At first sight, Varanasi looks like any other overgrown, chaotic, and congested Indian town. But standing on the steps of one of its many ghats (a series of steps leading to the river) overlooking the expansive Ganga river, I was struck by the presence that only a city as ancient and layered as Varanasi could possess.
“Benares (Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together” – Mark Twain
Assi Ghat: Morning Prayers
While the ceremony of evening prayers at Dashashwamedh Ghat attracts more tourists, the Subah-e-Banaras (the morning of Varanasi) event at Assi Ghat has its own charm.
The ghat is clean, and there are fewer crowds with the prayers starting at 4:30 a.m. Priests in saffron satin robes offer prayers to the sun, holding up and perfectly coordinating movements of heavy, multi-layered brass lamps.
As I watched them, the sky went from dark blue to a pink-hued indigo. The flames from the oil lamps lent a great contrast, along with their smoke trails. A stream of Vedic chants played in the background. What a start to the day!
The Ghats: A Walk Down History
After breakfast, I took a walk down a few of Varanasi’s Ghats. Varanasi has some 80-odd Ghats, all lined up on one side of the Ganga river. And all with their own stories.
Some had people bathing or taking a dip in the holy waters. Others had yards of sarees drying in the sun. Forgotten, cursed ruins laid behind one Ghat. And a solitary meditating ascetic at another. Some were eponymous, named after famous people over the ages who had made Varanasi their home. Others were named after princely states, having been adopted by their reigning, royal families.
Tulsi Ghat gets its name from the famous poet Tulsidas. I climbed the steep steps leading up to what was once his house, now a temple as well, and was warmly welcomed by the priests who take care of it. Inside a tiny room is the spot where Tulsidas sat and wrote the 12,800 lines’ long epic, Ramcharitramanas.
The Blue Lassi: Nirvana in a Tumbler
Within the serpentine network of lanes right behind its Ghats, at the Kachori Gali Chowk, hides The Blue Lassi Shop – nearly a century old and a bit of a legend in Varanasi. The tiny hole-in-the-wall establishment has every inch of wall-space plastered with photographs left behind by happy patrons.
Watching the proprietor churn fresh Lassi (a yogurt-based drink) inside a steel Handi (a deep, wide-mouthed vessel), I counted down my increasingly loud stomach growls.
Once there was enough froth, the concoction was poured into a Kulhad (a terracotta tumbler), a thick layer of fresh cream added, and flakes of pistachios sprinkled on top. Grabbing the Kulhad, I glugged the Lassi down with relish. After a long walk in the sun, the Lassi lent me my personal Nirvana.
Banarasi Saris: A Weaver’s Work of Art
I had signed up for a walk with Varanasi Walks. My guide took me to the district where ornate Banarasi Saris are still woven. A prized possession in any wedding trousseau in India, these Saris attract buyers from the world over, even now.
Today, automated looms are the norm. But in Varanasi, it is not difficult to come across a weaver labouring over his handloom. I discovered one such workshop. A solitary tungsten bulb flickered, illuminating the web of silk threads hung above the loom. And with each clickety-clack motion, the weaver bound them together into an intricately woven, magical fabric.
The Ramlila Masks: Varanasi’s Rich Tradition
Varanasi is famous for its Ramlila – the traditional theatrical narration (of the life of Lord Rama) performed daily for a month preceding the Hindu festival of Dussehra.
A Varanasi resident guided me to a small shop in Godowlia Market that stocked Ramleela paraphernalia – a wonderland of paper mache masks, idols, and miniatures. An hour later, I proudly walked out with a bagful of Ramleela masks as well as a wooden miniature of Hanuman. New Agrawal Toys Emporium at Assi Ghat is also a great place to pick up souvenirs and trinkets.
An Evening Boat Ride in Varanasi: An Ode to the Ganga
As twilight set in, I returned to the Ghats. People of all ages gathered on the steps. Traders sold their wares. Boatmen solicited customers.
Sitting in my boat, rocking gently in the mid-stream waters, I felt calm and detached. Tiny lamps floated across the river. At a distance, I could see the bright amber flames of the burning pyres at the Manikarnika Ghat.
“The circle of life that moves us all till we find our place on the path unwinding.” In Varanasi, I found mine.
Best Time to Visit Varanasi
Winter (October to March) is the best season to visit Varanasi. You can also experience the Hindu festivals of Dussehra, Durga Puja, and Diwali in the months of October or November (dates change each year as per the Hindu calendar). It gets really hot in the summers, but crowds are much lesser.