Many people think they cannot have knowledge or understanding of God without reading books. But hearing is better than reading, and seeing is better than hearing. Hearing about Benares is different from reading about it; but seeing Benares is different from either hearing or reading. – The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna
Banaras, Kashi or Varanasi, whatever name you might want to call it, was a city I always wanted to visit. For someone who loathes crowds and cities and prefers natural beauty and places bereft of people it is a weird selection. The reason I went there honestly was basically to hog on the street food of Banaras. Fuelled by my friend Sangeeta’s book Culinary Culture of Uttar Pradesh I caught a direct flight from Ahmedabad to Banaras. The agenda was food and nothing else.
The city of Banaras, although I am going to try and describe is not something that can be understood by descriptions, it can only be experienced.
The drive from the airport to the hotel was smooth, apparently upto the city the road is broad and well constucted, once you enter the city though, you realise the sheer number of people around and as you approach the ghats, where we stayed, the roads become narrower and the honking becomes shriller and louder. The hindi in which our driver spoke to us and when he had his girl friends call was a welcome change to listen to from the honking on the streets. Listening to words like “Prachin”, “Vivash” in normal conversation and not in prose and poetry was a novelty for us to listen. To be honest the hindi was so pure and cultured, just listening to it was music to the ears.
The Ghats and the narrow streets around it are like a different world. All streets leading to the Ghars are chaos personified, whilst they are trying to clean Banaras a lot, its still a while to go, I guess. The infinite number of people, the cycle rickshaws, the autos, the incessant honking would make you wonder if everyone would be at verge of losing their composure and yet, when I asked a gentleman rushing past me, “ Bhaisahab, yeh Kachori gully kaha hai?”
He paused and immediately helped me with the directions, as we began walking in the direction, he smiled and showed me his pan smeared red teeth, and said,”waise abhi kachori milegi nahi.”
It was 1.30pm, lesson number one, all food here is served at a particular time and you cannot get it round the clock no matter how good it is.
Amidst all the chaos, all the rush, all the crowd the city is clear, gol kachori available from 7.30 to 9.30, badi kachori from 9.30 to 12, Malaiyo early mornings, Samosa in the evenings and so on. Do not for a minute think this town works like chaos, its on a schedule and there is order. There is a queue and you will get your Jalebi but only jab tumhara number aayega.
There are barbers shaving heads and beards on the ghats, there are pooja’s happening, Sarees drying, boatmen luring you for a boat ride, green tea being sold, gulls picking up anything that is eatable, kids sliding on the slopes of the ghat, cows flicking their tail which can get into your face, pyres being lit, tears of their loved ones, painters sitting and painting art, jyotish giving you a sneak peak into your future, Baba’s smoking chillum and yet you will also find a corner where you can be alone, bereft of any intrusion and hear bells of a temple, watch Ganga Maiya gliding by, small lamps at dusk flickering with the light waves of the river and feel the vibrations of the place, an unbelievably beautiful dusk sky would ensure you actually feel the vibrations of this magical town.
I am an atheist, a non believer, someone who loathes places of worship, no we didn’t even go and visit the Kashi Vishwanath temple, but we felt the place and its magical aura, it has certain vibrations that are unmistakable, inexplicable, but prominent. You may not be able to explain, but you will totally understand the reason why people are pulled to this place.
Walking the narrow lanes around the Ghats, the various food shops serve the best street food in the world, the city maybe messy but the halwai’s have spic and span shops, especially The Ram Bhandar, whose Kachori’s and Jalebi’s are something you do not want to miss. The Malaiyo by Markandey Sardar available only in winter months is unlike anything you would have ever had. A glass of Bhaang from Badal Coldrink or a Lassi from Blue Lassi will add extra zing and aid your gut to gulp more, for after a noon siesta you would want to gulp the best Chaats in the world, be it the unique Tamatar chaat or the amazing Chooda Matar the food this city has to offer is something for which I shall travel here again.
Not just the food though, Banaras is a place you want to immerse in. Words I aint got enough to describe this place, some pictures will perhaps do a little more justice but nothing will be better than you going there and feeling it.
I’ll leave you with some pictures which I hope will inspire you to go visit Kashi, the oldest town in the world!
View from Assi Ghat
Assi Ghat, mandir bhi pizza bhi, take your pick!
Innumerable such pooja’s are being performed.
The evenings are the most magical, before the Ganga aarti begins, the sunset is magical here!
Gulls flock people spilling ashes of their loved ones in the Ganges.