Death is everywhere, only here in Varanasi, is it celebrated in a way like nowhere else. People come from all over the country to spend their last days in Varanasi. The belief is that if you die in Kashi, Varanasi, you attain Moksha – free your soul from the cycle of rebirth. I don’t know if rebirth really happens but it is the belief and the way devotees work towards it that will leave you dumbstruck.
It was my first trip to the ‘Cultural Capital of India’ and from the moment I entered Varanasi, a different kind of feeling engulfed me. My visit was just after the newly formed government, led by Yogi Adityanath, and judging by the feedback of the common man, a lot have chnaged for the good in the past few months.
Uttar Pradesh and specifically Varanasi has an equal proportion of Hindus and Muslims living together in harmony since ages. Varanasi, established around the River Ganges, is, in fact, one of the oldest cities in the world. However, there is a constant and fierce cultural strife brewing from within. On one side of the coin were Hindu extremists who give animals the same status as Gods and on the other hands were some slaughterhouses that killed those same animals for consumption and illegal trade. One just waits in anticipation about when this hatred blows out of proportion and people come out in the streets to kill each other. For the common man, however, a mid-way has always been a favorable option. The auto driver whom I hired from Mughal Sarai to reach Varanasi corrected me that it is the ‘illegal slaughterhouses’ that they are against. Of course, when you haven’t eaten meat since birth, the stench near butcher shops would be unbearable. Before the new rules were placed, these shops were literally everywhere and just passing by was a challenge for any vegetarian. For me, who would be okay with any kind of food habit, this seems like a valid point. It’s a matter of segregation. Just like the burning ghats in Banaras are separated from the bathing ghats, the community needs to understand each other’s needs and find their own place.
However, by the end of my trip, I had realized that Varanasi is much more than this cultural turmoil and the unending procession for the dead. There’s a brighter side to the story of the city and it is something that anyone from any part of the world would fall in love with.
As you walk by the ghats in the evening, it’s enchanting to hear people sitting and practicing flutes. You can sit for hours hearing the music, while the golden ripples in the holy Ganges elevate yours spiritually. From the rooftop restaurant of my hotel, I can see through several windows that frame ongoing music sessions, dance rehearsals, painting classes and even yoga practices. People from all across the globe come here to learn something new, something revolving around the ancient spirituality of the civilization and this was it. I had come to Varanasi with my expectations limited to the burning ghats and the Ganga Arati, but that was becoming a very small part of my experience. I wished I could have spent more days just being an audience to the spirit of Varanasi.
What has not been said or advertised the way it should have been about Varanasi, perhaps keeps the secret to only the curious lot. However, if you are looking to be a part of something different, look not for the usual but look into the life of the common man here. Participate in the Ganga Arati but also try to find out the choreographers behind this elaborate ritual.
There are two important railway stations to Varanasi – the Varanasi Junction and the Mughal Sarai Junction, just 18 kilometers away from the heart of the city. Public transportation will only take you as far as the entry to one of the ghat gates. Be ready to do a lot of walking.
Recommended places to stay
A range of accommodations are available around the ghats but the best ones are in Dasaswamedh Ghat, Assi Ghat, and Munshi Ghat. Try avoiding a stay near one of the burning ghats.
Put your cameras aside and try to feel the mood of the place. Varanasi is more about the experience than a visual treat. Also, don’t miss out on a boat ride in the Ganges.
There’s a lot more that anyone could learn about Varanasi in a single trip and this is perhaps the main reason why people keep coming back.