Sarnath: The birthplace of Buddhism

“What do you know about Sarnath?” Premkumar, the guide, asked me.

“Er… not much. Just school book stuff really. The Ashoka pillar, Buddha…,” my voice trails off in considerable embarrassment.

“ItisaholyplacefortheBuddhists,” I blurt out in a rush.

“Hmm…,” said the guide, eyeing me in much the same way that a teacher may look at a rather stupid student. “Well, then, let’s begin !

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Getting lost in the alleys of Varanasi

I am lost.

I am totally, completely, hopelessly lost. I have been wandering in the alleys and lanes, which I think leads to my hotel in Varanasi for the last 30 minutes or so, and when I cross the shop selling polyester Benarasi “silk” saris for the 4th time, I realise that I have been going around in circles.

There is no doubt about it. I am lost.

It has been a lovely morning. I visited the serene and calm ruins of Sarnath with a guide, a car and a driver, and after the tour got dropped off at the Gadowlia Chauraha, from where many alleys led to my hotel. I turn down the guide’s offer of escorting me back to the hotel. He is worried that I will not be able to make my way through the twisting, narrow alleyways. But I am confident that I can find my way back as I have been in and out of those alleyways some 5-6 times in the last 3 days, albeit with an escort.

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The Ghats of Varanasi

“Sorry, Madam. You won’t be able to walk along the ghats of Varanasi. It was raining till yesterday and the walking path is under the Ganga waters. It will take about 2-3 weeks for the water levels to go down and for the silt to settle. Then the ghats and the path will be cleaned and only then will you be able to walk along the ghats,” the hotel manager said apologetically. Seeing the crest-fallen look on my face, he hastened to add, “But you can always see the ghats by boat, Madam. You will get a better view anyway.”

I had come to Varanasi with only two pre-decided activities—the Ganga Aarti and a walk along the ghats. And now, with the rain playing spoilsport, I wasn’t going to give the opportunity to experience life on the ghats of Varanasi; I only modified the mode.

There are reportedly 84 ghats in Varanasi, though some estimates put it at 100. Two of the ghats are cremation ghats, while the others are bathing ghats. Since my hotel was located somewhere in the centre of these 84 (or 100) ghats, I saw the Southern side ghats on Dussera day on my way to Ramnagar Fort, and the ghats on the Northern side the next day.

A panoramic view of the ghats of Varanasi

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The Ganga Aarti in Varanasi

Every tourist guide-book (national or international) worth its sales, as well as articles or blog posts on this city, online discussion fora, and word-of-mouth recommendations mention the Ganga Aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat as THE thing to do in Varanasi. I had read and heard so much about the Ganga Aarti, that it was on my list of “must see things to do in life”. So when my Varanasi plans got finalised, it was quite natural that  everything revolved around seeing the Ganga Aarti.

On my very first evening in Varanasi, I saw the Ganga Aarti from my hotel room. Well, technically, I did not exactly see the aarti; rather, I witnessed the people participating in the aarti and saw the whole area lit up with a beautiful golden glow from the lamps.

People gathered to watch the Ganga Aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat from the river side. View from hotel room

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Dussera in Varanasi

6.15 am, 6th October 2011. It is Dussera day or Vijaya Dashami. I am standing at the steps of Chausatthi Ghat in Varanasi, outside my hotel, taking in the early morning scene before me. The sun has just risen and the ghats and the Ganga are bathed in a rosy light. Many tourists are already out on an early morning boat ride, while many more are walking towards the nearby Dashashwamedh Ghat to go on one. Still more people are walking purposefully with puja offerings, while others are having a dip in the holy Ganga and saying their morning prayers. Temple bells can be heard in the distance, as do morning aarti prayers at a nearby shrine. Continue reading

By the Ganga in Varanasi

Just a little more, I tell myself as I follow the hotel attendant up steep stairs to my hotel room.

I am in Varanasi after what seems like a long, long day. A day that began with an early morning flight to Delhi getting delayed, leading to my almost missing the connecting flight to Varanasi. And then there was this ride from Varanasi airport through the most crowded roads I have been through in recent times. All this was enough to stress me out on the very first day of a holiday that I had started planning in May this year.

When the hotel attendant opens the door to my room, I can’t believe my eyes. The view is exactly as the hotel website claims it would be: an uninterrupted view of the river Ganga or the Ganges or Ganga ji as the locals call it. All my tiredness and irritation vanishes in an instant as I sit down on the chair in the balcony and let Ganga ji take over.

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