Wednesday, December 23, 2015


The entrance to the Kaal Bhairav temple
I absolutely LOVED this last visit to Varanasi! Quite possibly the best thing about weddings is that friends from far & wide finally make the time, get together in one place, have fun & create some more indelible memories! These are some of my closest friends from two very important & eye-opening school years in Wynberg Allen, Mussoorie. If organising a wedding is a huge logistical nightmare, then getting your friends together for one is just as big a headache, if not bigger. In the end, it's more than worth it. 

I've been to Varanasi before: once for a day-long peaceful shoot for India's got Talent & then again as a transit point for another friend's wedding. However, this current visit has been the most immersive & explorative of the lot. It started on an ominous note when I got stuck in a massive traffic-jam owing to Narendra Modi & Japanese PM Shinzo Abe's visit. Shuffling through multiple barricades put up to facilitate their smooth passage, the narrow ramshackled & brick-lined lanes reminded me of my hometown Dhanbad which is just as small, crowded & charming in that special small-town way. Finally, hours later, I got together with the buddies I cherish spending time with: a big gang of friends laughing, drinking, reminiscing, cracking the same jokes which never get old. I realised that there was so much to catch up on: our lives, our relationships, achievements, troubles. Since I'm one of only four remaining bachelors in the group, I was gifted some valuable relationship and marriage advice, if I choose to tie the knot anytime soon. Some married friends advised me to avoid matrimony like the plague! I think I'll take that advice for now ;) 

Months before this visit to Varanasi, one of the highlights of the then-proposed plan was to have a wild drinking night-out on one of the hired boats at the ghaat. That was obviously put paid to by the security surrounding the PM's visitI had thought, however, that we'd still go ahead with this wild plan the following day, but to my amusement everyone went into a religio-spiritual mode instead! The morning after took us to the Kaal Bhairav & Kashi Vishwanath temples (I was disheartened to see the 30 foot high metal barricade around the latter, the story behind it & the eternal feud it has ignited between the Hindus & Muslims) and the evening to the ghaats. The mischievous monkeys at the Kashi Vishwanath temple gave everyone a tough time, swooping in & snatching the milk kept aside as offering for themselves! A visit to Sarnath was planned as well, where Lord Buddha had given his first sermon, but that got canned while scouting gastronomic stops in the marketplace.

Kaal Bhairav Temple
Gyaan For Free!
Guess who went temple-hopping!!!
That's where the garlands go. Volunteers urge you to garland cows & dogs 

Like with every small town, the food and the love & diligence involved in making it tell their own story. Also, like with every small town there are bound to be endless recommendations of which place serves the best sabzi-kachauri, paan, thandai. To an outsider like me, a place which comes second, third or even a distant fourth would be palatable, but for a local it's sacrilege to go for second best. Why, when you can have them at the best shop in town? However, one's preference of food is subjective & I personally loved the food, tea & desserts we had at certain shops, thanks in turn to one of my more enthusiastic friends who did the research & asking around to get us there. The thing about small towns is that, with polarised opinions and uniformly decent-to-good food, it's difficult to point out where the best grub might be found. Therefore, no matter how many eateries you explore (and enjoy), someone will always come up with another (exclamatory) recommendation!
"Lovely Ladeej, banarasi kachodi-aloo sabzi & Jalebi!

Simple yet delicious snack: malai & sugar on toast!

                                             दुनिया इधर की उधर हो जाए लेकिन गुलकंद में कंजूसी मत कीजिएगा! Cue song

                                                                         Saying cheers with कुल्हड़ वाली चाय!

सरकारी है, जायज़ है।

I also had a bemused time navigating the crowd, chaos, extreme noise & seemingly rude (but actually generous) people with so many stories to tell. One could be fooled by their seemingly indifferent demeanour but under that tough exterior they actually have a warm, hesistant smile for you. And if you get them talking, they will tell you more about the city than anybody else can. Varanasi's streets are places where you fear going deaf with the incessant honking or getting run over by the perambulatory traffic of people, vehicles, carts & cattle (but you don't)!

Things one does to navigate the traffic!

This was also the first time I came to the ghaats with a big posse of friends, and did the entire sojourn from end-to-end, albeit on a boat. I think I even remember the names of some of the ghaats: Assi Ghaat, Jain Ghaat, Dashashwamedh Ghaat and most importantly the Manikarnika Ghaat (fresh in my memory from the film Masaanwhich has incidentally just won its' first set of commercial awards in India). There was a sudden, all enveloping silence on the boat as we passed this cremation ghaat, punctuated only by the loud whirring of the boat's motor; as if everyone on the boat was digesting the fact that one day, everyone has to return to the ground. It is believed that cremation in Varanasi helps the soul achieve moksh. Quite a sombre sight, with many funeral pyres alight simultaneously, the grim, contemplative mood was broken by our maajhi cum guide who mentioned that the funeral fires on this ghaat burn non-stop every day of the year. Shaken of our reverie, a friend wondered where they found so many dead bodies. I, for one, proceeded to ask a logical question (slave that I am to logic) that how do the fires stay alight in the open ghats in the monsoons? The boatman just smiled & said, "They just do." Another one of those legends based on faith as well as stories passed down generations. One can never travel enough, even if it is to the same place because you discover something new about it every time. 

Dashashwamedh Ghaat: Picture by Sanchai Kumar

Jain Ghaat
The Ganga Aarti that followed was fantastic & familiar, with all the boats huddled together in a cluster around the banks and hundreds of devotees, whether on land or in water, watching in rapt attention, silence & devotion. The only other time when I've felt such an aura of absolute peace in spite of the hordes of people around was at the Buddhist festival of Kalchakra a few years ago at Bodh Gaya, with only the sound of the chants permeating the cold air.
Ganga Aarti
Thereon, it was regulation stuff: get back to the hotel, dress in ethnic finery, dance like a rowdy maniac, lead our friend's baraat to the venue (and delay it by hours while doing so), click loads of pictures and over the next few hours reluctantly say our goodbyes. I must admit though, that I was shocked to witness an actual mujra (or a watered down version of it) as part of the wedding function. Now that is a wierd memory my mind will have to work doubly hard to expel! 

Another wicket down!
I must take this opportunity, however, and punctuate this otherwise cheery narrative with something that has been bothering me for years; probably instigated by a visit to this holy place. I have always had strong reservations against the extreme commercialisation of religious institutions as well as the rampant mutation of laws that apply to such places. Films like PK and Oh My God have accurately depicted the corruption, hypocrisy & dichotomy of those who pose as faith's holders or God's messengers. Faith moves mountains, but many make a business out of exploiting our faith & there is no denying that this is the bitter truth of our country. To put it out there, in the last couple of religious places I've been to, I've had arguments over principles & perversion of values. Two incidents stand out in my mind: the ruckus created over an accidental extra cup of prasad at ISCKON Bangalore and over a volunteer demanding donation & threatening me with dire consequences if I didn't pay up at the Ajmer Sharif dargah. In terms of commercialisation, underhand dealings & disrespect to the offerings, this place was no different.

At the Kashi Vishwanath temple, a policeman standing guard surreptitiously asked me where I was from, since according to him, "foreigners are not allowed in this temple." This, after I'd already crossed the mandatory security check & pat downs. Cop number 2 added his version of the rules that foreigners are indeed allowed but only through Gate number 2. Cop number 3 summed it up with his version that irrespective of nationality, only those who believe in Hinduism may enter. That last bit was so bizarre that I almost laughed in his face. I didn't want to point out the fact that I'm as Indian as any of them but by the end of the conversation, I wasn't sure as to which version I should believe in. If they were having fun at my expense then I'm not amused, as it created the wrong impression. And of course, while I totally respect the need to clear the surge of devotees at popular religious destinations, being herded & shoved like cattle is just not cool. Nor is the absolute wastage of the offerings which are either trampled under foot or flushed down the drainage.

Some might ask why I bother to go at all if I have such reservations. It's because it's my right to visit such places if I want to, for my belief or lack of it. I like to explore these places to absorb their history, the stories behind them, their architecture. And while I may not believe in God per se, I do believe in a supreme being. I respect others' beliefs & wouldn't dream of belittling another's religion or faith. At the same time, blind faith is a concept alien to me, and those who would mercilessly exploit the faith of others are nothing short of villains.

Ah, but I digress on a path that is so full of debate that it would never end. Centuries down, our descendants will be discussing the very same things, and the loop shall never close. Let me conclude this post by reiterating that I really enjoyed this trip to Varanasi & saw the city in a new light. Even after jet-setting from megapolis to megapolis, the charm of the small town shall never end, and the small-town boy from Dhanbad, in the recess of my mind as he may be, will very much stay alive.

Self-enlightenment: using the torch-app to provide extra light


  1. Gosh!! U should be a writer...
    Well,love ya chang and i'll be waiting for ur next visit. Hope to meet u as u promised! :)
    By- shelly sharma

  2. Excellent Article! I spend 4 years in varanasi and your article can easily sum up the experience.