Bana Banaya Ras – Banaras

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 Ghat - Ganga and Temples
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.

Ghat - Early evening
Ghat

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’.

Banaras Ghat - Flower sellers
More of Ghats

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.

Banaras Ghat - Ganga and temples in evening
Glistering Ganga

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.

Banars Ghat - Evening Aarti
The evening Aarti at Ghats

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.


Evening Arti

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.

Banaras Ghat - Evening congregation
Congregation

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.

27 Comments

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Your most articulately written article has touched me to the hilt. What beautiful description and what soulfully stirring pictures of the “aarti” at the Ganges.

    I have attended the evening “aarti” at the Har Ki Pauri, Hardwar. Since the pessage of Ganges at Har Ki Pauri is not all that large, the devotees gather on either side of the ghats and some on the overbridge adjacent to the temple. Watching this grandeur sitting in the boat and having a long view of this pictursque event (as shown in the pictures) must have been an experience of life time.

    Thanks for taking us to this wonderful journey.

  • upanshu says:

    Bahut sahi likha hein, tumne Banaras ki Lassi aur Maghai pan ka jikr nahi kiya. Ghaat ke bahar hi kaafi sari shops hein.

  • lakshmi says:

    I read it without taking even a breath..what amazing blues..it will be a time before i travel anywhere other than south and until then, I am happy and contended reading your posts

  • nandanjha says:

    Thanks Ram. Its much more elaborate then the one at Pauri. The Raddison package is very good, Rs 4999 for a double room, includes B’Fast. There are good trains which connect Delhi-Varanasi (Magadh, Rajdhani, North East Express etc) so any normal weekend would suffice.

    Ups – :), Do you remember the Paan we had when we were there in Banaras in 2001 (IT-BHU Campus) or I am just messing up the names. I missed the Paan, lassi, infact even the darshan of Kaashi Vishwanath. Good reasons to drive down again.

  • nandanjha says:

    Lakshmi – Always glad to know that you liked it. I thought that I have written a drab city visit story :)

  • JATINDER SETHI says:

    Great description, and made me emtionall connect to Varanasi and theArti at GANGA MAIA. Like Rasm I have also only been to HAR KI PAURI for the Arti.We have,you wouldnt believe,visited each and every temple of South–Tamilnadu, Karnatka, Konkan etc, But have NEVER gone to any temples in the North, nor visted any holy places except Haridewar and Rishikesh. I think your piece compensates that loss. Great

  • Ritesh says:

    The place looks really nice. I’ve never been there, but after looking at these pics, I think I should plan something soon.

  • nandanjha says:

    Thanks Jatinder. Very humbling. As I was mentioning to Ram, its not too far away.

    Your comment has made me more responsible while sharing my experience.

  • smitadhall says:

    Extremely well written, this one.

    The package at Radisson was 5999 all inclusive (2N3D, 2 B/fast, half day city tour, taxes).

    There are about 88 Ghats and the main one is Das-Ashwamedha (like in ashwamedha yagya).

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Thanks Ritesh. Its an interesting place, though summer is not a great time to be there.

    Smita – Thanks for the corrections. Compliment taken for the praise.

  • Geetha Saravanan says:

    Wow, great post. You took me right along with you. Your story has been written with a nice flow to it, carrying the readers with subsequent images of experiences. I can almost hear the noise of the crowd when you have described walking to the ghats. The videos have been strategically placed and add greatly to the experience recounted. The shimmering of the lights on the Ganga … that photograph is beeeuuutiful!

    The alien simile… excellent comparison… very well put indeed.

  • nandanjha says:

    Thanks Geetha. Good day for me :)

  • Geetha Saravanan says:

    The photograph of Banaras on ghumakkars banner is charming.

  • nandanjha says:

    Actually I didn’t realize that the photos have come out well :), yesterday another friend mentioned the same thing. And then I recollected Lakshmi’s comment and I looked at the photo again, its not bad.

  • Rajeev says:

    I have never been to Banaras, but reading your write-up was like the experience itself through all those misdevelped towns to developed villages…through the crowded ciity itself… through the mass of humanity congregating for the ganga arti.

    And the pictures all awesome too.

    Looking forward to more from beyond.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Thanks Rajeev.

    I plan to write a short one on Sarnath and then probably one on Kushinagar and that would be all from this long trip. I would have to get out and travel to write more :)

  • sushil tripathi says:

    thanks for a nice writeup on your jorney through the oldest living city of the world.photos are also good.

  • nandanjha says:

    Thanks Sushil.

    I guess its one of the oldest cities. Probably Athens, Jerusalem, some places in Iran would be much older then Varanasi.

    Even though I was there for two days, I didn’t really travel much locally, would do sometime in future. It was my 2nd visit and it was definitely much more then my first visit which was mostly limited to Taj and IT-BHU :) (on a campus recruitment in 2000)

  • Celine says:

    Like it did to Ram, it reminded me of my experiences at Hari-ki-Pauri at Haridwar, what with the busy streets with thousands of people, skill needed to make way through those, bursting Ghats etc.

    A good post Nandan. I particularly enjoyed the part where you described your experiences at the Aarti.

    PS: As per my knowledge, some of the oldest (and still existing) cities I am aware of are: Jericho, Damascus and Banares.:)
    Others to follow in the list are Jerusalem, Athens, Istanbul, Giza etc.

  • nandanjha says:

    Thanks Celine. Visit Banaras when you find time, you would like it. Avoid in summers, Oct – March would be best time.

  • Celine says:

    Nandan, I certainly wish to visit Benaras, and waiting for a good opportunity to do so. Probably Dev Deepavali time next year.:)

  • sanjay says:

    no nandan you are wrong. athens jerusalem and some places in iran are archaelogically and mythologically quite recent to varanasi. because where you have been is kashi.

    there is no city alive that is older than kashi. myth has it that kashi resides on the trident of pashupati –shiva. on doomsday or pralay or judgement day, kashi is to survive. because all things created are destined to end. not kashi because kashi was not created. it just –is. and therefore will be.

    however, its being oldest is not mere myth, it is sound history. i am from kashi.

    i have been with many who come to kashi. and i will tell you of a distinct comprehension. the westerners discern more in kashi than indians. and i talk of indian upper and middle class. the orientals also seem to imbibe kashi more wholistically than many of us care to do. to know kashi is to know ganga, shiva, buddha and kabir. that usually takes more than a lifetime.kabir is a creation of kashi but he is also the epitome of its rejection.

    most us know our spots by the spectacles they put up. ganga aarti is one such spectacle. instead sit on the ghats as the sun shimmers and kisses the waters of the ganga and listen to the sounds both human and otherwise. just sit there till dusk cloaks the river and then cross the river on a boat. and from there sit on the sands and fine soil and from that distance, watch — the married couple seeking blessings, the child having his first tonsured bath and the flame in manikanika ghat searing across the placid flowing waters and telling you: thou shalt also pass. this is a world view that you witness. so that you dont buy a ferrari which you are told to eventually sell.

    dont go to kashi before you are ready.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Sanjay – Thanks for your comment and it feels great to read from someone who is from that place.

    On that ferrari thing, I would want to buy one (and probably keep one for life) even though I chose to become a monk :)

    Why not write at ghumakkar ?

  • sirumesh says:

    sir
    varanasi is on nh2.the road which continues is vishwa sundari road which joins nh2 near mughal serai.

  • Sameer Kumar says:

    Nandan,

    I am very keen to write my experiences on this portal. How do I go about?Please guide.

  • nandanjha says:

    Sameer – Check your e-mail please, I have sent instructions. Looking fwd.

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