Benaras-Through our eyes

Benaras is a city that reminded me of Rip Van Winkle; who went off to sleep and then woke up to utter chaos around him! The city keeps blinking its eyes, trying to figure out what has caused such an huge spurt of life around it; life that has multiplied exponentially to fill every inch of available space! There is life that spills out from the narrow by lanes, like the spewing of lava from an angry volcano. There is life that moves on the streets in random chaotic brownian type movement of liquid molecules. These lives keep bumping, colliding, pushing, jostling, dribbling around, trying to gather an escape velocity that they hope, might propel them, in their desired direction. Even the holy river has not been spared; there are scores, floating around in boats, like deadwood.
Benaras is a city that seem to be bursting at the seams; an old city which has now probably been stretched to its limits and gasps to keep itself intact. It seems woefully incapable of handling the pressure of the growing ambitions of it’s residents.
So is it worth making a trip to Benaras from the viewpoint of a tourist? The city was established along the banks of River Ganga and grew up to be a holy city for the Hindus. Even today it attracts thousands who throng to offer prayers to lord Shiva and other Hindu deities. This apart, the sights of the narrow, cobbled pathways and the ancient architecture dotting the bank of the river do have, in my opinion, the capability to hold the “non-religious” tourist’s attention. The sights and sounds of Benaras are definitely capable of providing a lasting impression on the minds of those who wish to have an experience that is not bordering on the religious. While we were short of time and did not have the opportunity to watch the evening Arti at the Dashaswamedh ghat, a lazy float on the Ganges while taking in the sights of the ghats is an experience that is sure to be considered worthwhile by most who undertake this. The river, though still polluted to a large extent, gives an excellent view of the ghats, it’s colours and architecture appearing like a collage on a painter’s giant canvas! Each ghat has its own distinctive identity that presents itself as a feast to the eyes while sailing down from one end to the other. The Dashashwamedh ghat, the busiest of all, comes across as the most colourful; the colourful wooden umbrellas and the throngs of pilgrims appearing like dollops of colour haphazardly splashed on a white canvas. Each ghat has its own distinctive flavour and portrays the identity of its developer. While Dashashwamedh ghat is a cacophony of colours, the Dhobi ghaat is a symphony; coloured clothes laid out to dry on the bank in organized pattern. Another contrast is the grey colour that the soot from the leaping flames of the burning pyre leaves on everything at the Manikarnika ghat.
Getting a grip on the mode of transport in Benaras requires some skill and some prior information on same would probably help a wannabe tourist greatly.
Benaras has auto rickshaws which seem to believe in the theory of standardization; a standard fare of Rs 200 is demanded irrespective of how near or how far you wish to go. If you do not agree to their point of view, then you would be better off trying to book an Ola. Ola services in Benaras offers a choice of auto rickshaws as well as their standard range of cars. The service does tend to disappoint though, like they probably do in all towns and cities that they operate in, by making themselves scarce during peak hours. If you decide to do away with all these and walk, then that has its own set of challenges! Such is the density of vehicles on the road that a pedestrian always runs the risk of being pushed off the road or being run over. The density of traffic at some places is so dense that the speed is a little better than a snail.
Picking our way through the winding narrow cobbled lanes enroute to the Vishwanath temple reminded me of my place of birth-Jamalpur and also of faraway Edinburgh. The cobbled pathways are fenced on both sides by shops that we failed to investigate because we were pushed forward by a crowd that seemed to swell as one neared the temple. Secondly we were ourselves in a rush because we had just heard that the temple closed for an hour and half around 11 am, primarily to clean the temple of the large amount of flowers and leaves that the devotees offer. Our visit to the temple of Kashi Vishwanath was fraught with confusion and tinged with a sense of disappointment due to the fact that despite such efforts and money spent, all that we could manage was a fleeting glimpse of the shrine. Even our pujari cum “queue-manager” did not give us enough time to admire the magnificent gold dome once inside. He also did not consider it his business to provide us with snippets from history of the temple and the anecdote pertaining to how a mosque had been built by Nadir Shah after razing the temple. The temple visit is one of the most forgettable part of our tour because of lack of transparency on many parameters and the tendency of the flower shops and pujaris to fleece the devotees. In the sacred land of the Hindus, we were once again sadly reminded of the barriers that ordinary devotees need to surpass in their quest to reach out to their God!
A visit to Benaras should be considered incomplete without savouring the sweets of Benaras. The milk based sweets are worth gorging on and they can beat the milk based sweets from even Kolkata, by a mile. Noteworthy amongst all that is on offer are the red pedas, a sweet made by thickening the milk to such an extent that the sugar caramelizes and imparts a red colour to the pedas. Our taxi guide advised us to buy these lal pedas from inside the sankat mochan temple. The sweet is offered to Lord Hanuman as prasad although we simply bought half a kilo for our own consumption. The taste is heavenly, like a million sweet filled bubble bursting in succession inside the mouth and then moving down in a stream finding its way into one’s heart.
Benaras is also famous for BHU and a visit to its campus provided a welcome escape from the congestion we felt at the temple and the ghats. The campus is huge and provides ample space for those weary from the strains of sightseeing to stretch their legs and catch some breath without fear of being jostled. The air inside is also clean and one can therefore feel an instant upliftment of one’s spirits. The architecture of the institute buildings and the hostel a delight for students of architecture. I took a special liking to the temple of Lord Vishwanath inside the campus primarily because of the pristine holiness it exudes.
Benaras is a holy city, a city that has survived many an onslaught over ages. It groans and gasps under the onslaught of the present day multitude but still survives and bears all with a stoic resignation. Probably it derives its strength from the holy river Ganges that comforts with its caress as it flows gently past the city.

Author: gdutta17

Born in Jamalpur, near Munger, Bihar in the year 1968, my childhood was spent in fun and frolic amongst the beautiful scenic landscape of the small town of Ranchi. An engineer by qualification I have been working in the field of minerals and metallurgy for more than twenty years. Writing and cooking are passions that I pursue during my spare time. Another thing that I am passionate about is our very own country, India. As they say, a lifetime is probably not enough to explore the different corners of India and savour its sights, sound and taste. So i like to read and travel as much as I can in an effort to get to know about our great Country. Currently based in Kolkata, I can be reached at gdutta17@gmail.com.

13 thoughts on “Benaras-Through our eyes”

    1. My pleasure. India is a vast country with contrasting culture and variety that is akin to the whole of Europe. We believe that a lifetime is not enough to see and understand India. Would be happy to try and provide any additional information that you may need. My gmail is gdutta17@gmail.com . You can write directly to me as well.

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      1. Thanks for your offer! Actually, I’m a little concerned about something. My plan is to travel by train in this order: Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Varanasi and then Calcutta. Since the distance is short, I’m not worried about going to Jaipur and Agra, but I AM worried about going to Varanasi and Calcutta (over 10 hour ride). I’m worried that the seats or beds will sell out. Should I be worried? If yes, how can I make sure I acquire my train tickets to these 2 cities? Any advice would be much appreciated.

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      2. My suggestion would be as follows.. For the Delhi-agra-Jaipur leg, make Delhi as your base and travel either by car or by train to Agra and Jaipur. After you have done that leg, you move from Delhi to Varanasi by train. Stay at Varanasi and then proceed to Calcutta by train again. When travelling by train in India, would advise you book a ticket on any of the air-conditioned classes-be it 1st AC, 2nd AC or 3rd AC. They are safer and you get free bed-rolls for the entire distance of your travel. I can suggest to you the name of the trains which you should take and you can book your tickets through Railways IRCTC website. Booking of tickets in advance is essential to get a reservation. Hope I have been able to answer your query. Regards

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      3. Yes, you have been most helpful. So how about Delhi to Jaipur, Jaipur to Agra, Agra back to Delhi, then Delhi to Varanasi? Btw, I tried signing up for the IRCTC website, but I never received a confirmation email.

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      4. Hi! I presume you will fly into Delhi. If so, my suggestion would be as follows -1.Delhi to Agra and back to Delhi. 2. Delhi to Jaipur and back to Delhi. 3. Delhi to Varanasi. 4. Varanasi to Calcutta. Regarding IRCTC website, it has provisions to allow foreign tourists to book. We in India use it all the time and it’s quite effective for us. Please try from your end. If unsuccessful, let me know and I will try speaking to a few agents here to see whether it can be done from this end and sent to you. Which country are you based in?

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      5. Yes, I will fly into Delhi and start the tour from there. I’m from America, but live near Hong Kong at the moment. I will try to sign up to the IRCTC website again. I’ll let you know how that goes. Thanks again.

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      6. That would be nice, that is, if I get to Calcutta. I booked all my train tickets, except the one from Varanasi to Calcutta. The website stopped accepting all my credit cards. I read that many others have faced the same problem. My solution is to wait 24 hours and try again. Wish me luck!

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      7. Good news! I just booked a bed on the Vibhuti Express. Although I might be exhausted, I’d like to meet and treat you to lunch in Calcutta. Btw, how reliable is the Gatimaan Express from Agra to Delhi? I took your advice and planned to ride back to Delhi from Agra, then take an overnight train to Varanasi the same night. However, my train is scheduled to arrive at NZM at 19.30, then I have to hurry to NDLS and catch the train at 22:35. Will that be enough time?

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      8. The two stations are different. So you might have to rush from NZM to NDLS. From what I gather the normal travel time between the two is 45 min. However, since you are new, the challenge would be to figure out things and then get a cab after you come out before dashing off to NDLS. Traffic in Delhi can be sometimes unnerving. I would suggest you drive back from Agra to Delhi (it’s approx 3 hours, am told and quite a pleasant drive) or take an earlier train. Lunch would be on me, when you are in Kolkata. I am a little tied up in Feb with a lot of travels scheduled, but will certainly try and catch up with you when in Calcutta.

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      9. Since I had so much trouble getting these tickets online, I will keep them until I arrive in Delhi. Then I will ask the officials at NDLS (my hotel is nearby) if I should change my ticket or if I have nothing to worry about. So excited to see India. This will be my first time.

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  1. That’s wonderful. The treat will be on me when you reach Calcutta. In India usually when the trains have to travel for long distance, they get delayed. Will need to check the travel distance of Gatiman express and then might be able to provide some feedback. If the train doesn’t get delayed, then there should be no problem. You might consider driving back from Agra to Delhi. Haven’t done it myself but the roads are pretty good am told. That will give you more flexibility and you can stop at some midway motel, if you wish to.

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