideal location is one of the happiest moments of our life. Those birds come in a pack for more mewing even after feeding with a kg of Namkeens. They are so many in numbers and loud that our laughter is masked by their mewing. Feeding, laughing, rejoicing the ghat, we didn’t realise when we reached the Manikarnika ghat.

The burning ghats-Mani Karnika

The birds had already left us following. There was a wood pyre burning right in front of us. At a distance, 4 men were walking downhill with a dead body. The burning pyre caretakers adjusted the body as if they were a toy. They were pushing and pulling the logs to adjust and ensure proper burning. Flipping-Pushing, pulling -they handled the burning bodies easier than I handled Dosa.

What a transformation – happy birds mewing to the dead humans. While we sat in silence watching the burning, two men in underwear came away from the pyre with a steel wok full of ashes from the burning pyre. They got into the water to dip the wok of ash to search for something. When asked boat rowers what they were up to, we learned a hard reality:

They are from a community called “Dom”. – The only ones who work in the ghat to burn the body. They collect ash in a tray dip it in water to sieve and find gold/silver pieces worn by the dead or even coins at times. Apart from cremating, this is their way of making a livelihood.

4.Death & Life

When we were enjoying Malaiyyo at the chowk, we heard the bell sound and people chanting “Raam Naam Satya Hai” 4 men walked carrying a dead body on the busiest and happy streets of Kashi. The crowd seemed to be undisturbed by the presence of death. It is weird to see a dead body passing by when enjoying a Banaras delicacy. Curiously, we followed the men through Manikarnika Ghat. The size and appearance of the alley remained similar to the chowk for a while. The Samosa seller ghee sellers were there too. After walking 100m, the shops related to death rituals appeared instead of Kachori. A weird silence existed until we reached ghat. We saw and heard wooden logs getting weighed and stacked as we moved closer.

There were tiny temples where people stood, hands folded with tears rolling down their eyes. I expected to hear loud screaming and crying as we were at the place of the dead – But the silence with whispers filled the air. Priests were chanting, boats with visitors arrived to pay their last gratitude to the departed ones. Still, we saw very few weeping in silence. In the end, we saw burning wooden pyres, a tilted temple and a covered cremation place on the first floor.

As we were the only two observers, a priest saw us and asked if we needed any help. We asked him why people here don’t cry. He said,

“Why should they cry? They are burning their loved ones in the holiest place. The dead are not dead; they are on the way to salvation, unlike us when they are burnt here. You shouldn’t cry here. Thank the god for a beautiful life and be happy for the ones who are about to meet the universe creator. Those who are burnt here are the chosen ones.”

5.Heard & Unheard

Banarasi sarees, and musicians, are famous worldwide. You see ads and shops of Banaras handlooms in every part of the city. Like many other Indian artists, Varanasi’s carpet makers of Bhadohi are unheard of by most. A 45km away village takes you to one of the most unhygienic towns of India with one of the nicest/kindest humans on earth, home to the nation’s finest carpet makers. When I bought a Tut-Ankamun themed carpet at Saqqara (Egypt), our guide Ibrahim told us These carpets are not bad, but the best ones come from Iran, India and Turkey.” 95% of India’s handmade carpets take birth here, and their maker’s name remains hidden.

6.Milk & Vegan

Uttar Pradesh is India’s highest milk-producing state. Their milk products and desserts are irresistible. Lassi, Malaiyo and Pedha are must-try dishes. Plus, their Ginger milk tea is the most refreshing drink globally, in my opinion. So when a town like Varanasi, where milk products are as important as oxygen, you will be surprised to see”Pro-Vegan slogans” After catering to lakhs of foreigners every year, some cafes serve Vegan food. I am not against Veganism; it is just that I can’t and don’t want to do it. But I appreciate the hopes, guts & thoughts of those who think they can turn Varanasi people into Vegan.

7. Vibrance & Serenity.

The Ganga Ghats is the place I loved most. Out of 80+ ghats, we visited many, each of them had its own uniqueness. Mornings, where people went jogging and did pushups on the steps, was peaceful. By noon, chai sellers, worshippers filled the ghats and made it lively. The morning fog on the mighty river can make anyone dream. When the first set of rays touches the water, the copper glow can turn anyone philosophical or speechless. Many crowded places can turn chaotic easily.

But ghats are different. A barber shaving his customer’s head, people chanting, Baabas with chillum, the real sadhus walking briskly without a shirt in the cold mornings, ladies with flowers, pandits chanting – Ghats are a place that is most vibrant, but not chaotic. The openness & vastness of the river, historical buildings lining them makes it surreal at the same time. 

8. Holiness & highness.

The Vishwanath temple and Sankat Mochana temples are the holiest in my view. The positive vibrations and divinity are highest, as per my experience. As no cellphones are allowed, the crowd concentrates on rituals, divinity, chanting and meditation. You neither find selfie-takers nor tiktokers. They won’t have a cellphone to watch cat and dog videos on Facebook or WhatsApp to video call their family on loudspeakers. These are great places to watch people without a phone.

The ghats in the southern part of the city are equally holy, and people are high on devotion and Gaanja both! The niches and smaller temples are usually occupied by men smoking cannabis. Though cannabis is illegal, Bhaang is legal. So the older city serves Thandai with Bhaang, while you see many men in saffron smoking Gaanja. Locals have particular shops where they prefer Thandai and bhaang. They call it “Thandai with Prasaad”, says “Har Har Mahadev” before taking the first sip- Highly holy Varanasi.

9.Dirt & Delicacy

Varanasi was infamous for being filthy. With time, people realised the worth of hygiene, and the condition is way better now. You see men chewing Gutkha & spitting, women throwing wrappers on the streets still. So Varanasi isn’t the cleanest city of India, definitely not the dirtiest. But this doesn’t reduce the deliciousness of their street food. There are hundreds of century-old food joints that prepare authentic Kashi food and are hygienic. We have never tasted this much street food anywhere else in India and were swept away by almost every dish. Dirt & delicacy exist together in the city.

10. Fog & Sunshine

As if the contrasts of the town isn’t sufficient to make it mysterious, the fog and sunshine playing hide and seek surprised us. Sahana’s June trip showed her the magical sunshine, and January showed us the foggy town. The winding alleys are already enchanting. On a foggy morning, walking there without seeing clearly and spotting saffron robes moving and huge cows/bulls passing makes it even more puzzling. 

11.Pilgrims & Hippies

The street food vendors don’t even put onion and garlic to their food because most people are on pilgrimage here. You see hundreds of people doing Pinda Pradhaana (A ritual for the dead) at the main ghats devotedly. Choultries and priest houses rent rooms to devotees- You see white dhotis and sarees sun-drying in such houses’ balconies. Bhajans and chants accompanied by traditional musical instruments are often heard here in these areas.

Then southern Kashi has hundreds of hostels where travellers stay for a long time. The bunker beds campfire on the terrace with a view of the Ganga is what long term travellers prefer most. Backpacks and shorts getting dried in those balconies are common. Nearby these hostels, you see cafes serving Museli and Pancakes for breakfast instead of Jalebis. Sushi for lunch instead of Parathas. Cinnamon rolls instead of Samosa. You hear more English songs with guitar and drums when you walk by these hostel areas.

The commonplace where devotees and hippies meet is highly entertaining. We were sipping coffee on that cold evening at Monalisa cafe while waiting for our Noodles. A group of 4 who were completely stoned sat like stones beside our table. They hardly moved or talked except a couple among them kissing each other. The weather was so cold that two ladies in sarees who were back from the ghat after Ganga aarati chose to enter the same cafe.

Monalisa wearing Indian outfit photo hung on the wall at a cafe in Varanasi

As I could understand the language, they were unhappy with the foreign menu selling Noodles and pancakes. Secondly, a couple kissing each other caught their eye. They enjoyed the free show in shock, talking typically, ” During our time, we feared god and parents. Unlike these spoiled brats” in a regional language. Despite the foreign food and a sexy scene, the ladies chose to finish their meals, continuously talking about how great their generation is and how spoiled we are. The stoners remained floating without knowing anything that was happening in their surrounding.

12.Devotion & Social Media

Ganga aarati is one ritual that evoked the deepest devotion in me. We went there thrice to grasp more of positive vibration. Unknowingly, the first time we sat captivated by the ceremony without even bothering to click photos. The second time, we clicked a few photos from a different spot. The third time, we sat and watched people along with the ceremony. The last part where the crowd joins priests in singing is my favourite part of all three times. Every time after the ceremony, we felt energised and felt composure at a time -Like a combination of adrenaline and dopamine.

Then there was a strange set of people – A man was on a video call with someone talking and showing the ceremony instead of watching it for real. Youngsters who were made to attend the ceremony were relentlessly trying to click photos for social media, instantly posting them. Some even went near the priests and stood with Namaste pose for a picture to be clicked by their poor parents devoted to watching the ceremony. Some of them got bored in the middle and walked away. Then the rest were agitatedly waiting to light the lamps used by priests for pooja. Some even went Facebook live to show the world Ganga Aaarati through their poor quality pixelated videos.

At Ramnagar Fort

When we had our cameras and phones in our hands, a girl from Nasik asked Sahana if we were taking reels with the camera. For a while, we couldn’t understand what she was talking about. And realised it is Instagram that she is talking about. We nodded our head, and she goes “Send the videos to me also later” – We nodded for that too. When the most magical part of that tall 7 tiered Pooja thali with diyas came, the girl got overexcited. She pushed Sahana and constantly bugged Sahana to take photos/videos at a particular angle she wanted for 30 seconds. Annoyingly Sahana mildly scolded the girl asking us to leave us alone; the angry girl left the ceremony.

13. Noise & Silence.

Godowlia chowk is phenomenal by 4.30PM. That is when locals come for shopping. Tourists going to the train station trying to catch a taxi, the ones who want the best seat to witness Ganga aarati rush to the main ghat via this chowk. Chaat shops are the busiest, and cycle rickshaws are unstoppable. When we stood and watched the crazy crowd, I felt good about how a crowded place like this works perfectly every day! Watching the buzz for too long can make anyone tired.

You see a highly ornated gateway projecting Jharokhas if you move further north of this square. It looks like a Bazaar, and get inside. A 20m walk and a left turn leave you at the quietest place that houses an architectural marvel of Kashiraj Kali temple! The details of carving and its sandstone material absorb the sound to create a quiet mystic atmosphere- You can sit for an entire day with a book or loved ones whispering – The silence here is so strong that involuntarily you whisper and not talk. 

14.Joblessness & Cheerfulness

The effort and strength needed for rowing boats the entire day are immense. When we talked to the boatmen, many confessed that they skipped breakfast to stay light and active so that they work until 3 and their family member takes over the shift at the time of the Aarati ceremony. Their hard work is rewarded during peak tourist season on a sunny day. If the weather turns foggy and no tourists turn up, they have nothing to do. Despite no earning, most boatmen sit whining and bugging those countable visitors like us for more money we thought. Instead, they teamed up among themselves and played cricket on the Ghats cheerful. Many of them may not have made even one ride that day, but their zest of life is beyond what we thought of.

15.Ancient & Global

The Havelis are historic. Temples are religious and mythologically important. Being one of the oldest living towns globally, you experience century-old traditions in Varanasi. But the modern graffiti on the walls in the winding alleys add a modern twist to the ancient walkways. Hardly waiters speak English, but they know to make excellent Korean Kimchi. An ancient Haveli converted into a cafe that plays YMCA songs. What you see and what you get aren’t the same at many cafes.

The Ghats made us talk about philosophical things that we never knew we would talk about. The clean, renovated Vishwanath temple brought tears to my eyes with its positive vibrations. We learnt things we didn’t know that we didn’t know. We danced in the Bhajans, smelled Gaanja, hogged street food, walked at least 8km a day on the streets joyfully that seemed to be the pot of chaos.

Be one with Varanasi, let it get into you for a day or two – Then, you will never let go of Varanasi off your mind. What are your thoughts on Varanasi? Let us know in the comment section below.

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