Varanasi! : An ancient mystery in modern era!

Characters: I, LK & Atul.

Last weekend I along with my friends decided to visit Varanasi. A city that I had heard so much but never had a chance to have a glimpse of it. Somewhat like a hindi movie, Sholay. Wondering, what a simile? I saw it when I was 18 and it was released when I was born. When I saw it I knew each and every dialogue of the movie but was experiencing it for the first time in visual form.

Varanasi is different. It is historical, majestic, spiritual, classic, aesthetic, pious… [… running  out of adjectives]. Before even I had embarked upon the journey I felt as if I knew the place inside out. The only apprehension was whether the city would live up to its aura pre etched in my mind. With lots of expectations we all left Lucknow at night.

v1

The route that we took was via Sultanpur and Jaunpur. As per the maps it was the shortest route but as the saying goes, ‘shortcuts are the longest routes’, we all realized it the hard way. Hardly 300 Kms but that took us good nine hours, thanks to the horrible road conditions especially after Sultanpur.

Varanasi, earlier known as Banaras or Kashi[city of lights] is a holy city in literal sense. Not only because of Kashi Vishwanath temple that also finds mention in our Skand Purana but also because it also witnessed the beginning of Buddhism when Lord Buddha gave his first sermon way back in 5th century BC. Ram Charit Manas was written here, the two icons of Bhakti movement, Kabirdas and Ravidas were born here and Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s visit in 15th century played an important role in the founding of Sikhism.

a3

Holy waters of river Ganga

Although famous for being on the banks of river Ganga, it derives its name from two tributaries of Ganga namely, Varuna and Assi that form the precincts of the city. As we approached the city, the tinkling of temple bells and the religious chants, amplified through loud speakers, seemed to welcome us on our arrival to the consecrated place.  When we entered the city it was already 8 am.

Driving through the chaotic traffic of Varanasi is a test of patience of the person on the steering. You need to have a firm grip on the break paddle as anyone can pop up from anywhere as it is not two way traffic, it is multidirectional. Adding to the woes was the fact that the all the city roads and sanitation work is going through a major renovation.

a6

We reached our hotel, hotel Ajay in Gawdolia at around 9 am. The city has either high end hotels at its outskirts or it is dotted with dharmshalas and guest houses. Economical hotels are hard to find and you will have to work hard to locate one with a decent parking space. In fact parking is a big problem in whole of Varanasi.

After a short sound sleep in the cozy hotel AC room that costed us Rs. 2000[$30] per night we set off to have our first sights of the river Ganga. The river was 3-4 Kms from our hotel and we took an auto [best option in Varanasi] to reach there.

a5

First glimpse and you realize that Varanasi, the city and Varanasi, the river along with its ghats or banks are two separate entities. The yellows, the blues and the dusk all around created an aura which weighed upon my mind and heart rather than just being pleasant to my eyes. An hour long boat ride from Bhonsle Ghat [a relatively new ghat] was eventful, memorable and something that I will cherish life long.

We passed through Mankarnika Ghat with numerous pyres illuminating the river in the fading lights. The ghat is famous for cremations in hindu community as it is believed that as the river at the ghat flows out of its normal course and heads in the opposite direction, in the same way, cremation here means the soul moves away from the infinite cycle of death and rebirth.

a1

As the sun sets and the lights come out, the serenity can be experienced amidst the reverberations of hundreds gathered at various ghats. It is a mass amalgamation of rural, urban, traditional, rich, poor, locals, tourists and foreign nationals into one gigantic solemn and yet vibrating ethos that thinks inwardly and philosophically.

As the aarti at Dashashwamedh ghat began the crowd came to a stand still. There were more lights and chanting as the eternal essence dispersed in the air. I stood there not as a hindu but as an individual trying to search for my own self. The city makes you think that way.

a2

The commotion began immediately as soon as the Aarti concluded. As I was returning I wondered… Why so many peoples come here? Why the place has an incomparable aura of its own? What do they seek here? Why I felt the way I felt? Why? There is so much of crowd, there is so much of filth, bloated floating dead bodies can be found around some of the ghats [I saw one] then why so many peoples come here from all over the world?

 May be the answer lies in the same dirt and grime. May be it takes them away from all the worldly and monitory things. May be it forces them to think deep about life, about pain and sufferings. May be…! With all such thoughts cluttering my mind we travelled up to Malviya Bridge which is said to be the last point to which the River Ganga flows in the opposite direction.

a8.jpg

We had the famous baba thandai at Gawdolia Chowk [the plain one] and had a hearty dinner nearby. Next day we went back to the ghat early morning and experienced the silent harmony of the same ghats that were so vibrant and noisy in the evening. We also went to Kashi Vishwanath temple and Kaal Bhairav Mandir. I did not carry any camera as I was told that nothing, not even watches, belts or wallets are allowed inside some of the temples but I was unaware of the fact that nearby shops do provide temporary lockers for the same. I do not know how Gods are affected but humans are, but then, let them all live with their faiths.

In evening I started my return journey, this time via Faizabad. The route was better and smooth just like my mind. You can say the after affects of Varanasi. I will visit the place again for sure…. When? Why? I do not know!

Are Travelers Escapists???

Travelers are Escapists?

Matter of debate but at least in literal sense they are.. or rather I am! We call our short trips get aways. Get away from what? Isn’t that escapism, an act of escape from routine boring and dreary daily routine, both physically and mentally. Do not take it as an accusation, it is just another view one needs to ponder upon.

2.jpg

Whenever we go to any destination, our first priority is to look different. Camera hanging from the neck, hat on the head, goggles and casual attire, we do everything to ensure that it is apparent to everyone around that we don’t belong there. We take pictures of locals, purchase local artifacts and enjoy local cuisine just to cement our own perception that we are tourists there.

The word ‘tourist’ owes it’s etymology to the latin word ‘tornare’ which means ‘turning on the lathe’. When you visualize a lathe machine in context to ‘tourist’, the initial thought is that of going round to a place and coming back. Think deeper and you will realize that in this process you have been molded differently. It is true that when you return from the tour you regain your original shape as per the human behavior but as long as you were on the lathe you were in a virtual cast.

5

Whenever we plan a tour, we explore the beauty of the place. We enquire about its accessibility, the natural and man made sights of the place, the excursions from the place, accommodation, weather conditions but are we ever inquisitive about the socio economic issues of the place, the hardships that locals face or even how the locals have been able to preserve the splendor of the place. I can read the answer sailing in your mind …. NO!

Why No? because then our preference will be in staying and worrying here rather than traveling and worrying there. It is just like asking peoples to smile before the click of the camera because no matter what, we want our memories to be pleasant and they are supposed to have smiling faces without realizing that smiling exteriors often have painful cores.

6.jpg

In vacations we always rush off for hills, mountains, sea beaches, deserts or forest reserves. Except for some exotic locations, we all enjoy and appreciate the humility of the locals. Humility in the sense that they are helpful, caring and do not charge too much for goods and services. What we don’t apprehend is that all these landscapes are harsh for human life.

1

What happens to them when the tourist season is over? We [the vacationers] do not care because we are on a lathe machine, remember and we have to return and some one else will be on it. This will go on and on and the lathe will keep moving round and round creating lively eventful moments for the riders but do we ever give a thought about the equipment [lathe] that is stuck to its axis and working nonstop.

Bhutan is the best example for the issue I am talking about. It is the most eco friendly country of the world with more than 70% of its land under forest cover. To the world it has the highest Gross National Happiness ratings but the fact is that 70% of the population still lives there without electricity and is one of the economically poorest nations of the world. How many of us have visited Bhutan and how many are aware of the fact mentioned latter. You can draw parallels to the place you have visited recently.

401468_2593546082313_1786357237_n

So, what to do? Give up traveling and exploring! No way! The only request is, include these kind of thoughts in your planning for a trip. Give some time to the gloominess of the place you visit and do share them. It’s not to much to ask for and as for the rest, you all are wise enough!