ARE THERE NOT MANY PLACES ON EARTH?
YET WHICH OF THEM WOULD EQUAL IN THE BALANCE OF ONE SPECK OF KASHI DUST?
ARE THERE NOT MANY RIVER RUNNING TO THE SEA?
YET WHICH ONE F THEM IS LIKE THE RIVER OF THE HEAVEN KASHI?
ARE THEIR NOT MANY FIELDS OF LIBERATION ON EARTH?
YET NOT ONE EQUALS THE SMALLER PART OF THE CITY NEVER FORSAKEN BY SHIVA.
THE GANGES, SHIVA AND KASHI: WHERE THIS TRINITY IS WATCHFUL, NO WONDER HERE IS FOUND THE GRACE THAT LEADS ONE ON TO PERFECT BLISS.
-KASHI KHAND CHP. 35
On 20th December 2015, I opened my eyes to the prayers called for Allah and ringing of the temple bells at the same time but that din’t disturbed my sleep, infact I opened my eyes with a smile. I went to the window to open it and a cool breeze entered the room as it chilled my spine, all I could see was fog which looked so pretty and relaxing, but it was freezing. I shut it immediately and realized that it’s still dark outside. It’s seven degrees, yes! This Shiv nagri is cold,, very cold in december with almost zero visibility. It was 5:30 in the morning and I heard a knock, that was my guide for Varanasi Rajesh. He is a young guy in his twenties, dark skin and teeth as white as you could imagine. He came early morning as he had promised , wearing him monkey cap which covered almost half of his face but that dint stopped him giving me his widest smile. “Har Har Mahadev madam ji” he greeted me, (one of the most popular chants chanted by devotees of Lord Shiva). “Har Har Mahadev” I replied back. That’s Varanasi, Kashi or Benares.
It was hard to get put of the bed on such a lazy winter morning but Rajesh promised it will be worthwhile and indeed it was. We left to see the early morning Ganga aarti. It was so cold that I skipped taking shower and covered myself with three layers of clothes, cap and a woolen scarf. The most common means of transport in Varanasi is the cycle rickshaw and we got one as soon as we waled down the hotel. Cycle rickshaw is a fun ride, it moves smoothly giving an open view of the city as we moved. I wondered how was the rickshaw man was riding the rickshaw, carrying the two of us in this cold weather where my hands were freezing and my nose was red. When I asked the rickshaw puller where does he gets this energy from? He replied “Thorda sa Gur aur baaki sab baba ka aashirwad hai” (A liitle food and jaggery, rest all because of lord Shiva). People of Varanasi are the biggest fan of Lord Shiva. They are nice people. Even if they have no money in their pocket they’ll be smiling because they have Lord Shiva above them and will greet one another with “Har Har Mahadev.” Even when I said HAR HAR MAHADEV I sensed a power within me.
We stopped on the way for a quick chai before the aarti. I am not a fan of chai (tea), but the pleasure of drinking tea while standing on the road in this winter was something I dint wanted to miss. We were on our way to Dashaswamedh Ghat, which is the main ghat in Varanasi on the banks of river Ganga. The ghat is located close to Kashi Vishwanath Temple and is the most spectacular ghat. Two Hindu legends are associated with it: According to one – Lord Bramha created it to welcome Lord Shiva to Varanasi. According to another legend, Lord Bramha sacrificed ten horses during Dashaswamedh Yagna performed here. As the rickshaw moved I saw the sky changing it’s color from black to navy blue and slowly converting to sky blue. The rickshaw finally stopped and we had to walk 50 steps more to see river Ganga. I stopped as the river came to view because what I saw was the most peaceful view of my life. The sun was finally up and the rays of the early morning sun spread across the river. The temples, shrines, ashrams that stretch along the river for over three miles were golden with the touch of the sun. They are at the top of the ghats and from them the staircase takes you down to the river spread like it’s roots. Even in the winter morning the ghat was full of colors. Their were sadhus in their bright orange attire, the pundits ready for Ganga aarti in white and golden, the Naga baba’s in black, the colours og mandir, the people, the boats on the river filled the colours of the painting well.
People had already taken their seats on the steps of the ghats for the aarti. As Rajesh and I sat down I saw people taking dip in the river in such a cold weather. Before even asking Rajesh about it, my mind itself gave me an answer ‘it is all because of Lord Shiva’. The people of Varanasi believe in Shiva so much that it actually made me feel he is watching all of us. The aarti began with five pundits taking their place with a bell in right hand and ‘Agarbatti'(incense sticks) in the left hand, turning and greeting all the directions and then finally facing river Ganga. A lot of people saw this scene from boats, that was my plan too but we were late for that. After facing river Ganga they blew out ‘Shanks’ (shells), which was melodious to ears. The pundits all in a synchronized motion picked up a big fancy stand of diyas(light) and moved their hand in a circular motion as the Ganga aarti played in the background. This was just one part of Varanasi and I was already in love with this Shiv Nagri.
As the aarti got over we decided to see all the majestic 84 ghats of Varanasi from boat. According to what Rajesh told me, as soon as you enter a particular ghat all the boat walas have an eye on you, the one who claims you first will approach you and the rest will look for some other customer. You can even bargain the price of the ride or approach some other boat wala if not happy with the price, but they will tell you the same price as the previous one so you will have to go to the first guy who approached you. That’s an understanding between the boatwalas, they won’t steal someones customer. Once seated, Rajesh bent down towards the river and put his hand in the river to sprinkle water on him and me and said “Har Har Mahadev” , He said it was for good-luck.
Our boat started moving and Rajesh told me the story behind each ghat, each ghat of Varanasi were owned by the Raja’s of different states in India. All f them wanted to spend their last days in Varanasi to attain liberation when they die. I saw some fascinating scenes such as kids playing cricket on the ghat, sadhus in their yoga poses, people sitting and chatting, so many people, so many different religion, all united by river Ganga. We then came in front of Manikarnika Ghat. Manikarnika Ghat had large fire burning at 4/5 places, all not more than steps far. After a few seconds of observing people on ghat I realized it was a burning ghat where people burn the dead. My heart went a little numb when I saw men burning their beloved ones, but burning bodies is not what bothers the people of Varanasi, they are not scared of death, infact their only wish is to die in Varanasi because it is believed that those who die in Varanasi and are burned at Manikarnika Ghat directly go to heaven and are free from the cycle of rebirth. The scene gave me goosebumps, not scarred of fire, but realizing that ‘Death’ is the ultimate truth. It took us 2 hours to complete the entire boat ride without a motor boat. I would suggest you to take a hand boat to see the beauty of ghats giving it appropriate time. It was 10 am now and I was craving for breakfast.
I was totally up for a typical Benarasi breakfast. Rajesh took me to the famous Chowk area of Varanasi for it. It looked like a congested area but people moved freely. Chowk is the oldest market of Varanasi, selling the traditional Benarasi Saris and textiles. My stomach growled in it’s loudest voice, but thanks to the noise of the city that saved me from the embarrassment. There was a shop at the side of the road, it had a big ‘kardai’ with oil frying ‘purees'(Indian bread). One man handling the ‘kardai’ and the other collecting money and serving, we had to hold the dry leaf plates in our hand and stand on the road, eating. A typical Benarasi breakfast includes warm and fresh made puree served with a spicy gravy which includes potatoes, chick peas, pea; Jalebi and Dahi (curd). The breakfast was so yummy that I ate 6 purees. Rajesh asked me to slow down because there was something more special coming up which is a sweet dish, only prepared during winters with the help of fog, called ‘Malaiyo’. Malaiyo is served in a mud pot called ‘Purva’; it is a yellow color dessert and looks like foam. It is actually foam, once you put malaiyo in mouth it melts and disappears. It’s one of the yummiest sweet dish I’ve had and the most fascinating part is it’s preparation.
It was around noon and the streets were filled with colorful markets, people were out of their houses now and the markets were busy. It was a nice cold afternoon and people were having great time shopping. During winter people prefer to come out during noon because it is slightly sunny and also because the days are shorter during winters and it gets dark at 5pm. Our next destination was the famous ‘Vishanath Gali’; A narrow street in Varanasi like many other in the city filled with small shops, temples and houses. As I entered the gali there was a big cow sitting in the middle and people had to drag themselves against the wall to go ahead, but no one would disturb the cow and let me tell you the cow was taking complete advantage of this fact. The shops were selling bangles. bindi’s, wooden toys. So pretty, delicate and colorful it was. We kept walking and observing everything around, the houses with little doors, but from the inside they were huge. Before I could explore anything further I realized I had a flight to catch and a day is so less to see the beauty of the city. If the city is so cheerful and colorful during the day, I wonder what it would loo like in evening, I’m not going back heartbroken but with a motive to comeback. Before leaving, Rajesh gave me a meetha (swseet) Benarasi Paan and bid goodbye. I was totally in love with the city, the people and of course the “Har Har Mahadev”. All I have to say is “Bhaiya agar Benares nai aye, toh kahi nai gaye.” (If you haven’t been to Varanasi, You Haven’t been anywhere).