After spending a day at Allahabad, we started towards Banaras or Varanasi. The drive is not a long one as its only 140 KM away. Getting out of Allahabad though takes a bit of time since the roads are not too wide and being in the east, the city gets active pretty early in the day. As we got out of city, we found ourselves in ‘Hanuman Ganj’, and I may be missing the correct name here, where we had to maneuver another bad patch. I tell you this because after Hanuman Ganj, we crossed a railway crossing and we found ourselves back on six lane NH2. I think NHAI is making a bypass so someone who is coming from Kanpur and is headed for further east towards Kolkata then he can avoid Allahabad. Proabably that bypass would meet just after Hanuman Ganj as I could see a flyover meeting NH2 but it was not done from the other side and seemed like the one I saw a glimpse when I was entering Allahabad (I think lukarganj area). So much for roads, I should go and work for NHAI.
Once you are on NH2, you keep going with its usual share of small towns and villages. As you approach a village or a town, you would notice that there is an embankment on both sides, a way to dissuade and prevent dwellers to make the road an extended part of their shops. These towns and villages were the change in scenery then the usual Monsoon green. You see lots of flora but not much of concrete.
Banaras – Coming shortly to you
As you enter and exit a town, speeding to glory, the contrast is all the more noticeable. Somehow the road starts to appear like the odd one out in the whole eco-system, probably a patchy mud track might have appeared like its own child. As you try to grasp, while managing to avoid the on-coming traffic on wrong side of road, you get a feeling that the shacks are the result of some uprooting, may be its a colony of nomads who are on the move. Contrary it may sound but the villages look better fed and developed then these small towns. There are no shacks there, there are mud houses but they look like complete houses unlike the contraptions in these towns, which made me feel adhoc and temporary.
We didn’t need to stop for tea/food so we kept going and after a while we found ourselves close to Benares. Varanasi or Benares is not on NH2 and one has to turn left and drive 10 odd KMs to reach the city. Interestingly there are no big signs so we asked around, a bit late, went a little ahead then necessary, came back and entered the city. As you leave NH2, you find yourself in a city sub-urb with it share of speeding white Maruti Vans, petrol pumps, cows, carts and what not. Our hotel, Raddisson, was a little away from main hustle bustle and it took us a while to reach there. Once we got close to the Hotel, it was in cantonment area, we realized that the place has all the top names viz. Ramada, Taj and so on.
Past a tall sentry salaam and a nice and courteous front office, we were in our room. Unlike Allahabad, it was one of the true blue five star ones. We have been traveling for last two days and a cozy luxurious room peps up your morale so we hunted for the menu and after ordering some things to eat, dropped ourselves for a quick bite of rest.
After food, we discovered that our hotel package (its a great value-for-money package by the way) also has one sight-seeing element. We asked at front office and we had few choices ranging from a visit to Sarnath to attending evening Aarti from a boat or doing a temple round where we would be taken to all the important temples.
Most of our decisions revolve around the impact it has on our 3 year old. I would tend to believe that the case would be same for lot of young parents like us. Doing temple rounds was something we were not confident since it gets pretty hot during day time in Banaras. Sarnath, we can probably drive ourselves. That leaves, evening Aarti. We had one more evening with us and postponing the only freebie to last evening didn’t seem like a good idea. I dont know why.
It was starting to get dark and we decided to take the evening Aarti offer without any further ado and were out by 5, I guess.
Our hotel was not very close to ghats but it wasn’t too far either. The 30-40 minute ride was uneventful, the traffic was ok and once you are in a/c cabin you sort of feel and behave like someone who is an invisible alien, piercing through a setup which no one in real world is noticing. Apparently we learned that cars/vehicles are not allowed close to ghat because of traffic reasons, in the evening. So most of the visitors park their cars at quite a distance away. Banaras weather in summers is known for its swelter and we had a first taste of it when we got out of the car. The swelter and the humidity were at best, the cocktail was hard to avoid and with a 3 year old sleeping child on my shoulders, we started towards Ghat.
We were accompanied by a young man who was to be our boat-man. It was evening but not yet very dark, there were at least hazaar people on that street, probably everyone was heading for the Aarti. It needed some skill and patience to make your way through carts, bicycles, flower-vendors, more carts, manual-ricks, more people , so it took us some time really to take an eye-full of what lay around us. So when we gathered enough confidence to be able to walk as well as look around, we found the place as like any other busy Indian market. Ornamented with all kinds of shops, cars parked on road, chaotic traffic and lots of activity, it was not a novel sight, so we carried on diligently towards the ghat. Though no one seemed to be in metropolitan rush but it was also not a quaint old city feeling, there was indeed a lot of movement going on. Almost everyone was going towards Ghat. After some distance, we passed in front of the gate of the great ‘Kashi Vishwanath’ temple. The temple is situated at a height and I have heard that the way goes through narrow alleys. We were not planning to visit the temple since we had not factored that time.
After about 20 minutes of hard walk, led by agile and quick footed boat-man, a young man in his thirties who makes his living by rowing boat across Ganga, we could see the holy Ganga in all its grandeur. This is not the first time I was close to Ganga and the one at Patna looks much more blissful and grand but I haven’t seen a bursting Ghat like this before.
All along Ganga river in Banares, there is this concrete stepped structure where one can take bath, do rituals, buy-sell stuff and generally hang-around. These are called Ghats. Ghat probably need much more detailing and it would be unfair as a reader to not have one so read this at Arun’s blog which brilliantly captures the life around Ghat. There are many of them in Banares and one of the prime located and popular one is called ‘DashAshwamegha Ghat’.
After a while we were in the boat. It was now dark. As you look around, you would see numerous boats including the ones which rely on a motor to peddle through. There are some boats which has as many as 40 people, some large families enjoying their time, some with a loud-speaker on them and some with pilgrims offering prayers and singing bhajans. As we passed through assi ghat (I think), we saw some pyres.
Let me now take you to the real ride. Best way to enjoy this ride is to swerve with sync at each stroke of row.
We had some time at hand to take couple of rounds before we would take our boat close to Ghat to witness the Aarti. The idea of experiencing the Aarti from the boat is to have the benefit of the strategic location. As with most of the good ideas, this too has lived its life since now there are at least 200 boats in the river, to witness the Aarti.
Aarti in itself is quite a performance. Its very elaborate and to keep the interest going, the priests use different props every 15 minutes. So it starts with the usual chants and then goes on to showcase a fine display of skillful movements with a long pyramidal earthen-lamp lit equipment. While the Arti is going on, if you look around that you would find that the hundreds of boats have created a virtual land with each bow nicely tucked in. After a while, this virtual land plays host to tea-vendors, earthen-lamp vendors, flower-vendors and so on.
It would need some patience to go through the entire process since it takes almost an hour and a half but I guess its worth it. Here’s a small video of the proceeding. I have down-sampled the video so that it loads faster. There is this continuous shake since I am in a boat, see if you could notice the large no of people.
The day has gone long, it was dark when we were finally on real land. Our boat man tied this boat and we joined hundreds of pilgrims as we got on road.
The drive back home was spent looking outside the car window and chatting with our driver on Banaras, its slik sarees, the hindu-muslim stuff, the ghats and what not. The images of Ghat, the Aarti, that tea vendor on the boat island, the tons of people on the road leading to Ghat, our boat man who was still as quick footed as he was two hours back, it was all ingrained firmly. My 3 year old was now asleep in the cool confines of cabin and as I looked out of the window, everything seemed so surreal, like an alien piercing through Banaras.