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.