Ganga is much more than a river, it’s a symbol of India’s ancient culture and heritage. When the earliest men arrived at the Indian subcontinent, they settled along the banks of this river and since then, the Ganga river is inextricably linked to India’s past, present, and future. Empires flourished and perished on its banks, battles won and lost, cities built and destroyed; the river has seen it all. For some, its a goddess, so pure, so benevolent, that a dip in its holy waters can wash away a lifetime of sins, cleanse one’s soul and bestow liberation. Parents bring their infants for tonsuring on its bank and after a lifetime, the dead are cremated on its banks, and ashes are dispersed in the holy waters. The river is revered by the Hindus who carry and its holy water in cisterns and bottles to their homes and by this, the river finds a place in every home and every heart.
Among the numerous magnificent cities that existed on the banks of the Ganges, there is one which is as symbolic, as enigmatic, as vibrant and as old as the river itself – Varanasi. However, this name is confined to official documents and signboards only, colloquially the city is called Banaras and spiritually known as Kashi. American author Mark Twain perfectly described Banaras when he said – “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Today, Banaras is the informal spiritual capital of India. The city is a perfect portrayal of the soul of India – spiritual, vibrant, accommodating, and ever-growing. Thousands of visitors from India and abroad visit this city every day. The Kashi Vishwanath temple, beautiful ghats, the aarti ceremony, saffron-clad ascetics, early morning boat ride on the holy river, cremation scenes, and much more; visiting Banaras is a lifetime experience.
The antique ghats of Banaras
Banaras can be intimidating at first. It’s super crowded; the streets are bustling with visitors, hawkers, rickshaws, sadhus, cows, all jostling for every inch of space. Moreover, a good number of them are looking to fleece you; sadhus asking for donations, hawkers trying to sell you some unnecessary stuff, boatmen persuading to book a place in their boat for the next ride across the Ganges, restaurant boys directing you to their restaurants, touts offering cheap accommodations and day trips, pandits approaching you for puja and tilak and many more tricks that you will discover after being duped. Also in the same mayhem are primates jumping around, cows invading the streets and grieving pallbearers carried the deceased accompanied by a procession of drums and cymbals. Welcome to Banaras!
Small shrines of Hanuman, Shiva, and Ganesha at the ghats
In spite of all these problems, Banaras has maintained its position as one of the most visited places in the country. It’s on the top charts of foreigners visiting India and most of them absolutely love this place and return here again and again. There is something in Banaras which all this commotion, filth, and duplicity have not been able to engulf. If you travel to Banaras as a tourist, you will enjoy the Ganga aarti at the Dashaswamdha ghat, pray at the Kashi Vishwanath temple, eat at some popular food joints, maybe buy a Banrasi sari and return happy and exhausted. But, the real experience of visiting Banaras, the magic which has attracted visitors for centuries, can only be experienced if you are able to connect yourself with the history of Banaras, the spirituality of the Ganga, the concepts of life, death, and reincarnation, the legends and folks of the ghats and most importantly with the locals and the ascetics of Kashi.
The evening aarti at the Dashaswamedha ghat
Banaras is a place where you discover yourself, your spirituality, you explore the truths of life, and what lies beyond it. When the sun sets and the ceremonial aarti is over, the crowds disperse and there is serenity, silence, and peace in the ghats. It is at this moment that I had some of my best conversations with the locals and the sadhus. As I walked through the lonely ghats with Ganga flowing in one side and the majestic ancient structures on the other, I reflected on life and felt its beauty. It seems poetic when I write these lines but that is the specialty of Banaras, it has an environment that lets you contemplate and discover about yourself, about spirituality, and life in general. As I passed through the ghats of Manikarnika and Harishchandra and saw dead bodies being brought in for cremation with a procession of drums and crackers, death is not the end but a new beginning, when I saw the flames rising high and smoke from the pyre being blown away by the breeze, I realized the ephemeral nature of our existence.
Submerged temple at the Manikarnika Ghat – the cremation ghat of Banaras
The image of Kashi has changed in recent years and so has the profile of the visitors. Today, some people project Banaras as a hip place, gypsy cafes and hippie lifestyles have invaded the spiritual bylanes, photographers are coming to Banaras to click photographs of the sadhus and some of these sadhus are nothing more than fancy dress actors who would charge you to click a picture of them in an attire replete with rudraksha malas and other fancy beads. Banaras is slowly morphing from a place where devotees came to experience the sanatan culture to a place where photographers come to capture the sanatan culture. There are visitors who carry musical instruments and its not uncommon to find people with guitars and other western instruments at the ghats. Not that all these are bad, but it should not besmirch the spirituality of Banaras. People who understand Banaras and its rich legacy say that this phase will pass as well and Banaras will reclaim its lost position as the center of spirituality. After all, the city has seen worse – the desecration of the Kashi Vishwanath and construction of a mosque on top of the remnants, forced conversion of Hindus, assault on the sadhus, but it has always risen back to reclaim its glory.
A snake charmer at the Scindia ghat
A barber at the Rana Mahal ghat
While visiting Banaras, it is always wise to stay somewhere near the Dashaswamedha ghat. It is the focal point of all activities. It is close to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, close to all the major ghats (except the Assi ghat), the market place is there, and of course the morning and evening aarti is also conducted at the Dashaswamedha Ghat. Since I traveled during the new years’ time, I could not find any reasonable accommodation online so I booked a lodge near the Dashaswamedha ghat on arrival. Booking offline may require some searching but it’s way cheaper than booking online and it also provides you the flexibility to find a room that best suits you. I have earlier posted two articles on the ghats, one on the Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghat and another one on the Dashaswamedha Ghat. It is incredible how the entire city was established along the chain of ghats, even more, amazing are the legends associated with these ghats. If you happen to visit Banaras, take a boat ride, one that starts from the Assi ghat to the Scindia ghat on the other end. I would also suggest you to take a long, solitary walk from one end to the other after the aarti is over and the crowd disperses. I did it a couple of times and I really loved it.
A serene evening at the Narad ghat
The mesmerizing Chet Singh ghat after sunset
Hope you liked this post. Do let me know about your experiences in the comments section below. Feel free to reach out for any help, information regarding visiting Banaras. I will leave you with a few more pictures. Travel, love, and learn…
Sadhus are an integral part of the heritage of Banaras
Stage set for the evening aarti
Smashana Kali temple at the Harishchandra ghat
When in Rome, do as the Romans do