Year-end trips are always tricky to plan. Once you join the corporate world, the biggest hurdle in planning a trip is to get the requisite number of leaves. Not only that, all the effort and money you put in to plan a trip can fall apart with two dreaded words – “business requirement”; those who have been a part of Indian corporates need no explanation to this and those not a part of it – don’t bother. Year-end leaves, also known as the client shut down period or euphemistically the block leaves is a time when you are sure about your leaves but life is notoriously difficult. This is also the time when everyone goes on a vacation or at least plan only to push the flight and hotel prices to obnoxious levels.
This year, after planning for and later discarding the Goa trip (nothing new here), I chose for a more peaceful and less glamorous trip to Banaras which would start with a 2-day sojourn at Prayagraj (earlier known as Allahabad). Prayagraj is an ancient holy town situated on the banks of the confluence of 3 revered rivers – the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati. Prayagraj is also one of the 4 sites to host Kumbh Mela, a religious congregation that attracts a record number of devotees. Apart from its religious credentials, Allahabad also has a unique significance in the Indian freedom struggle. Allahabad was the home of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first PM of India and has hosted multiple sessions of the Indian National Congress.
The UDAAN scheme, a visionary initiative of the central government to boost regional air connectivity has connected the small military airport of Prayagraj to the metro cities of the country which has aided tourism through subsidized airfares. This helped me to plan a budget trip at a time when I was priced out of most other alternatives. The northern states experience a cold wave during the month of December-January and around the new year, the temperature is usually at its nadir. Coming from Bengaluru, where the temperature is moderate though out the year, the moment I got off the aircraft, I was taken aback by the freezing temperature and the cold breeze. This place was so much like the place I grew up and so different from Bengaluru where I currently lived. Walking out from the airport to the main road as if I was in a railway station and not an airport, sipping a hot cup of tea in a kulhad (an earthen vessel usually used to serve tea), haggling for prices with an auto driver in Hindi and settling for a price which given the distance is unimaginable in Bangalore and finally the winter – dear! I missed all these so much. I had already started to love this place and was happy that I chose this over the other popular new year destinations.
The auto-rickshaw I got into required some pushing before it started and once it did, the driver entertained me with some good old Hindi songs. My hotel was in Johnsonganj – a place I carefully picked so that I was close to the major tourist destinations. On reaching Johnsonganj, I was delighted to find that my hotel was in the middle of a bustling local market and also the civil lines bus stop from where I was to travel to Varanasi in a couple of days. I usually take a nap before I freshen up and start to explore, but this time I was too excited to waste any time sleeping. I completed the check-in formalities and locked in the luggage and ventured out to explore the town. By now, the temperature had started to fall forcing some shopkeepers to down the shutters and return to the comforts of their home. Yet, there were others for whom the evening had just begun. I wandered around – the crowded streets, the dark underpasses, the paintings on the walls, everything was so familiar yet so different. I tasted the kadhai doodh, ie, cow milk boiled to a point where it becomes dense with a brownish tinge. I ate bati chokha, chola puri in roadside stalls and tasted a few other local delicacies. I loved them all.
In every corner, I found people gathering around small fires which they have lit using whatever they could arrange for – wood, twigs, cardboards. While walking around, I joined some groups to warm my hands in their fire. I was surprised by the ease with which I could mingle with them and how easily any stranger could join any group not only in sharing the warmth but also the stories. I was hooked for a pretty long time with one such group and on introducing myself as a traveller from Bangalore who had come to visit their town and know more about their lives, they opened up with lots of stories, each one adding some anecdotes to the gossip. That night until late, they kept adding more wood to the fire and stories kept flowing – Yogiji, the Ganges river, the Kumbh Mela, the bitter cold and many more; there was no end to it. One cannot imagine this in Bengaluru not because Bengaluru is not as cold, that’s because people in Bengaluru are not as connected as they are here in Prayagraj.
I hope you liked this post. Please give your feedback in the comments section below. To read the second part of the Prayagraj series please click here – Prayagraj #2 – History lessons and a spiritual dip at the Sangam. Travel and Spread Love !!!