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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Bike Ride to Tungnath : Shiva rules

In the Lap of Shiva

Characters: Me, Umesh Kaul or only Kaul, Lalit Kumar or Lalit, Atul Kumar Singh alias Atul and Laxmikant Shukla aka LK. We all have been riding on our bikes all the way from Lucknow [for details check: Biking to Badrinath]. While traveling on NH58 we reached Chamoli in the afternoon and decided to have a small detour to Tungnath temple.

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Tungnath Temple [The highest Kedar]

Leg 1: [Chamoli to Gopeshwar, 8 Kms. 40 minutes]: At Chamoli we crossed over the bridge over Alaknanda and left the river trail. The road ascends and reaches a small market where there is a junction of a road to Gopeshwar town and Chopta, or rather Okhimath road. At this market we took out some money from ATM as we knew that there is no ATM or petrol pump beyond this point till Okhimath.
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Forests on the way

Leg 2: Gopeshwar to Chopta [40 Kms, 3 Hours]: Beyond Gopeshwar, after about 4 – 5 Kms, the road enters the thick Kedarnath Forest Reserves. The road is narrow and the traffic is limited to one or two cars or SUVs that may pass you by otherwise you won’t encounter any movable thing enroute except some occasional sighting of monkeys.

Click here for a glimpse of drive through the dense Kedarnath Forest Reserves

The initial phase was mesmerizing. The narrow curling and ascending road, the thick surrounding of oak and pine trees, the solitude, the clear chirps of forest birds all added to the aura of the Mother Nature then but as the clock ticked 5 pm, it grew dark and we could smell rain in the air. We knew we had to be quick as there was still around 16 Kms to be covered but we could not and you are wise enough to know the reasons.

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Road within Kedarnath Forest Reserves

In no time it started drizzling. We could hear the droplets hitting our jackets but soon we realized that we were not getting wet. On closure look we found that they were not drops of water but tiny particles of ice that were bouncing off after striking our clothes. Gradually the intensity of rains increased and it started pouring in. Very soon we were all drenched to our teeth.

Shivering in the sub zero temperatures none of us dared to stop as it was dark and we were in the middle of thick forest. Fortunately, at a bend, there was a clearing and we took shelter there. It was frosty and we could barely stand. Shaking from our bones, LK took some petrol out of his bike while rest of us collected some dry straws and lit a small fire. We literally shoved our hands in to the fire to warm ourselves.

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Clouds hanging around

We waited for about 1 hour but realizing that the rain is going to be unrelenting, we decided to move on. Before that we ensured that we extinguished the fire that we have lit. In this last stretch of apparently unending 4 Kms we had to make our way amidst heavy rains. The road maintained its ascend except for the last 300 mts. The relief that we had on seeing couple of lights [or lanterns to be precise as there is no electricity in Chopta] can not be expressed in words.

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Clothes spread out inside hotel room for drying at Chopta

At Chopta there are not too many options for stay or food. We stayed at the hotel that was just opposite to the main gate of the Tungnath trek route. The tea at the hotel was refreshing and you can well imagine our state. So much so that we could not stop shivering even while we all held our hot tea glasses in our hand and it was spilling all around. Standing near the fire of the earthen pot gave us some reprieve.

The room was low roofed, dim lit with battery bulbs and dingy but appeared heavenly at that moment. Moving on priority lines, we first changed and tied ropes, laces and whatever was handy, all across the room to dry up our clothes. We had hot dinner and went shivering into the warm quilts. It is at the moments like these that one forgets all the luxuries and realizes the importance of basic amenities.

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Lovely, bright sunny morning at Chopta

The morning was bright and sunny but the chill was there in the wind. The view was divine as down below, behind our hotel rooms were the green bugyals or meadows and in front were the tall blooming rhodo trees laden with light purple flowers. We quickly spread out all the wet clothes and shoes near the hotel for drying and enjoyed our breakfast of mouth watering parathas. After taking bath [remember, we are on pilgrimage] finally at around 10 am we began our 4 Kms trek that was going to take us from 2450 mts [Chopta] to 3850 mts [Tungnath] and maybe beyond to 4000 mts [Chandrashila peak]

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Bugyals below the hotel Rajkamal, Chopta

The trek ascends rapidly but there are no risks involved as the route snakes through green bugyals. Far, one can see the Okhimath on one side and snow capped mountains on the other. The trek has some small shacks that provide you with tea and packed snacks. Quickly we had our cameras out and it was some stupendous click time.

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Bugyals or Meadows alongside the Tungnath trek

Atul had some problems and was the slowest while Lalit and LK were always ahead taking numerous short cuts. I was, one can say, not too slow but steady. After couple of hours we came across Alpine Research Station which is a high altitude plant physiology research centre accredited to Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University, Srinagar, Uttarakhand which was hardly few meters away from the trek route. One can just say … lucky researchers !!!

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Sign Board of the Research Station

We also came across Ravan Mukh, a hillock that has a fall which resembles the face of an angry Ravan. Mythology says that Ravan prayed for Lord Shiva in these hills. It also says that Lord Rama prayed at the Chandrashila peak. From here we got the first glimpse of the majestic Tungnath temple but the incline was so steep that it took away the enthusiasm of two of us. Finally we were there and performed our puja. Sorry, but cameras were not allowed inside the temple.

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Ravan Mukh [Ravana’s face]

Tungnath: It is the highest of Panch Kedars namely, Kedarnath [3600 mts], Tungnath [3850 mts], Madhyamaheshwar [3500 mts], Rudranath [2300 mts] and Kalpeshwar[2200 mts]. It is said that they are to be worshipped in the same order, strictly.

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After the darshans at Tungnath temple

Mythology holds that after Mahabharat, the Pandavas [five brothers] wanted to repent for their sins of killing their own brothers so they set out in search of the Lord Shiva but Lord did not want to meet them so he disguised himself as a bull, Nandi. Bhim recognized Lord Shiva at Gupt Kashi and before he could go underground, he caught him, or the bull, by its tail. To evade him Lord Shiva, or the bull dispersed and the hump fell at Kedarnath, arms at Tungnath, the navel at Madhyamaheshwar, the face at Rudranath and the hairs and the face fell at Kalpeshwar.

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Some fun with the snow at Tungnath temple

There were few other pilgrims or trekkers too at the temple. There was lot of snow [ya! even in June] around. Climb to Chandrshila peak took another 40 – 45 minutes. At 4000 mts, from here we could get a view of Gopeshwar on the other side too. After all, it is seldom that you see a helicopter pass by below the place you are standing, we did !!!. We played a bit in the snow and after an hour of stay decided to return.

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Onward trek to Chandrashila peak

Coming down is easy but it seemed as if the rains were following us. Since afternoon we could see the clouds originating from the snow caps of the peaks around. By then, they had grown in size and at around 3 pm they were raining themselves out. We took shelter in a small shack enroute that was a shop and a home too to a family. Within an hour we were at Chopta. After lunch we set off for Chamoli with sweet memories of an eventful short detour.

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The click of tea on the boil on our return leg.