It was the day after Dussera in Varanasi last year. Around 2.00 pm. I had just returned to my hotel at Chausatti Ghat on the banks of the River Ganga after a morning at Sarnath and then wandering and photographing in the alleys near my hotel. As I entered my room, I heard the sounds of drum beats and conch shells. In a place like Varanasi, this really should not have been unusual, and besides it was the festive season. But 2.00 in the afternoon was rather unusual for such sounds.
I grabbed my camera and rushed to the balcony. As I peered over the railing of my 3rd floor balcony, I saw a group of people bringing idols for visarjan (immersion).
I was a little surprised as, traditionally, Durga visarjan should have ended the previous day that is, on Dussera. But as the hotel manager told me later, the ghats along the Ganges get extremely crowded on Dussera day, leading to some visarjans taking place even 2–3 days after Dussera !
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.
“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.
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.
The Ganges or the River Ganga is considered to be holy to Hindus. And in Varanasi or Benares, the Ganga is considered to be at its holiest. Do you know why? It is because the Ganga’s flow is uttarabhimukhi or from South to North there, as against the usual West to East, or the less common East to West. I learnt about this piece of trivia when I visited Pattadakal.
Pattadakal is a small village in North Karnataka, situated on the banks of the river Malaprabha. It is a rather unremarkable looking, dusty village, made remarkable for one thing—the Malaprabha is also uttarabhimukhi here. This unique feature was considered an auspicious sign by the rulers of the Chalukya dynasty, thereby singling it out for royal attention.
The North-flowing Malaprabha River at Pattadakal
And what an attention Pattadakal got ! The Chalukya Kings chose Pattadakal as the site for their coronation ceremonies. Being lovers of art and culture, they also chose Pattadakal as the site for building a unique temple complex that would blend the architectural and artistic traits of the northern and southern styles of temple-building that was in vogue in the 8th century. Eight temples were built on one site as a group, while two other temples were built some distance away in Pattadakal. This group of monuments at Pattadakal are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.