August 24, 2016

9 Things to Experience in Varanasi

Believed to be the oldest continuously habituated place in the world, Varanasi or Benares is also one of the most religious sites in India. The city is lined with innumerable temples and shrines, and is regarded in Hinduism as the ideal place to do the final rites for a departed soul to attain moksha. Though the Ganga aarti in the evening by the ghat, a dip in the Ganga and blessings at Kashi Vishwanath temple tops the priority list of things to do, there is more to Varanasi than just these. Varanasi is best explored on foot. A stroll through its ghats, roads and alleyways will give you a glimpse of life in the city.

Explore the ghats

With more than 80 ghats, all lined together one after the other, it is a delight to walk along them with flowing Ganga on one side and numerous dilapidated buildings and temples on the other. Amble along the ghats, past the meditating sadhus, quirky foreigners, photographers, shrines, temples, priests, pilgrims and the tea sellers. Take breaks, sit by the ghats, have a tea and gaze at the gorgeous Ganga flowing. Many ghats have temples, while some have beautiful structures and few have old buildings. The popular ghats are Assi, Dashashwamedh, Panchganga, Kedar and Manikarnika. The walk is time consuming and the ideal time would be early morning. 


Take a morning boat ride on the Ganga

Take a boat ride before sunrise and see Varanasi awaken to another beautiful day. The mist engulfed ghats and temples are a delight to watch in the morning. Feed the cawing gulls and see the ghats from a different angle and perspective. There are numerous boats available at every ghat. An ideal ride would be from Assi ghat to Manikaranika ghat and return.

Stroll through the alleyways

The alleys are an integral part of Varanasi. A large part of the city's life meanders through these. Lined with shops, hawkers, houses with beautiful and colourful doors, wall art, cafes and much more, a stroll through these lanes can tell you many stories as you soak in the experience. The alleys also offer some lovely frames for the photographer in you.

Visit temples for blessings

Known for its countless number of temples and shrines, Varanasi is absolutely a temple city. Kashi Vishwanath is the most prominent one and is one of the 12 jyotirlingas in the country. Located adjoining Gyanvapi mosque, both these co-exist peacefully despite the troubled past. It gets quite crowded and is well recommended to head there early in the day. The other popular temples are Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple, Kalabhairav temple, Mrityunjay Mahadev temple, Durga temple and Parshvanath Jain temple.

Enjoy the Ganga Aarti

No visit to Varanasi is complete without  viewing the Ganga aarti at Dashashwamedh ghat. As the sun sets, this ghat turns into a stage of reverberating sound of cymbals, fragrances of camphor and incense, myriad colours of flowers and beautiful lights. Ganga aarti is a daily ritual in the evening where the priests make offerings in the form of fire (lamps) and flowers to river Ganga. Though a crowded affair, it is definitely a sight to behold. Get into one of the boats to have a panoramic view of the ritual.

Walk through BHU

Founded by Madan Mohan Malaviya in the early 20th century,  Benares Hindu University is home to many colleges and is the largest residential university in Asia. Spread over 1300 acres, it is a delight to walk through its numerous cross lanes which are laden with greenery and trees.

Cross the Ganga and explore Ramnagar fort

While most of the action and life is along one bank of Ganga, on the other side lies the beautiful Ramnagar fort. Built in 18th century by the king of Benares, it has huge courtyards and is highly influenced by Mughal architecture. The museum here has a nice collection of vintage cars, writings, artillery and other artifacts.

Relish the street food

There is no dearth of tea stalls and chaats (savoury snacks) in Varanasi. The street food here is an absolute delight for the taste buds. Hot pipping tea in disposable earthen cups by the ghats early in the morning is the ideal companion to stare in oblivion at the Ganga. There are also numerous sweet shops which sell a variety of mouth watering sweets such as crispy hot jalebis, laddoos and lassis. Do not miss out on chewing a paan (betel leaf with areca nut and slaked lime) while in Benares.

Shop at Godowliya and the lanes near Kashi Vishwanath

Renowned for its silk, Benarasi silk sarees here are of the finest quality and there are numerous options (both sarees and shops) to choose from near Godowliya. Varanasi is also known for its musical instruments such as sitar, tabala etc. which are handmade. If you love scouting for souvenirs, then the lane that leads to Kashi Vishwanath temple is the recommended place. The shops sell a plethora of curios and artifacts. Make sure you sharpen your bargaining skills before heading there.

Read more about the ghats, Ganga and alleys of Varanasi here. 

August 16, 2016

Varanasi- Ghats, Ganga and Gallis

 It was my last evening in Varanasi. I sat by Assi ghat and stared in oblivion as the sun set, Ganga flowed, sadhus and pilgrims sauntered, and the chaat trolley did brisk business. I did notice him from a distance for a minuscule of a second but I looked away and stared again at the Ganga. He walked up the steps and stood next to me. "Would you be kind enough to buy me a plate of chaat?", he muttered with a weak smile. I immediately shook my head, said a 'No' and looked away; not before having a glimpse of that weak smile again which had further broadened. "No problem", he said as he tried to look away in the same direction that I stared at. He took a few steps away from me and stood there as I discerned him. Immaculately dressed, he did not seem anywhere close to the sadhus who ask for alms in Varanasi. Surprisingly, he did not ask any other person the question that was put forward to me. Not sure what was running in his mind, but the thought that why he picked me from the whole crowd was disturbing. In a matter of seconds I walked up to him and said "let's eat". Am not sure if he did muster up that smile again as I did not have the courage to look at his face. We held plates of aloo tikkis and sat away from each other. I noticed him silently gobble them away. He did have one more plate before coming up to say thank you. All that I could return was a weak smile.

Varanasi offers such quirky and intriguing surprises for its visitors through its people, ghats, gallis (alleyways) and much more apart from the popular list of things to do. Varanasi is an emotion. It is a feeling that gets into your veins once you you step on it and without your knowledge runs through you and refuses to disembark even after leaving the city. That emotion only pulls you back to Varanasi, back to its ghats, alleys, sadhus, temples and Ganga.

Unending ghats
Semi submerged temple
A ride on the Ganga

Also referred to as Benares and Kashi, Varanasi gets its name from the rivers Varuna and Assi, both tributaries of Ganga. Believed to be oldest continuously habituated place on the planet, Varanasi has innumerable temples and is considered one of the holiest cities in India. Life in this city revolves around the ghats, the alleys and temple surroundings. It is a delightful experience to walk through its ghats through the day (there are more than 80 ghats). A lively long stretch with smiling strangers, meditating and smoking sadhus, priests awaiting customers under their wooden umbrellas, people performing rituals, tea stalls and numerous hawkers. Though Kashi Vishwanath is the most revered temple here, there are many more temples and numerous tiny shrines by the ghats. Enjoy a cup of hot tea by the ghats and see the world go by.

Assi ghat
Kedar ghat with a colourful South Indian temple
A beautiful structure on Munshi ghat
The crowded Prayag ghat
Another gorgeous structure
At peace
Some blessings
While two of them pondered over something, the third sadhu was lost in his thoughts
All set for a smoke
Assi ghat
Some music in the evening by a group of Koreans
Rituals for the departed souls
There is no dearth of shrines on the ghats

Despite the fact that Dashashwamedh ghat and Manikarnika ghat remains the most popular ones, every other ghat too has a charm of its own. Dashashwamedh ghat is known for its Ganga arthi which happens everyday in the evening, when the whole ghat turns into a place of lights, cymbals, flowers, camphor and much more. Though crowded, its a wonderful experience. While Dashashwamedh is all about lights and vibrancy, Manikarnika ghat is all about death and melancholy. This ghat is basically a cremation ground where unending numbers of wrapped up bodies arrive, are laid on the pyre and burnt. The huge ghat talks of emanating flames and departing souls.

Ganga Aarthi at Dashashwamedh ghat
Smoke and flames at Manikarnika ghat

River Ganga is synonymous with Varanasi and its people. As every ghat walks down to the river, Ganga multi tasks herself to the requirement of the people. People perform their morning rituals, float offerings, go about their daily chores by its bank. As it flows away in serenity, it truly turns out to be the life of Varanasi. There are numerous boats that are lined up by its bank. A boat ride early in the morning is an ideal way to explore the river, see the mist engulfed ghats, feed the gulls and listen to temple bells as the city awakens to another day. 
Daily chores and morning prayers by the Ganga

Misty morning
Feed the birds and see the ghats from a different angle during the boat ride

With water on one side, the ghats are lined with dilapidated structures, numerous shrines and many long unending alleys on the other. These alleys are another intriguing part of Varanasi. It meanders its way past shops, houses, beautiful doors, art work on walls and reaches out to more alleyways and the main road. More smiling strangers greet you as you walk through them. Every corner has an interesting frame to be captured. I was quite fortunate to witness a wedding while sauntering through these gallis.

The alleys
Cafes galore
The alleys have numerous shops

Varanasi isn't a place where you go sight seeing and tick everything in your to- do list. Everything is spread before you; all that you need are senses to soak in the experience and cherish the moments.

July 28, 2016

My First Impressions of Hong Kong

It was cold and windy when I landed in Hong Kong. Temperature had dropped to one of its lowest in the last many years. Endless blocks of structures welcomed me as the car sped from the airport to the city. Buildings seemed like matchboxes from a distance. Countless numbers of them.

The city has tall structures everywhere, many with glazing exteriors while a few without them. The roads meander themselves through these tall buildings with traffic signals present after every few hundred meters.

Hong Kong still holds an old world charm with its trams running through the traffic.

The red taxis are ubiquitous and easily available everywhere.

The best vantage point in Hong Kong is from Victoria peak where the city spreads itself in front of you. However, it was quite foggy and I missed out on the view. The place is quite a shopping paradise with numerous shops and outlets selling a wide range of things.

SOHO is the place to be in the evening with an exciting night life and innumerable pubs and restaurants. The narrow alleys here are wonderful for an evening walk.

There is no dearth of entertainment in other parts of the city too with clubs present everywhere.

Ladies night market is an ideal place to go on a shopping spree with a plethora of items on sale. I had to sharpen my bargaining skills quite a bit.

Hong Kong for some weird reason failed to entice me. Too fast paced, not so courteous people, tall structures everywhere. Am sure there is much more to see here and I have missed out a whole lot of it. But, would I go back to see them? Ain't sure about that.


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