A Heritage Trip to Varanasi
Varanasi, also called as Kashi or Banaras, is the holy city, city of temples, city of Moksha for Hindus for centuries, city famous for banarasi paan and banarasi saris, city which has this sacred river Ganges flowing, is situated in Uttar Pradesh regarded as the spiritual capital of India.
TALF- The Asian Lenses Forum gave us this golden opportunity to visit to this beautiful heritage city-Varanasi and explore the city and its spiritual value through different lenses, that is different perspective.
It is 27th October’15 and we are ready and excited to visit the oldest city of the world-Varanasi.
It is 4:30pm and we, the group of 16 students along with 3 teachers are ready to depart from NU and reached the station to board the train at around 7:30pm.
At around 11:40 am on 28th October’15, we reached the great city Varanasi and headed towards the famous Banaras Hindu University (IIT BHU). There we stayed in a beautiful and comfy guest house. After reaching guest house we all took bath and had lunch at IIT BHU dining hall.
Now, it was time to visit the famous “Bharat Kala Bhavan” of IIT BHU which had this world’s largest collection of archaeological materials, paintings, textiles and costumes, decorative art, personalia collections, Indian philately and literary and archival materials. Most of its collections are historically important, aesthetically beautiful and enjoy certain amount of uniqueness.
There were more than 13000 paintings, 2600 sculptures, coins, manuscripts and many more visual fine arts.
Now after seeing the museum, we went to ASSI GHAT- the place where, Tulsidas left for heavenly abode.
It was a wonderful evening spent there on the river Ganges sacred water on a big fairy like boat called Bajraa with little drizzling and a soothing Hindi classical music by Miss Sriparna Nandi- she is friend of Miss Aditi Gupta, who is great classical singer. Since, I am a classical singer too I loved the way she sang the kabir’s Doha’s with a tanpura. Cold and breezing winds with drizzling rain and classical notes on the river Ganges was auspicious. At that moment I realized that this place Varanasi has a special sanctity, which makes an intimate connection with God and lead to deliverance from sin and attainment of nirvana.
Now, we are at other end of the river Ganges and can clearly see the 7 km arc line of the Ganges riverfront between the confluence of the River Assi in the south and the Varuna in the north with around 84 Ghats.
Viewing the Ghats from a boat on the Ganges, especially at sunrise, is an unforgettable experience! They offer a panoramic view of the various early morning activities – from ablution to workout – of a multitude of people, for whom the river is the be all and end all of life. It’s also a pleasure to walk down the entire stretch of the Ghats along the Ganges. Here people consult the astrologers under their palm leaf parasols, buy offerings for rituals, sell silk apparels and brassware, or just gaze at the faraway horizon where the mighty river meets the heavens. And, in the evening the great Aarti of Ganges with those huge lamps, ringing ghantas, chanting mantras and shlokas, offering flowers and performing the rituals in those ethnic dresses on the Dasaswamedh Ghat where Lord Brahma is said to have sacrificed ten horses in order to celebrate the return of Shiva on earth was a wonderful spellbind view.
The other major ghats includes- The Tulsi das ghat, Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra ghat- sacred place for cremation. In Hindu mythology it is believed that if a person is cremated at the Harish Chandra Ghat, that person gets salvation or “moksha”. The Harish Chandra Ghat was somewhat modernized in late 1980’s, when an electric crematorium was opened here.
And, finally the day ended with a delicious traditional dinner in a hotel at Assi Ghat.
Next morning, i,e on 29th October’15, we woke up at 5am to visit the famous “Kashi Vishwanath, the “Golden Temple,” dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. This is the oldest temple and is the holiest place of hindus which has the Jyotirlinga of Shiva.
It is still raining in early morning and it rained the whole day yet, we enjoyed Varanasi and the weather. Now, after the visit to the temple in rain we had “chai in kulhad” and that feeling of waah! made the day.
Now, after having some breakfast we had a lecture with the director of IIT BHU, Prof. Rajeev Sangal on the topic “Why am I doing, what I am doing?”
Though, I have never thought about it but when he asked this question and wanted all of us to think for about a minute that why are we doing, what we are doing in life, then some said, for living life peacefully, some said for happiness, others said to attain perfection.
Then he explained, by narrating a famous story of a rabbit and a tortoise race.
We all know what happened in the story and who won the race, yes it was the tortoise. Now, have you ever though what happened next. Now, when rabbit has lost the race and he thought the race was unfair, he again requested the tortoise to have a race and this time they have a longer route to cover with a river in between. The race began and rabbit ran as fast as he could and reached the end where there was a river and stopped and was thinking on how to go further.
Tortoise on the other hand was as usual coming slowly. Rabbit slept again thinking how to cross the river and as we have already guessed now, again tortoise completed the race by swimming perfectly in the water and rabbit lost again.
Now, what these two scenarios of the race tell us that though rabbit has the potential far more than the tortoise but tortoise won the race every time whenever rabbit has a disadvantage.
Story does not end here, see what’s next!
Now rabbit being so angry, again planned the race and this time tortoise said,” ok! We will do the race but this time our aim would be to complete the race in less time we took earlier”.
Tortoise set the timer and both rabbit and tortoise were ready for the race. To win the time, rabbit being a fast runner towed tortoise on his back and ran. But, oops, they reached a point where it’s a river.
Now, tortoise being a fast swimmer towed rabbit and crossed the river. Last but not the least, this time tortoise said,” hey Mr. rabbit you go and complete the rest of the race and have photograph with the media standing for your praise to win the race at the end point as you are the real hero I will come following you”. Now, rabbit reached the finish line first and proved that rabbit is anyways faster than tortoise but at the time of his praise he mentioned tortoise as the reason of he being the winner.
So, the moral of the story is that do not forget to pay the respect and tribute to the right honor. Think for others before you think for your selves, because when you do for others, God does it for you and it relieves an internal peace and value of care for others that lead to harmony and brotherhood.
So, after such an insightful talk with Mr. Sangal we went to Ramnagar fort. It is located near the Ganga River on its eastern bank, opposite to the Tulsi Ghat. The sandstone structure was built in the Mughal style in 1750 by Kashi Naresh Raja Balwant Singh. The current king and the resident of the fort is Anant Narayan Singh, who is also known as the Maharaja of Varanasi even though this royal title has been abolished since 1971.
There is a museum in the fort known as Saraswati Bhawan. It is well known for its unusual and rare collections of American vintage cars, bejeweled sedan chairs, ivory work, medieval costumes, gold and silver brocaded royal Palakis (Palanquins in the shape of a lotus flower). It has elephant saddles carved out of silver, jewellery, costumes made of kimkhwa silk, an impressive armoury hall with swords, old guns from Africa, Burma and Japan. The old armoured matchlocks, ornate hookahs, daggers, portraits of Maharajas, black musical instruments and there is a rare astronomical clock. This clock shows not only the time but also the year, month, week and day, and the astronomical details of the Sun, Moon and other planets. This clock was made in 1852 by the Astronomer at the Court of the Royal Palace of Varanasi. In addition, manuscripts, especially religious writings, are housed in the museum. The view of river Ganges form the fort was the best experience.
Now, after the visit to the fort we went for another lecture with the head of NIIT Ltd. Mr. Amitabh Aggarwal. He is an amazing person who has his 15 generations living in Varanasi.
He told us a lot about how the holy city having more than 2000 temples has been a symbol of spiritualism, philosophy and mysticism for thousands of years and has produced great saints and personalities like Guatama Buddha, Mahavira, Kabir, Tulsi Das, Shankaracharaya, Ramanuja and Patanjali. He also told us about the Ganga Ghats being the most popular pilgrimage spot of Varanasi and is centers of music and learning too.
The foremost learning he gave was “live for others not just for yourselves and the world will remember you forever”.
After his talk we went for some street food fun and shopping at the local vishwanath gali/ market. There we had the most cherished moments of the trip. We enjoyed a lot shopping and eating at famous “kaashi chat bhandar”. Then we had the kulhad vaali lassi and thandaai with bhaang. Last but not the least we had desi banarasi paan at the end. And it was so much fun roaming around the streets through the market bargaining and tasting all sorts of food items famous in kashi.
It is now 9:30pm in the evening and the day is still not ended.
Now, we are heading towards the one of the sacred temple “ Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple” in Varanasi. It is a huge temple. It is believed that the temple has been built on the very spot where Tulsidas had a vision of Hanuman.
The temple had a tragic story too. On 7 March 2006, one of three explosions hit the temple while the aarti was in progress in which numerous worshippers and wedding attendees were participating. The crowd helped each other in the rescue operation after the explosion. The next day a large number of devotees resumed their worship as usual.
At the temple we met the Mahant( high priest) of the temple. He told us about Varanasi and the Sankat mochan temple. He also told us about the Sankat Mochan Foundation (SMF) that was established in 1982 by Veer Bhadra Mishra, the Mahant (High priest) of the temple, and has been working for cleaning and protecting the Ganges river. It was honour meeting him and discussing about the issues and proposals in Ganga cleaning action plan. Then, we did the shayan aarti and had Prasad (besan ladoo) and left the temple at around 11pm.
So, finally day-2 ended well. We are all tired by now and went to deep sleep.
Now, its 30th october’15 , day-3, the last day in holy city. We woke up at 5am again to cherish the most beautiful and amazing event of kashi called “Subah-e- banaras”- A mystic blend of nature’s grandeur and human existence. Rising Sun- Golden Ganges and illuminated Ghats inspire man to enchant, sing and conjure (Yoga). It’s a morning of Varanasi full of life, light and spiritual essence perpetuating the eternal beauty of nature along with Vedic enchanting, music and yoga. It created new hopes, aspirations and internal strength.
Then, we visited Tulsi Ghat to meet the people who are associated with the Sankat Mochan Foundation in Ganga cleaning action plan. There we saw the laboratory and analyzed all the work done in order to clean the Ganga. The proposals for water treatment plants, the mapping of Ganges all over Varanasi, the flowing inn pollution or industrial waste zones etc. Then we went to have some desi Varanasi special breakfast and enjoyed the local food – puri bhaji, chole samosa, jalebi rabri, and kachodis. It was yum!
Now, we headed towards the IIT BHU guest house as we were about to leave for Sarnath today. It was nearly about 20km away from Varanasi city and due to traffic and congested roads it took us 2hrs to reach the place.
Sarnath is the place where Gautam buddha first taught Dharma and where the buddhist Sangha came into existence through enlightenment. There we saw the great Dhamekh stupa, Dharmarajika Stupa from the pre-Ashokan Era, the base of the Ashoka pillar, which was broken during Turk Islamic invasions and Brahmi Inscriptures on the pillar.
Then after visiting all the Buddhists temple, chineese, japaneese and jain temples we went for some shopping. There were beautiful Buddha idols, wooden toys and decorative materials in the market. We bargained a lot there and bought beautiful pieces. Now, we went for some good lunch to a mall in Sarnath, and had lunch in McD and pizza hut :P. It was great fun visiting Sarnath.
Now, we are heading back towards our guest house in IIT BHU, saying goodbye to Varanasi as we have to catch our train at 7:30pm.
We quickly packed our luggage remembering the great experience we had in the gentle waters of the Ganges, the boat ride at sunrise, the high banks of the ancient “Ghats”, the array of shrines, the meandering narrow serpentine alleys of the city, the myriad temple spires, the palaces at water’s edge, the ashrams (hermitages) , the pavilions, the chanting of mantras, the fragrance of incense, the palm and cane parasols, the devotional hymns, the great boddhik values- all offered a kind of mystifying experience that is unique to the city of Shiva.