Sunday, April 8, 2007

BENARAS (end of November 2007)

BENARAS (24th November)
a day well spent

For some odd reason I woke up early. No clue what time it was. Opened the window of my 10’X5’ room on Pandey Ghat of Benaras

Still lying in the bed I could I could enjoy the breeze coming past the Ganga. Feeling worn out by my earlier days long walk I decide to lay still and enjoy the breeze. Soon an orangish line appears in the dark grey sky. That was the way I saw my first day in Benaras coming my way. It took a while for the sun to keep rising till it became a nice white round in the clear blue sky.

High time to get up. I pick my bag and start walking towards Dashasmedha Ghat. On my way get a splendid view of the ghat as the sun lits them up. All sorts of pictures can be seen on the ghats in the morning. Kids diving from the higher structure of the ghat into the Ganga. Or a barber shaving the head of a pilgrim. Men and women talking the holy dip. It’s hard to mention all that I saw.

Dashasmedha Ghat is as usual buzzing with activities. The touts, the boatmen, the phoolwalas, the tempowalas, the fakir, the panda, all of them waiting for their prey – the tourists, pilgrims and above all the foreigners(those who pay in dollars and pounds).

I keep moving through the crowd (surprising them all by my hindi, as my camera, my French beard and ear stud puts me in the category who pay by dollars).
As I reach Vishwanath Gate, I look here and there to spot a vegetarian restaurant. The best option being poori-subzi I place an order and get surprised to see some complimentary jaleebi’s with the four pooris and aloo-kaddu ki subzi. During the course of my breakfast I’m entertained by a Bengali family trying to stuff their fat 10 year old son with load of food and sweets.

By now I’m decided to make a day trip to Sarnath. So I start chatting with the locals sitting by the road reading newspaper to get fair enough an idea about the cheapest and best way to reach Sarnath.
Spending 10 rupees on a cycle rickshaw ride to Varanasi Cantt. Station. From there share an auto rickshaw ride for another 15 rupees through a bumpy and smoky half hour journey to Sarnath.

Without being told you’ll know once you’ve arrived at Sarnath, no one can miss those massive ancient stupas.

There I met a guide who fooled me by showing the Bodhi tree (not the real one but a grafting of the same), the Japanese Buddhist temple, the Chinese temple and the Sri Lankan temple, whatever he told me as a guide could have been read on the placards outside these temples. The loss of 20 rupees didn’t pinch me much.

Once through with my guided tour, I started walking towards the ASI excavated site, on my way I munch some chana-jor garam (gram chips). In ten minutes I buy a five rupee ticket and enter the excavation site.

Splendid is the word to describe this place. Spread over acres of land must have been this monastery of the Mauryan period. I could see where the monks must have stayed where they would have prayed and so on. Most of it only basic structure can be seen i.e. the walls etc. (rest all gone into dust), except for the Dhamekh Stupa which still stands high above the ground. Not to be missed is the beautiful floral carvings and the niches on this robust solid brick cylindrical structure. Around an hour can be spent here exploring the excavation site watching the once so glorious monastery probably the birth place of Buddhism.

Ten minutes walk took me to another big stupa, weirdly once the raja of Benaras built an octagonal structure on top of the stupa to welcome (rather please) emperor Humayun. The combination is sheer mismatch.

I was a bit unlucky as the ASI museum full of relics from the excavation site including the four-lion capital remains closed on Fridays.

Time to head back for Benaras. 15 rupees auto rickshaw ride till Gadolia Chowk and a ten minutes walk to Dashaswmedha Ghat.

A hot cup of tea at the ghat. Then a twenty minutes walk to Monalisa Café (Bengali Tola) lemon tea, chocolate pancakes and tuna sandwich for a late lunch. Walked back to Yogini Lodge, a hot water bath and a nap till around 5:30 in the evening. Got up to spend a while on the terrace and have a view of the almost the entire city.
Another walking spree through the ghats from Pandey Ghat to Kedarghat and then the by lanes . the lanes here are a bit wider and cleaner than those near Pandey Ghat.

Four rupees I shelled out for kullad (terracotta cup) full of steaming hot creamy milk.

A walk through the by lanes till the main road near Harishchandra Ghat. From there a five rupee cycle-rickshaw ride to Assi Ghat. A boring aarti by the river.
Assi Ghat is probably the cleanest of lot. I tried checking out t
E lodges over here. Soon I figure out that a twelve years old boy working for this logde is having a romantic inclination for me (probably it was just to earn some money). But time for me to run back take the first rickshaw and back to Pandey Ghat. A short walk to Apsara Restaurant (Bengali Tola). By now I’m through with a lemon-ginger tea and a chicken stew.

Time to go back to Yogini Lodge.

BENARAS (25th November)
a day made of pictures.

Today I got up at 6.30 in the morning almost an hour later than I intended. The deep blue sky was already replaced by a lighter shade of grey and an orange sun.
As I reached the ghat in another five minutes or so, was surprised to see the river full of boats, and the boats full of tourist. It seemed as if people are swarming a neighbourhood park for a morning walk.
Is that a spiritual calling of the river or just over hype of guide books. Whatever it may be was none of my concerns. My mission was to see the life of the locals on the ghat to see how they bond and depend upon the river.
So I started my trek towards the southern end of the ghats. On my way I met the kids selling flowers and reciting phrases in English without knowing what it means. During the walk I met atleast fifteen kids using the same phrases to sell the flowers (buy them put the flowers in water for mother, your father, your brother and so on…).
Made a small halt in the journey for a cup of tea. This was such a perfect cup of tea with perfect flavour of elaichi (cardamom). Along with the tea I got time to chit-chat with the local boys having tea and toasts. Paying three rupees was like paying nothing for such good tea. From here I walked till Kedarghat, took the flight of stairs reached the by lanes to be explored in the day light. The smell of fresh cow dung filled in the air. And clouds of dust created by the jamadaar (sweeper) filled the sight. All this is a part of the journey to attain nirvana in the city of Varanasi. All this was worth crossing when I saw those bright green doors on the red brick wall. Yes, the city is full of pictures. Probably that’s what spiritualism means to me.

There is no overpromise in saying that the city is spiritually advanced, truly it has something to give to everybody. It gives peace to everyone, for some in form of picture, for some in form of music yet others get peace by chanting the mantras or taking the holy dip.

As I walked through all these pictures I looped back towards the ghats. This one called the Harishchandra Ghat know as the funeral ghat. Already a few pyres are set on fire. Hindus call themselves lucky to be cremated by the Ganga and that too in Benaras. I walked up to Assi Ghat and back.

On my return I saw some dhobis (washer men) washing the clothes in Ganga. It was a pretty sight to see the colourfull clothes fluttering by the breeze as they hung on the railings by the bank.

Apart from those regular rituals it was fun to see two men throwing strings in the water to catch fishes (no clue how it works no fishing rod or anything). Yet another pair of men cracking shells to take out the animal inside for food.

That’s how the morning starts in the ghats of Benaras. Not that the entire day is much different. Just before leaving the ghats and heading for my lodge I caught a quick bite of spicy papri-matar. Oops! I forgot to mention the middle-aged Bengali trying to prove to the world (i.e. his friends and family) how good a swimmer he is. I never expected to see him back on the shore once he went someway in the water, heroically he made his way back and stood next to his proud wife.

Soon I’m back in the lodge waiting for the maalishwaala. Now I won’t get into the details as this guy turned out to be yet another Bengali and a professional murtikar (sculptor). He knew too many things in the typical Bengali-English of the raj period. Hats off to him as he had learnt it all without completing his basic schooling. Putting in a nutshell the massage was just okay. After that a quick cold shower to get rid of all the oil on my body. Soon after a short walk and an auto-rickshaw trip. I’m standing outside the BHU (Banaras Hindu University) main Gate at Lanka. A ten minute walk up to the Bharat Kala Bhawan museum. An hour and a half spent inside. They house an excellent collection of art and artifacts. One can see Nicholas Roerich, Alice Boner… and lot many unknown artist of various Indian art styles.

A beautiful collection of coins which goes back to the Kushan or Mauryan period. Coins in bronze, gold, silver, terracotta etc.

Modern Indian government coins of hundred rupees value, another with the face of M. K. Gandhi and superman inscribed on it.

A section full of things related to varanasi. Here some 18th century illustrations tells you how beautiful and lavish the city was at its days of glory. Lot more to be seen there sculptures, books etc…

Now I walk to Maitrey Jalpaan Griha (the university canteen) and gulp two aloo chops and a cup of tea spending three rupees in total. Another combination of walk and auto-rickshaw ride to Gadolia Chowk.

Now a walk up the ghats towards north. On my way I cross Manikarnika Ghat this is the main burning ghat of benaras and what a sight it was to see boats loaded with wood to be used for cremation. This again is kind of a tourist attraction, hyped by guides and boatmen. Whats so great about to see dead people being burned. This ghat also has association with Vishnu as there’s a myth that he meditated here for a thousand years.

The moment I crossed the ghat I saw the most awaited sight. Here is mandir half buried in the silt and water. One can just see the top canopy popping out of water. For a long time I had seen this temple in music videos and movies, but today I believe in it.

Again I cross another few ghats and take the by-lanes and back to Dashaswmedha Ghat, walk back to the lodge picked my sweat-shirt and back to Monalisa café. Just finished my a chicken pizza like no other chicken pizza I ever had - thick, cheesy amazing value for money (forty rupees for the pizza). Just the spices and sauces are different from what we have in Delhi.

Now I’m waiting for a glass full of lemon tea. Hey, it’s there on the table. That’s all for the day.

BENARAS (26th November)
banaras ki subah

Somehow I woke up before the time I had assigned the clock to buzz. Kept waiting, for some odd reasons the alarm never went off. At 4:35 I finally left the bed and off to Pandey Ghat. The moment I stepped out I was taken aback by a weird sound as if some kind of voodoo. In the next few seconds I realised that a bunch of Bengalis were going to the river in the middle of the night to perform rituals a day before marriage in the family. The group consisted of around ten people from ten to fifty years in age.
I realised they were equally amused to see me at that ungodly hour as they kept on making fun of me in Bengali without knowing that I am of their kin. I walked towards Dashaswmedha Ghat where I had my first cup of tea. By now there was already some activities by the ghat. In another thirty minutes I booked a boat up to Manikarnika Ghat. The deep blue cast all over was beautiful. Here and there dashes of saffron could be seen against the rich deep blue.
As we rowed past the ghats we could see people coming in from the dark gullies and gathering on the ghats. The pandas preparing to get dressed in saffron’s already taken a bath in cold ganga water.
The boats being prepared as bunches of tourists have appeared to see the famous “sunrise on the ganges” – the so called “banaras ki subah”.

No doubt it was a sight worth a watch. As the soft deep blue sky opens up to give way to the orange sun. Its beautiful to be in the river and watch the river and it’s ghats.
I stood at the Mankarnika Ghat for a while admiring the half sunken Karvat Vishnu Mandir, as the locals call it. The strong dark silhouette of the temple with the rising sun in the background and the sky in shades of peach, pink and blues.

After spending a while I decided to take a boat trip back to Dashaswmedha Ghat. This was the best view since I had come to Benaras. Not that what I saw was something new, but seeing it all from the river in the early morning light.

After paying the boatman I had my breakfast of aloo-puri with complimentary jaleebis.
Now time is to look for a new lodge, somewhere nearer to the Dashaswmedha Ghat. After checking out a couple of places I checked-in at Jai Shiva Lodge for 120/- per day. Go back to Yogini Lodge settle the bills, pack-up and back to Jai Shiva Lodge for a hot water bath.
A table and a chair is placed in the balcony outside my room which almost opens up on the ghat. There’s nothing to stop the view. Till the water gets heated I enjoy another cup of tea sitting at the balcony, watching a group of South Indian Brahmins in their saffrons taking a boat ride. Another group of people taking their morning bath. After a refreshing bath once again I start walking towards Panchganga Ghat that lie beyond Manikarnika Ghat. Right next to the ghat is an old mosque built by Auragzeb. Now under ASI protection. As I entered I saw the maulvi chatting with a pandit in the masjid courtyard. A scene not so popular anymore. A brilliant structure was the mosque. Made of red sandstone. Apparently the mosque had two minarets 85 feet high, which got broken during the partition (1947). After the pandit left I had with the maulvi. He told me about his friend the pandit who seems to be associated with a nearby temple and keeps coming to the mosque for clean water to drink and use the loo as it was surely the cleanest of what I had seen in the last few days. Before leaving the pandit said “walle hukum ad salaam”, it was overwhelming. The maulvi showed an old picture of the mosque (with the minarets intact) shot from the other side of the river. No other structure in the city was as gallant as this.

Time to go back to the ghats. I walked all the way to Rajghat the lie on the northern extreme next to the iron bridge. The last few ghats were full of bathing buffaloes. It was a sight to watch buffaloes and men bathing together. I spent a long time sitting on the ghat and watch all the scene around. Kids flying kites on the sandy bank, women taking bath, a couple of fishermen, dhoobi’s washing clothes. The beauty was all over here it was more of day to day chores and less of religious activities and no tourists at all except me. Met a man selling some weird yellow looking stuff on further query he said its idly-sambhar, it was too yellow and syrupy to be sambhar but the kids were really happy to have it.

I started walking back but somewhere a lonely radio kept on the ghat by a washerman made me stop for another hour and listen to old hindi movie songs. In totality it was enriching to see how people enjoy Sunday morning on the riverside as if life starts and ends here.

Finally a walk back to Manikarnika Ghat in search of the Astronomical Observatory built by Sawai Raja Jai Singh. The ASI board can be seen from the ghat. One of the entrances with a big sarkari taala (government sealed lock) can be seen after walking a bit in the bylanes, but to find the functional entrance is not so easy as it lie on the Dashaswamedha Ghat at the back of some subzi mandi. But I reached, spent some half an hour admiring the place. The sun dial over here was right on time.
Back to the lodge, sit in the balcony read a book, go of to sleep, wake up at 4:30 PM. Feeling really really hungry. I go to Ganga Fuji Restaurant, order a garlic-cheese sandwich not bad to taste but not so filling. Another order I place a mixture of rice-beans-scrambled eggs-boneless chiken, they call it chicken biryani. It did not taste bad either but surely filling. A short walk to through Vishwanath Gali a small laddu on the way.
With the tummy so full I decide to take another walk and on the way had a Badam & Malai Thandai at Gadolia Chowk. After that I spent some more time on the ghat reading a book below the street lamp.
Now sitting under a CFL lamp in the balcony outside my room in the lodge.

BENARAS (26th November)
last but not the least

woke up early around 4:30 in the morning. Wanted to see the ghat from my balcony on my last day in Benaras. As I was about to leave my bed I could hear some noises. Thought of sitting on the bed and just cherish the sounds of the pictures I had seen in the last few days of being here.
Yes this was like hearing the sounds and imagining what must be going on outside the room. As the room is right on the ghat I could hear the sounds of the dog barking, the birds chirping. Could hear the monkeys quarrelling, Soon the soundscape changes as more human voices add on to it. The chaiwala selling chai. The kachoriwala selling kachoris. Group of men and women climbing down the stairs to the ghat. People chanting some mantras. Boatmen trying to negotiate with the tourists. Pandits giving gyaan to the people. Could hear the goat and so on. The sounds kept on changing along with colours of the sky and the river. Sitting in the dark room I kept absorbing all the sounds that kept coming towards me, almost for a couple of hours. So much to do in so little time. Half a day to go and I will be on my train to Delhi and my regular life.
Spend another hour or so on the balcony read a bit and had a nice cup of tea. Walk to ghat for my breakfast as usual. Bit of shopping to be done. Found a shop selling and making biris of all sizes, picked up a pack of extra large biris for a smoker friend of mine (later found out the smaller the better goes for biris). Anyways next time will keep it in mind. Bought a shirt said to be some kind of Japanese wear, looked more like a gujrati menswear extremely cheap it was 150/- or sometining. Got some sweets packed for home, the sweet shops make excellent cham-chams in benaras. All this was in and around Bengali Tola. Back to Dashaswamedha Ghat sat on the ghat enjoying the sun for a while. Lunch at a vegetarian dhaba. Back to the lodge a short nap. Packing up to leave for delhi.


Mukul said...

such an amazing description you have given for our city. infact, i didn't knew many things about banaras that you described. thank u so much for making our city so special.

Anonymous said...

The account on Benaras is truly enchanting and I definately want to see the sunrise in Benaras at the Ghats.

sudip33 said...

thanks arun. its a great place to be. you should surely see the sunrise over there sometime.

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