Have you ever thought of squeezing time and space in such a manner that you could enjoy a multitude of experiences all at once? I have always wondered what a compressed version of a lifetime of experiences would seem like. If I was forced to draw a parallel in travelling terms, then a train journey across India would come eerily close to meeting that expectation. And if there is one destination in India that epitomises its kaleidoscopic multiplicity and is almost a spiritual embodiment of compressed experiences, it is Varanasi.
What’s the brouhaha all about?
I have heard since I was a child that if you die in Varanasi, you basically get a business class ticket to heaven. Of course, there’s more to the city than this shortcut to salvation. Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest living cities with a documented history of 3500 years and is probably as old as the Indian civilisation. It retains a primeval legacy that makes it a perfect blend of myth, legend and religion. It is a personification of India’s cultural traditions and its spiritual heritage.
As Mark Twain said, the city is “older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”.
What to look out for?
It is recommended that your journey to Varanasi not start in Varanasi, but on a train journey. Nothing will prepare you better for a trip to Varanasi than soaking in the sights, sounds, smells, colours and sensations of a journey across north India. Once there, a typical Varanasi frame would include dimly lit ghats, a serene yet uncompromising gurgle of the Ganges, bearded sadhus in the most extraordinary attires with colourful beads and ash spots on their forehead, and all of this with mythical hymns and chants that have been bequeathed only through oral tradition over centuries as background score.
Your musts would include a boat ride along the Ganges, a keen-eyed stroll along Dashashwamedh ghat as well as other ghats with a good camera in your hand, the Banaras Hindu University – one of Asia’s largest universities, the mesmerising ‘Ganga aarti’ in the evening which fills the air with visual and aural resplendence, a visit to the Kashi Vishwanath temple – the most venerated Hindu shrine with a history of over 1000 years and also a visit to Sarnath, the birth place of Buddhism.
What about food cravings?
Creeping out amidst the chaotic lanes and vehicle logjams of Banaras – another appellation for the city – is the splutter of boiling oil soaking traditional street food delicacies. Varanasi offers a wide variety of street food that includes jalebi (a sweet, spiral-shaped sin), tunday (a scrumptious minced meat kebab),thandai (milkshake made of concentrated masala liquid and topped with cream) and aaloo tikki (potato patties topped with a variety of masalas and chutneys).
For the ultimate authentic Varanasi experience, order your tea in a kulhad and end your meal with abanarasi paan!
How do I get there?
Varanasi is well connected to all major Indian cities. There are daily domestic flights to and from the city. But get rid of that urge to save time and book a train. Since the city lies in the heartland of the North Indian plains, it is accessible by road and so a road trip from Delhi or Lucknow is also a pretty good idea.
And what about the budget?
Although Varanasi is not a modern metropolis, due to the high number of tourists every year, prices can be unusually steep. You will most definitely come across the odd vendor who tries to make the most of the tourist season, which lasts all year long. This should not deter adventure-hungry budget travellers who should be able to survive happily on a budget of Rs. 1000-1500 a day. Varanasi being the fantasy of an explorer rather than a luxury-seeker, you will not find many luxury options. But the city does have some high end hotels that also serve continental food.
Any travel tips?
If you are adventurous, negotiate your boat ride upriver and make sure it is along the all ghats to capture Varanasi in all its colours, including the sight of burning corpses on Mankarnika ghat. If you are a little more adventurous, explore the city in the evening to really see it come to life.