TRAVEL Despite the enormous filth and the labyrinth of stinking streets, this ‘oldest of old' city has many attractions for tourists and pilgrims alike
V aranasi, also known by the name of Kashi and Banaras, needs no introduction. One only has to see to believe how this city of temples and ghats derives strength from strong religious traditions and cultural ethos. Having a history of 3,000 years, it is considered to be the city of moksha for the Hindus since centuries and their most popular pilgrimage place. It is also one of the 12 Jyotir Linga sites of the country and the popular belief is that those who die and are cremated here get liberation from the cycle of births and rebirth.
It is considered to be the abode of Lord Shiva, and the holy river Ganges flowing through the city is believed to have the power of washing away all of one's sins. It is the only city where the Ganges never changes its semi-circle course and appears to signify the presence of the moon on the forehead of lord Shiva.
At dawn, pilgrims standing waist-deep in the Ganges, devoutly offering prayers to the rising Sun while bathing, are interesting sights to behold. One can see these daily rituals and much more of the faithfuls on the ghats of the Ganges by taking a boat ride.
The Ganga ghats are the most popular pilgrimage spot of the city. It is very interesting to sit here and enjoy the hustle and bustle of the pilgrims and tourists.
The evening is marked by Ganga Aarti, which is a prayer to pay respect to mother Ganges. I spent much time watching the lamps floating on the Ganges — all to myself full of calm and peace. The multitudes of sadhus sitting and staring into space in meditative bliss was also a fascinating sight.
Besides being the city of moksha, it is also known for its fine-quality silk, paan, sweets and lassi. As I ascended the steps of Dashashwamedh Ghat to reach the marketplace, I could see people gulping down lassi and malai in glasses twice the size you get in Delhi and rounding that up with a Banarasi paan.
According to Udai Pratap, my cab driver, who was my guide through the trip, the holy city has a tradition of yatras and the most sacred path is that of Panchkoshi Parikrama, the 50-mile path with a radius of five miles that cover 108 shrines along the way with Pancghakoshi Temple as its main shrine.
Another place of attraction beside Kashi Vishwanath Temple was Tulsi Manas Temple. Built in white marble, this unique temple has the entire Ramayana inscribed on its walls. When you are in Varanasi it is difficult to miss Sarnath, which is 10 kms away from the city. It bears testimony to its great past where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon to his disciples.
There are remains dating back to the third century B.C. The ruins and art collection in the archaeological museum represent the glorious past of the Sarnath. The holy city has been a symbol of spiritualism, philosophy and mysticism for thousands of years and has produced great saints and personalities like Kabir, Tulsi Das, Kina Ram, Shankaracharya, Ramanuja, Patanjali and Awaghar Bhagwan Ram, to name a few.
According to locals, a visit to Varanasi is incomplete without visiting the temple of Awaghar Bhagwan Ram across the Ganges near the Raj Ghat Bridge. He was considered to be God on earth. Shri Sarveshawri Samooh, the social-cum-religious organisation founded by him, is known for doing exemplary work for the upliftment of the downtrodden in the remote tribal areas and villages of the country.
The Samooh finds a place in the Guinness Book of World records for curing a record number of leprosy patients through ayurvedic medicine. As a tribute to the great saint, the administration has constructed ghats on the banks of the Ganges near his samadhi. Those who love Varanasi, and there are many, love it for many things — its religious significance, its exuberance, its vibrancy, its life-enhancing encounters and the sense of being in a country.
Away from the narrow lanes and congested markets stands the Gateway Hotel at Nadesar Palace Grounds, earlier known as Taj Ganges. Surrounded by lush green lawns, swimming pool, jogging track and a tennis court, this is one of the famous landmarks of the city. Here one can have Banarasi kachori bhaji, khichadi chokha with raita and red chilli pickle, nimona with bhaat, Banarasi-style mashed green peas and diced potato curry with steamed rice. The Varuna restaurant, named after the river Varuna in the city, attracts visitors with its stwik thali in the menu — a typical Banarasi thali, prepared without garlic and onion.