Varanasi. A Look At This Ancient City Through The Eyes Of A Modern Woman Traveler

Posted: February 9, 2016

Varanasi on a shoestring budget. A look at this ancient city through the eyes of the modern woman traveler. An experience that touches the spirit.

“Travel makes you speechless and then transforms you into a storyteller.”-Ibn batuta

I feel travel has two components. One is the seeing part which can be well described through photographs, a discussion of the itineraries, major attractions of the place, etc. The second one is the ‘feeling’ part – which is what you feel deep inside as you experience the place. Both the parts do not exist in isolation. However it is very difficult to accord words to the feeling aspect of travel – an experience which is deep and intense. It is this that Ibn Batuta speaks about when he talks of being speechless.

For me travel has always been healing in many ways. Seeing someone else’s world from a near distance suddenly helps in rationalizing my own. I visited Varanasi recently with the twin motive of meeting a friend, and getting away from my world for a while. The beauty about Varanasi is that one is never a mere spectator. You are always a part of the frame.

As I write this article I ask myself, what was it that most affected me at Banaras/Varanasi? The answer is – the Ghats. Sitting on the steps of the Ghats, basking in the morning sunshine or soaking in the sounds of the evening aartis. Staring at the Ganga river, watching colorful boats carrying hordes of tourists pass by and slowly taking a dip in the spirit  of the place.

I stayed at the Stops Hostel. This was my first hostel experience in India at a travel destination. It satisfied all the items on my checklist of affordability, ambience, hygiene and proximity from the Ghats.

Stops Hostel

Stops Hostel

Staying in a hostel has its own perks, you meet fellow travelers from across the globe, most of them on a shoe-string budget. This concept of staying in hostels is now gaining currency in India as Indians are gradually looking towards being more of a traveler rather than a tourist.

Seeing the Ghats from the boat is a visual treat. The otherwise smaller structures at the ghats unite to form a beautiful landscape.

It’s a pleasant experience walking along the Ghats, navigating the sudden crest and trough of the steps. For a moment all the Ghats looks similar, but each has its own story of origin and if you intently observe the architecture of each is very different too. Walking parallel to the road along the Ghats, are the small alleys leading one to the world of handicrafts, silk scarves, and the traditional tourist stuff. One can also spot bohemian cafes offering French, Italian cuisines.

Tourists rush to the Dashawamedh Ghats for the evening aarti.  But just take a stroll around the ghats and you can see some smaller aartis being performed which give a more peaceful and serene feel to the place.

At the Manikarnika ghats and Harishachandra Ghats, time stops  for a while. Death is an everyday affair to be dealt with. The cremations continue day and night metaphorically indicating the cycle of life and death which continues throughout. My mom says that witnessing a cremation makes one more humble as it reminds us that we will be one with the earth and everything will end here itself. Couldn’t agree more with her standing at the Harishchandra Ghats.

I had a few conversations about the history of Benares in terms of the Ghats, temples, and music with a friend and the founder of Espirito Kashi and the (aforementioned) friend from Berlin who was the major reason I was in Banaras. Espirito Kashi provides with heritage walks in the city loaded with facts, myths and beautiful stories woven around each place in Kashi.

One of the place named Mukti Bhavan that was mentioned triggered my interest. It is a lodge wherein people check in but do not check out. People come to this lodge with the sole intention to die. It is believed that death in Benaras leads to the attainment of moksha. After checking in, the person is reduced from a name to a number. The individual is allowed to stay for a duration of 2 weeks, if he/she does not die within that duration, they are asked to vacate. This put me into a deep zone of reflection about what it is to come to terms with renouncing from the world on one’s own.

Another interesting place is the South Point Café which is very near to Banaras Hindu University. Its run by a nonprofit and it’s a perfect place for an evening chai and snacks as you ponder over the city. I liked the quietness, the dim lighting and the ambience of the place. A soothing refuge from the hustle-bustle of the city.

At the end of my three day stay in Banaras, I resolved to visit it again at some point in life. Travelling is a very transformative experience and the trip to Varanasi – the city of surrendering indeed made me realize how surrendering is a part of growing into oneself.

Published first here.

Image source: Varanasi by Shutterstock.

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