This connection with Banaras goes a long way. My mother was born in this city where my grandparents found support after migrating from East Pakistan before settling down in Bihar. Some of my masis and mama were also born there. Ma used to tell me stories of Banaras, which she is very fond of. Maybe that’s a reason why this city always feels like home.

My First Memories of Banaras

My first memory of Banaras goes is from the early 1990s when as a sickly child, I visited this city with my parents seeking an Ayurvedic cure for my asthma. It was my first trip outside Bihar and the eternal city charmed me at first sight. I was particularly fascinated by the Tulsi Manas Mandir which has robotic exhibits depicting stories from the Hindu mythology. Had my first missi roti, something that I love to this date, at a Marwari Basa there and perhaps the best raabri of my life. Once you got used to the chaos and dirt, not a huge issue for us, it was very easy to love Banaras.

On one such trip with my father, we crossed the Ganga and went over to the Ramnagar Fort, again the first fort that I had ever seen. I remember being so excited by seeing the ivory chessboard there which had lifelike statues of soldiers, elephants, horses and camels instead of normal pawns. Getting a chance to place chess on it would have been so cool! There are so many small memories like this associated with Banaras that have stayed on. 

There was an abrupt end to our visits in the aftermath of 6th Dec 1992. The elderly Baidya Ji who was treating me passed away by the time things got normal and I would visit it again only in 2001 at the time of engineering entrance examinations, one of our first trips without parental guidance. On an evening walk through the ghats with my friend Manish, I realised that I loved this city as much as I did almost a decade ago, something that I would know again almost 20 years later. The love of Banaras seems to be as eternal as the city itself. 

A Word About Banaras

“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

– Mark Twain

As the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Banaras, Benaras, Varanasi or Kashi, however, you may call it, is a kaleidoscopic representation of the Indian civilization. While being one of the holiest cities of Hinduism, its Ganga Jamuni Tezjeeb has also nourished other faiths equally. From the begining of time, its ghats have welcomed everyone to its folds with amazing grace and offered happiness and salvation to anyone who was willing to let go.

What is that thing that makes this city tick?

It is hard to put a finger on why someone falls in love with this city, it is easier to understand why some others are put off by it. It is very crowded, chaotic and can get on nerves but time, but the charm – that invisible, unexplained charm does not let you go.

Banaras is a city where mantras and azaan go hand in hand, where the shehnai of Ustad Bismillah Khan sang in the praise of Lord Shiva. No one seems to be busy in Banaras, yet the city never seems to sleep. The food tastes awesome, the languages sounds sweet and there is a feeling of contentment while being there. In the middle of all the din, that calm-happiness stays on. People are surprised to know that it is my favourite place in the world and I am often at a loss of words to explain precisely why…

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It will be difficult to continue talking about Banaras and not mention Ustad Bismillah Khan. Though his ancestral home was in Dumraon, he made Banaras his Karmabhoomi and it was this city that made him the gem that he was, the greatest shehnai player who ever lived. He has always been the embodiment of the composite culture of the Banaras that we know.

Here is an interview of Baba by Shekhar Gupta from 2005, perhaps his last interview. He will help you understand Banaras better.

The Trip

We were on our way to Banaras after being part of the magical Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj (Allahabad). Though the distance between Allahabad and Banaras is hardly 130 KM, traffic snarls and closed highways made sure that our travel time was more than 8 hours. So, the day was a complete washout and we just had enough time to catch the evening Ganga Arti and get on a ride across the Ganga by boat.

The Boat Ride On the Ganga 

The ‘boat’ in question was actually quite a sizable double-decker that could accommodate 50-60 people at any given time. We boarded at the Raj Ghat while the sun had set and bright lights at the ghats and bridges had just come up. Banaras has changed a lot since I saw it last, and most of it seemed to be for the better. Not sure about the fascination with LED lights though, but the lighting seemed good.

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Since it was a winter evening, the ghats were not very crowded. Most activities of the day had ceased, there was a pundit sitting on a ghat here and a bunch of kids playing on another; but apart from this, there was peace all around as we floated gently in the water with just the low hum of the motor breaking the silence. 

Soft lights of some temples and brighter ones of the more crowded ghats could be seen at a distance as we approached the familiar facade of the riverside Banaras. The cameras would not stop clicking! 

“What always fascinates me is how the people always seem to step into their own time warp. Each ritual in Varanasi is almost a festival of samridhi and samigri. And the pathways with their narrow galis and steps leading to top storeys as steep as a ladder, the staircase is itself a story.”

– Raghu Rai

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An Ode To Death

Since time immemorial, Hindus of all castes and regions have been arriving in Banaras in the hope of salvation, that dying in this city will free them from the endless cycle of life and death. The funeral pyres at Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghats never cease to burn, for there is always someone who has run the course and arrived at the ghats of Banaras to be one with the elements.

I must confess that it is not a very comfortable feeling being there, looking at human bodies burning, with that putrid smell mixed with the smell of ghee and incense. It is hypnotic nonetheless…

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Death does not seem like a very frightening prospect in Banaras; the business as usual approach towards death may even come as a cultural shock to the uninitiated. Do not, however, be under the assumption that this city celebrates death; that is not the case. It is just that it accepts and embraces the truth of life and death in such an open way that some of the fatalism seeps into you and puts you at ease. As I saw those burning pyres and felt the heat at my face, I could not help but remember many loved ones who have made their final journey from these very ghats of Banaras. Someday, maybe …

The Ganga Arti

The Ganga Arti is a relatively new concept, or let’s say a recent revival of an ancient tradition, where ritualistic offerings of ghee lamps on flowers are lit in the river Ganga in the holy cities of Haridwar, Rishikesh and Varanasi. We saw a glimpse of it at the Parmarth Ashram in Allahabad but the one that happens here is a spectacle at another level. The Dashashwamedh Ghat, the most important ghat in the city, is the chosen venue of the Ganga Arti and it glittered with lights and decorations on that evening as we witnessed the ceremony from our boat along with hundreds of others.  

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मैं इश्क़ लिखूं
तुम बनारस समझना

A Winter Morning At The Ghats of Banaras

As the saying goes, the evenings of Lucknow and the mornings of Banaras are an experience that one cherishes forever. We had already experienced a fullsome musical evening in Lucknow and now there was a chance to know Banaras at its best. As per the itinerary, a heritage walk was planned in the old parts of Banaras. However, I would not be anywhere other than the ghats on my only morning in this city as the sun rose. Some others, pretty much the same group that got lost in the Kumbh Mela, was thinking on the same lines and so we escaped to the ghats the first thing in the morning. We took a cab, went to the Rajghat and hired a boat that would ferry us till Assi.

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It was a boat ride that I am going to cherish for the rest of my life. As the sun rose and the majestic ghats started glowing in its rays, I was transported back to my childhood when life was fresh and every moment had promises of bringing a new wonder. Gently across the banks of the river Ganga, I floated through the source of the Indian civilization, stories from the mythology, folklores from Nandan and Chandamama, nighttime stories of my grandma and adventures of Feluda. I had not slept well in the night and the hangover was hitting hard when we started, but as the cold wind hit my face and the waters of the Ganga splashed against the boat, I was elevated. 

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We got down at the Assi ghat and stopped for some puja and some more photographs while witnessing the city wake up to the morning and resume its activities. Pandas had started coming to their seats and Kavita had a quick puja done while the rest of us watched a boxing instructor coaching a bunch of kids. 

As this point, part of the group decided to go back and join the Heritage walk while the two of us chose to walk back till to where we had come from via ghats. I had done this more than 15 years ago and thought it would be great looking at Banaras again from this perspective. 

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Early morning puja at the Assi Ghat. अस्सी नहीं देखा तो क्या देखा!

That walk back through the ghats was a more intimate peek into the life of the city as it unfolds every morning. After every few meters is a different ghat, with its own history, you just need to be patient enough to pause and hear the stories that they tell. Sadhus can be seen busy in their early morning meditation while the priests start setting up ‘shops’ before the believers start arriving. A lot of people can be seen doing nothing, they are just discussing national politics over a cup of tea and the morning newspaper. Some seem lost in themselves, oblivious to the surroundings. It is such a beautiful kaleidoscope of humanity in the mornings…

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It was a good morning, soaking into the vibes of Banaras while discussing life, travel and dreams. My travel companion even found a Sadhu who she had met a couple of years back and it was a happy reunion as both seemed to remember each other. Had a cup of morning coffee at the beautiful Guleria Kothi, a beautiful place which I have bookmarked for my next trip and then called it a day as it was time for checking out from the hotel. We walked back till the Harishchandra Ghat, which was busy even in the morning, and then crossed a maze of narrow lanes to catch an auto.

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Later Shubh, another travel companion who had decided to stay on, and I went back to Assi Ghat and spent practically the whole day walking and taking photographs. However, I must confess that the day was not as magical as the morning at the ghats was. Banaras is best explored during the mornings when the city is fresh from a good night’s sleep.

I do not think am done with this city yet, there is a lot to explore and many more photographs are yet to be taken. I will be back to Banaras, this time for a longer stay. Let’s see how the story turns then…

Thank you for staying with me through this post. 

Here are some photographs of Banaras that you may like. 

If you like this post, you may also want to read what our blogger friends Parnashree Devi and Kavita Kumble have written about Banaras.