By Aditya Kunte
My trip to Varanasi began with an extremely hot, bumpy, crowded, and not to mention a very aggravated bus ride from Lucknow. It was the kind of trip that made me question my sense of self-importance (I had my first experience of a monkey bite, but more on that later). But it was also the kind of trip that made for a great story to tell. And a great story it was!
I reached Varanasi around midnight, too tired to be hungry or cranky even. My host at the Bhadrakali guesthouse, located in the heart of the city, was a god- send with his prompt and accurate directions to help me out.
I was always told about the grace and magnificence of the Ganges, and the sight of her next morning was when I saw her, shining bright under the morning sun in complete glory. All I had to do was stand in my balcony and stare at her; majestic, lazy, like she owned the place. And own it, she does.
Varanasi holds Ganges in its name, although not directly. The city is said to have acquired the name from two rivers, Varuna (a tributary of River Ganga) and Asi (a small stream that flows besides the Assi ghats).
While I was deep in thought looking at the Ganga, getting myself re-infused for exploring the city, I was greeted by a monkey, native to Banaras, who made my balcony his pit-stop. So as we both sat there staring at each other, the bolder amongst the two of us made the first move. He approached me with innocent eyes, gently took my arm in his hands, sniffed it and retreated back to his corner. I was elated! More staring followed. He approached me again, looking more innocent than ever. I was really hoping to hit it off with him this time. Maybe he would let me pet him; maybe a cuddle. Maybe even climb over my shoulders and call me daddy. So there he was, taking my arm again and I was more than willing to offer it to him, only this time, the little brat sinks his teeth whole into my arm! The bloody monkey bit me! First reaction – panic. Second reaction – still panic. Then came the disappointment and the feeling of rejection. I now know what it feels like to betrayed, and to be bitten by a monkey!
One of the most striking features about Varanasi is the Assi ghats. Plenty has been written about them and yet barely enough. To truly experience everything the ghats have to offer, I would recommend walking that every every possible time of the day. Each time is a different emotion.
The silent hope at dawn; the purposelessness of the afternoons; the energy infused evenings and a strange sadness at night. But all throughout, there was a certain sense of peace that the ghats brought along.
My fondest memory of the ghat would be sipping on hot chai and staring at the river. Doing nothing. Just being. It is like an entire scene from Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan coming to life right in front of me.
Now, having Benaras shown to you by a Benarasi local is one thing but have it shown to you by a true Benarasi in love with his city is not something everybody can boast of. I would consider myself lucky to have found Piyush Rai, who filled me up on everything; from local gossip and Benarasi meetha paan to chat on streets and bhang thandai. The Benarasi babu does not hold anything back and for that experience of a lifetime, I will be eternally grateful.
The Ganga aarti at Dashashwamedh ghat every evening is one of the most awe inspiring aartis I have ever witnessed. A row of 10 priests performing the aarti in perfect harmony with humongous burning lamps is a sight to behold. Add to that the melodious chants, the rhythmic clanging of the bells and the collective energy of a thousand people that takes you into a state of trance. The aarti truly gives meaning to the ancient name of the city ‘Kashi’, that literally mean the ‘City of Light’.
The tiny alleys of Benaras define wandering without a purpose, especially to somebody like me who quite likes and is attached to goals, targets and plans. The entire experience was strangely liberating, surreal even to say the least. It was interesting to note how I saw, heard and felt so much more without the burden of a destination.
To speak of the river itself, two things will remain with me forever.
First would be watching the sun rise over the Ganges while gently cruising downriver in a row boat. If there was any way to freeze the moment; not just the picture, but the sights, sounds, weather and smells; and preserve it, I would. But perhaps the fleeting nature of that moment is what makes it so special.
The second moment would be the taking a dip in the Ganga! I’m not one to have an ulterior motive of washing away my sins. But the one thought that kept driving me was “aaya hunt oh dubki laga ke jaaunga!”
There is no one way in which I can summarise Varanasi. You might have experiences far more different than mine. But the city is alive and there is only one way to find out how!