Varanasi, also known as Banaras, plays home to much that is magical and mystical. A journey through the core of Uttar Pradesh’s ascetic region, highlighting why this destination is one worth exploring
Varanasi, also known as Kashi or Banaras, is the world’s oldest continually inhabited city and has been a cultural centre of North India for several thousand years, closely associated with the Ganges. A major centre for pilgrimage in Hinduism, it is believed that death in the city will bring salvation. If one had to describe the soul of this place in a sentence, it would be aptly described in the words of Tahir Shah: “The combination of enlightenment and death is the primary business of the city.”
There is more than meets the eye; lurking beneath this city, filed with a rich lineage and culture of education, music, gastronomic feats, history, mysticism and trade, this city has something for everyone. Vibrant and eclectic with a wide variety of choice, this city has churned out a number of prominent Indian philosophers, poets, writers, and musicians who live or have lived in the city.
Home to one of Asia’s largest residential universities – Banaras Hindu University (BHU) – the city gives one the nostalgic feeling of a potpourri of religious beliefs as it is believed that Buddha founded Buddhism here in around 528 BC when he gave his first sermon, ‘The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma’, at nearby Sarnath, and Guru Nanak Dev visited Varanasi for Shivratri in 1507, a trip that played a large role in the founding of Sikhism. For the culturally acute, Tulsidas wrote his epic poem on Rama’s life called ‘Ram Charit Manas’ in Varanasi. Here’s through the looking glass of the recent Uttar Pradesh Travel Writers Conclave 2016, the marvels of what this spiritual city has to offer.
Postcards from Varanasi
For those sweet tooth cravings, indulge in a Gulab Jamun – a milk-solids-based sweet mithai. Made mainly from milk solids, traditionally from freshly curdled milk, it is often garnished with dried nuts like almonds to enhance flavour. A dish prepared during the medieval times here, it is derived from a fritter that Persianate Central Asian Turkic invaders brought to India. One theory claims that it was accidentally prepared by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s personal chef. The word ‘gulab’ is derived from the Persian words ‘gol’ (flower) and ‘āb’ (water), referring to the rose water-scented syrup. ‘Jamun’ or ‘jaman’ is the Hindi-Urdu word for Syzygium jambolanum, an Indian fruit with a similar size and shape.
Stroll the serene and quiet morning scenes from the Sonwa Mandap in Chunar fort, near Varanasi; a fort filled with stories and legends galore. One tells the story of Nepali king Sandeva (1333) who built this structure for his daughter Sonwa (translates to Golden hair) when he was looking to find her a husband.
He had but one condition: the suitor had to defeat him to win his daughter’s hand in marriage. Fifty-two kings tried and lost their heads in the process. The pavilion never donned the avatar of amandap (marriage hall) because as the story goes, Sonwa was spirited away by an admirer who chose not to fight. Blood and gore trumped by peace and tranquility. From supervised baths of royalty to executions and solitary confinement of prisoners over the years of its many rulers and reigns, this place has many tales to tell; after all, legends are but elements of truth, based on historical facts with ‘mythical qualities‘.
The Silk Puppeteers are the weavers from an era past, entrusted with the delicate ‘zari‘, brocade work of the intricate Benaras sarees. During the Mughal period around the 14th century, weaving of brocades with intricate designs using gold and silver threads became the speciality of Banaras. Depending on the intricacy of its designs and patterns, a saree can take from 15 days to a month and sometimes up to six months to complete. With no room for error, and precision at its finest hour, these master weavers spin stories via silk.
Did you know? In the old days, women used to cook food wearing pure silk sarees as they were fire resistant. Also, they had an anti bacterial property that made for hygienic cooking.
Ever had that moment, when the beauty of an object left you speechless? Ponder and revel in Meenakari artwork. Expensive indeed, this art form was invented by Iranian craftsmen during the Sasanied era and Mongols spread it to India and other countries. Its name is derived from ‘Mina’, referring to the azure colour of heaven.
A group of priests daily at this ghat perform the Agni Puja (Worship to Fire) wherein a dedication is made to Lord Shiva, River Ganga (the Ganges), Surya (Sun), Agni (Fire), and the whole universe. Dashashwamedh Ghat is the main ghat and is located close to Vishwanath Temple. This is probably the most spectacular ghat.
Two Hindu legends are associated with it: The First – Lord Brahma created it to welcome Lord Shiva.
According to the second legend, Lord Brahma sacrificed ten horses during Dasa-Ashwamedha yajna performed here. The yajna dates back to ancient India and was a horse sacrifice ritual followed by the Śrauta tradition of Vedic religion.
Used by ancient Indian kings to prove their imperial sovereignty, a horse accompanied by the king’s warriors would be released to wander for a period of one year. In the territory traversed by the horse, any rival could dispute the king’s authority by challenging the warriors accompanying it. After one year, if no enemy had managed to kill or capture the horse, the animal would be guided back to the king’s capital. It would be then sacrificed, and the king would be declared as an undisputed sovereign.
From sages and mystics to a dip in the Holy Ganga to the Sadhu deep in trance, the city is bustling with activity at the crack of dawn. A man, wrapped in a white shroud, his head freshly shaved, sits mournfully and watches a burning pyre. A bamboo ladder, supporting another body, its shape visible under an orange shroud, makes its way to its final immersion in Mother Ganges. Cows standing idly, then settle down amidst the debris to chew cud. The omnipresent pye-dog picks its way down to the water’s edge. A purple kite flown by a child on a nearby roof climbs impossibly high into the sky. A burning candle, surrounded by flowers, someone’s offering, bobs along in their wake. Rub the sleep of one’s eyes and make way to the banks of the Ganga to see the ritualistic salutations to the elements via traditional beliefs. A morning snapshot for the senses.
How to get there?
• Distance between Varanasi and Goa is 1746 km by road along with an aerial distance of 1450 km.
• There are no direct flights or trains or buses available between Varanasi and Goa. The convenient and fastest way to reach from Varanasi to Goa is to take a plane from Varanasi to Goa via Mumbai and Delhi.
• The cheapest way to reach Goa from Varanasi is to take a flight from Varanasi to Mumbai then take Matsyagandha Express from Mumbai to Goa.
Pic courtesy: Nolan Mascarenhas Photography