10th September, 2016.
Varanasi is unlike any other place we have experienced. It is loud and congested and smelly. At the same time, it is beautiful and refined and holy. Not an easy combination to pull off. But Varanasi does it with great ease.
Consider the sights for example. We sit in one of the many cycle rickshaws, trying to get from one point to the next, when a bunch of school kids, cows, carts full of sweets, and a couple of dead bodies pass us by.
As you take in the smell of mawa from a sweet shop near the ghat, you are also aware of the smell of bodies burning, just a few metres away. Pujaris in ritual costumes walk past heaps of filth towards ancient and beautiful temples. Congested streets with a cacophony of traffic sounds lead to homes where the loom rhythmically weave the most delicate banarasi silk into sarees. So you have to understand, a couple of days in Varanasi is nothing. However, that is all we had. So here is what we did.
We decided to start at Assi Ghat and try reaching to Manikarnika. That would cover all the ghats. Assi Ghat is where it is easiest to find a boat for ride. Unfortunately, due to rains, the boat rides were limited for the past few days. We, therefore, took a boat upto Harischandra Ghat and chose to walk the rest of the distance. As dirty as the river is, it is beautiful to look at the ghat from a boat. There is an incredible amount of life on those steps.
At Harischandra Ghat, we climbed up the steps and aimed to reach Manikarnika. Since it was a good distance away, we finally found a cycle rickshaw. The traffic is an interesting mix of humans and animals. Manikarnika is where most of the cremation takes place. It is a difficult place to be in, with all that is going on. We decided to move away towards Dashaswamedh Ghat as it is where the evening Arti takes place. This ghat was flooded recently, with water reaching up to 10 feet. The silt is still being cleared away and the ghat is still recovering.
However, every day, like clockwork, the Ganga Arti happens. It is best to book a seat on the boat to watch the spectacle. It feels less crowded, and it is nice to see the Ganga carry away tiny diyas that people set sail from all around.
The Arti itself is an incredibly elaborate ritual involving offerings of flowers, fire, water, incense etc. to various deities. Even if you are not religious, it will be difficult not to get swept up in the atmosphere of prayer and reverence.
After the Arti, we decided to head to “Bana lassi“, a two year old local enterprise that is already the talk of the town. It was started by Aakash Singh and his brothers (Sona, Babu, and Buda Singh). Their idea was to start a place which both Indians and foreigners could equally enjoy. This book shop and lassi corner is a really good place to meet fellow travellers and try some unique lassi. We strongly recommend the banana coffee lassi. If you are confused as to what to order, ask Aakash for a suggestion.
We were very happy with the pomegranate coconut concoction.
For something more substantial than lassi, the Shree Art Cafe is an excellent place. The owner, Santosh Kumar Pandey, a passionate photographer uses the space to exhibit photographs of Varanasi. It is currently holding an exhibition of photographs by Vivek Desai. He is also more than happy to help out with directions and suggestions on exploring his home town. The Veg Thali here is a healthy and filling meal after walking around the ghats.
Apart from all this, there are numerous chaiwalas on the Ghats that sell amazing masala chai in small mud cups
After encountering the Blue Potter’s of Jaipur, we were keen on meeting local artisans as and when possible. A trip to Varanasi did not seem complete without taking a peek at the world famous banarasi silk sarees and how they are made. Hand operated looms can be found inside many homes in the city. With some asking around, we ended up in the home of Abdul Razak, who is a third generation weaver. He also operates one of the few hand looms ( not power loom) in his neighborhood. His brother Fayaz Ahmed and father Azimmuddin also work on these looms.
He explained how a pattern is first conceived and then mapped. The graph is then turned to a stack of what looks like punch cards and then fed to the loom. Golden thread is interwoven using a hand held slider. While we understood little of the process that turns fine silk into beautiful works of art, it is rather easy to appreciate the amount of work that goes in.
Each saree takes around 15 full days of work. Unfortunately, most of these artists work on daily wages, and from what we understood, most of the profit is gained by those playing middlemen. When we asked for a card of his enterprise, Abdul Razak sarcastically pointed out that he never had to make one, as he never sells a saree by himself. Wage laborers do not need visiting cards.
We did not have time to explore much more of this city. This is one place where we sincerely wished we had a few more days. But then again, as Santosh Ji of Shree Art Cafe said, you cannot understand this place in a lifetime. So I guess we will just have to be satisfied with the glimpses we got.