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Friday, February 20, 2015

Visit to India's oldest living city - Benares

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Born in Benares
----revisited 2014


Proud and privileged I feel to be born in the holy city of Benares. I have stayed there but it is as good as not staying because I had not come to terms with my senses during that period. So when my wife proposed that we pay a short visit to Benares during the summer of 2014 I was excited. Excited to visit a city which carries a highly inspiringly vivacious introduction in Lonely Planet – “Brace yourself. You are about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you are ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favourite stops at all". Benaras is also known as Kashi, ‘the abode of Lord Shiva, the Hindu God’, or Varanasi nowadays. It is about 600 km from Calcutta and involves a comfortable overnight train journey. We stayed in Hotel Surya in the Cantonment area, which is relatively peaceful retreat and located behind Benares station. The hotel itself is a treat to watch and stay, as it was earlier the palace of Maharajah of Nepal, with its entire heritage intact. We had hired a car from Hotel’s travel desk to see places of interest around Benares. Our co-passenger was a retired Marine Engineer Sanjeev, now settled in Australia and a travel bug like us. An interesting character with passion for drama and music. Apart from common interest like sightseeing his specific interest was to buy some books of Gulshan Nanda, his favourite author. Based on his stories many classic Bollywood movies were made in the sixties. We first visited Sarnath where Gautama Buddha delivered his first sermon to his disciples. Later Emperor Ashoka built a stupa there in 234 BC. Excavation still continues today on this vast sprawling area, where several structures between 3rd century BC to 11th century AD are seen scattered as ruins. From there we drove down to Ramnagar Fort. This is located on the bank of River Gangs rank opposite the famous Ghats of Benares. One has to cross the century old Malavya Bridge to reach there. This bridge over river Ganga is a famous landmark of Benares. Ramnagar palace was built in 1750 AD and was the residence of Kashi Naresh (Maharajah of Benares). The palace houses a museum where some very interesting exhibits dating back to eighteenth and nineteenth century are on display – like palanquins, royal palkis, vintage cars, costumes, swords, sabres, guns etc. Before proceeding to Chunar we had lassi in earthen pot (Kulhar) for which Benares is so famous. Like Ramnagar Palace Fort, Chunar Fort also overlooks the Ganga and located strategically on its bank. This fort which stands on a hillock was built in early 11th century. It was in the possession of the Mughals for almost two hundred years. In 1772 East India Company captured the fort and established a depot of artillery and ammunition. Warren Hastings is said to have taken a liking for the place and had started staying there. It has now been converted to a Guest House. At present these barracks in the Fort are used by the Provincial Armed Core (PAC) as their training establishment. While returning we asked our driver to take a shorter route by crossing over to the opposite bank over a pontoon bridge laid on the river for lighter vehicles. A strange feeling as our car literally crawled on the vast water of Ganga. From there we proceeded to BHU, perhaps the oldest residential University founded by Pundit Madan Mohan Malavya in the beginning of twentieth century. Sprawling campus beautifully maintained is like a town by itself. Before dusk set in we were in original Benares, at Godhulia more (junction). This is a place where the human race from our entire planet seems to have descended. The junction fluttered like an international maypole. We inched our way through a snarl of traffic and then jostled with the crowd as we headed towards the famous Dashaswamedh Ghat for watching the Ganga Arati.On our way we passed brightly lit up shops, hotels, Paan shops and eateries. Labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways led off from our main path.  They lead to Viswanath Temple and also connected to other Ghats

Although Viswanath Temple is accessible from several points at Godhulia, we always used the main Gate approach which lead straight to the temple to avoid getting lost. This alley is flanked by shops selling famous wooden toys of Benares, brass utensils, artificial jeweleries etc. They glittered with lights and activities even at odd hours like three in the morning.However one has the choice of using from an amazing maze of narrow alleys (Galis) crisscrossing each other and leading to the temple door. But I must warn you that some of them are infinitesimally narrow and similar to ‘Bhulbhulaya’, the labyrinthian corridors of Bada Imambara at Lucknow, built for the Nawabs and Begums to play hide and seek. At the temple we offered pujas smoothly and peacefully without the ires of jostling,pushing and shoving normally experienced with such swelling crowds of pilgrims all throughout day and night. Thanks to the temple authorities for their excellent crowd management

Outside on our way to Dasaswamedh Ghat the air was heavy with the tempting whiffs of freshly fried kachoris and jalebis for which Benares is famous. 

Ganga Arati on Dasaswamedh Ghat.A lifetime experience. When it started an effervescence of spirit built up inside us.  The chanting of hymn, pulsation of drums, cymbals, blowing of conches, the sweet smell of incense and the water of Ganga sparkling with floating diyas produced a wonderful feeling. Mingled with it the rattling noise and whistle of a train as it passes over the Malavya Bridge, mike blaring political speech of a party’s election campaign meet, the chattering and laughter of crowd milling around on the steps and in the boats created a strange symphony reminding of Neil Diamond’s famous song “It’s a beautiful noise coming out from the street, like a symphony parade…”. We were so enthralled that we attended the Ganga Arati (in the morning from Tulsi Ghat and in the evening from Dashaswamedh Ghat) everyday of our stay there.

 We were amazed to find that this oldest living city in the world never sleeps. When we decided to go to Viswanath temple early in the morning to offer Puja and also see the sunrise and morning Prayer at Kedar Ghat we found a sizable movement of people and vehicles. When we went to Tulsi Ghat we caught glimpses of wrestlers exercising and preparing for training at Akhadas (wrestling pits). Regarded as an elixir of life from its early inception this wonderful and highly disciplined sport has come to stay in this city since ages, even before ‘kushti’ (modern wrestling) was brought in to this city and northern India by the first Mughal Emperor Babar in the sixteenth century. Emperor Babar, who was of Mongol descent, was himself a great wrestler.  We also attended the Arati at Sankat Mochan Temple where we recited the Hanuman Chalisa from booklets available to all.

 Whether it is the gong of a temple bell or chanting of mantras the noise is sure to reverberate in every part of your body, and you will get carried away to sheer pleasure in this holy city.

Stupa built by Emperor Ashoka at Sarnath. Gautam Buddha delivered his first sermon at this spot

Excavated ruins at Sarnath



Ramnagar Palace & Fort






A view of Ganga from Ramnagar Palace





Chunar Fort

A view of the Chunar Fort from Ganga


Crossing the Pontoon Bridge from Chunar




Statue of Madan Mohan Malavya, founder of Benaras Hindu University. Behind is the entrance to BHU

BHU Campus

Godhulia More


Ganga Arati at Dasaswamedh Ghat



A short video clip of the Arati

Sunrise

Morning Prayer at Kedar Ghat


A Gali in Benaras

Lassi shop in Benaras


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