Like many other travellers, even I had imagined myself sitting on the steps of Kasi Ghats on an evening, watching the Ganga Harati.
I decided to go Kasi all by myself, see the Ganga Harathi and come back in a single day. When this idea was still on my mind, one of my friends also expressed a similar curiosity and we started discussing even more about it. He was interested in tasting the street food of Kasi and in collecting pictures of the Aghoras there. I, after reading many articles and watching documentaries, imagined Kasi to be a short cut to peace and spiritual awakening. I pictured Kasi with scenes I read of – many pandits doing their rituals, a few boats sailing on the glittering Ganga river, a flock of birds flying above these boats when the sun was just about to rise.
My parents also joined us, and all four of us planned a 3 day trip together to Kasi ! We took a cab from the airport to our stay at Sri Gaudiya Matt, near Harishchandra ghat. The cab driver was very friendly and seemed like a perfect Benaras Babu (a typical Varanasi guy) telling us about the Kasi, while chewing a mouth full of pan 😀
After breakfast, by mid afternoon, we were all set to explore Kasi. It was a very sunny day, and our early morning journey added to our tiredness.
After checking in, we headed to Kala Bhairava temple. It is believed that anyone who visits Varanasi, should take the permission of Kala Bhairava to stay in the city. Kala Bhairava temple is located in one of the busy little streets of Varanasi.
Streets in Varanasi are small and narrow ones, which I wonder, would look like nerves branching out of the spinal cord for a bird flying above.
There was heavy traffic on the roads, and to add to that annoyance, people honked their vehicles, non-stop. People were in such a hurry that no one bothered the traffic signals. My imaginary picture of that peaceful Kasi started to fade away. It seemed nothing the way I expected, but just like any other city in India.
The temple is a simple construction, and the entrance directly leads to the main idol. It is surrounded by a raised platform, on which many people sell a few religious items. An interesting ritual we observed here was that some of these people on the temple platform held small sticks in their hands, with which they were patting on the back of the devotees who came by. Devotees here believe that such an act would free them from all their past sins and purify their soul.
On the Kala Bhairava temple lane, we had our first lassi in Kasi. The lassi was made with kova and thick cream and it was the first best thing in Kasi we had that day.
Next on our plan was the most famous Kasi Viswanath temple near Dhashaswameda Ghat. By the time we reached there it was mid afternoon, and the sun was burning hot. That place looked like the busiest place of Kasi, with very narrow lanes, old buildings, food stalls everywhere and a lot of people, who came from different places, busy exploring around.
The Temple lane was the busiest of all and we found a 2km long queue that would lead to the temple, as we entered the lane. It was such a long queue. Tired, hungry and exhausted already, standing in the queue and walking back those two km in the line seemed impossible. The line was moving slowly, and many of us tried to find a good spot to sit, as the queue moved.
Meanwhile, a person walked to us and asked if we were interested in skipping the long queue and in taking another route to the temple. He said he would help us do the darshan and show a few other important places in the surroundings, for a few bucks. In that state, we did not find a better option, but to go along with him. He took us in a different route and joined us in a queue which was comparatively shorter.
After the darshan, he took us to a small temple like room nearby. A pandit ji was already sitting there with all the pooja related materials ready, as if waiting for us. He asked us our names and performed some pooja for a few minutes, asked us to go around, do this, do that and at last, when he felt we were convinced with what he had done, he began to read out a menu of amounts(of money) that could be donated. Good or bad, this happens quite often at every place in Kasi. Like any other spiritual place, there are several pandits who perform some rituals, we ask for them or not, and expect some money in return. Many of them make their living by performing these rituals, and in a place like Kasi, there is no offence in making the most out of people’s spiritual belief. There is some pressure and dissatisfaction to some extent, so the best thing to do is to give them whatever you can and want to, and never look back to them.
In the evening that day, we walked to the Harischandra Ghat, that is nearby the Matt we were staying in. We were in the right time for Ganga Harathi. Ganga Harathi is performed as a tribute to the Ganga river, to thank her for supporting the livestock in India by being one of the major water sources. Harathi takes place in the mornings and the evenings in some of the major Ghatts in Kasi. The most famous one is in the evenings at the Dhasaswamedha Ghatt.
At the Harischandra Ghatt, there wasn’t much crowd, except for us and a few other people. We got the chance to lit the lights with which young pandits perform the Harathi , and sit close by to get a good view. The pandits performed the Harathi with such dedication, coordinating beautifully with each other.
We took a long walk along the Ghatts and while returning back, we stopped at a tiffin centre. The tiffin centre owner was originally from Rajahmundry, a town in Andhra Pradesh. My friend, who was also from the same place got a little excited and ordered some extra dosas 😛 He helped us arrange a cab for the next day to roam around in Prayaga.
After coming all the way to Kasi, not taking a dip in the holy Ganga river didn’t make sense. So, on this day we woke up in the early hours and went to Dhashaswamedha Ghat.
Mornings are so much different in Kasi. The busy streets are all calm with only a few pandits who walk to the Ghats to do their morning prayers.
We then rushed to the Kasi Viswanath temple, keeping in mind the length of the queue the previous day. All shops, which were otherwise super busy, were all closed and the streets were so calm that we did not realise we were already at the entrance of the Viswanath temple. We directly went inside the temple which was only mildly crowded, did the darshan peacefully and also got all the time and place in the world to sit in the temple premises, to observe the temple’s golden gopuram shine beautifully as the morning sun rays hit. The sound of the prayers, the flowing Ganga water, the sound of the bells ringing at a distance – this place seemed like the core from where everything else began. It had so much intensity. At that moment, it felt like this is that Kasi that people wrote about in those articles I have read, and the documentaries I have seen. I found that Kasi, which I imagined before coming here. It felt so good to sit there, looking at each and every wall of the temple and imagine how old it could have been – older than the civilisation, older than may be everything else in this world.
As the dawn subsided, the density of the people started to increase.
We then went to the Annapurna Devi temple again, and then to Kasi Visalakshi temple. Kasi Visalakshi is one of the 18 Maha Shakti Peetams and is generally crowded. It was just like any other small local temple in a village. We did the darshan slowly and explored the entire place. The temple felt like home and we sat there nearly for an hour. Then, the queue began to take form slowly, when we finally decided to return.
Street food in Varanasi deserves a separate blog for itself. The early morning matka tea, buns, Gilebi and Kachodi are some of the must haves. We had our breakfast at these roadside stalls and then started off to Prayaga.
It took us 4 hrs to reach the Triveni Sangamam from Kasi. Triveni Sangamam (Tri – three, veni – rivers, Sangamam – convergence) is the place of convergence of the three rivers – Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. It was early afternoon when we reached there. There are many boats that take you to the place where the three rivers actually converge. River Saraswathi, as believed by many, existed centuries ago, though cannot be traced now. It is believed that the river still exists somewhere underground now, at the Triveni Sangamam.
We then stopped at the Madhaweshwari temple, which is also one of the 18 Maha Shakti Pettams. There is no idol in this temple, but a cradle that hangs from the ceiling which is worshiped as Madhaweshwari Devi.
We stopped at a Dhaba for lunch, which is on the way to Sita Mandi. Sita Mandi is the place where Sita devi, daughter of Bhumi Devi(Earth) as per the the holy script Ramayana, has requested Bhumi Devi to release her from the unjust world. This place, as believed by many, is where the Earth split and Bhumi Devi emerged to take Sita Devi away with her.
Sita Mandi is a beautiful place to visit.
Since time being, many of the aged and the elderly in India dreamt of visiting Kasi at-least once in their lifetime and many considered dying in Kasi as achieving Nirvana. People back then, also walked for months, to reach Kasi before death and to finally leave their last breathe in Kasi. There are many, even now, who travel to Kasi to live their last few days in this place. Death has a completely different toll in Kasi. It is a fact that at-least 2 people die in Kasi every 5 mins, and it is a common scene to see the dead bodies being carried on the streets to be burnt at the Ghats. Harischandra Ghat is one of the famous Ghats where dead bodies get burnt continuously and the remains are left in Ganga river. It is a belief here that, if the burning of dead bodies stopped at the Kasi Ghats even for a single day, it indicated the end of human race.
We stood at the Ghat for about 5 minutes, and we saw 3 bodies coming in, ready to be burnt. Most of the times, the bodies are only half burnt and left in Ganga river. Though I haven’t seen myself, many say that dead bodies can be seen floating on the Ganga river, half burnt, nearby these ghats.
Paying the final respects for any lost family member at Kasi is believed to bring peace and happiness to the left soul.
As the main checklist was stricken off in the last 2 days, today’s plan was to roam around in Kasi aimlessly and be there for the evening Ganga Harathi at Dhashaswameda Ghat.
I spent almost two hours there just sitting on the steps of the Ghat observing people that day. It started with just the boat men, and a few people who came by to perform some sort of rituals in the early hours, then , a few youngsters came by with tripods and cameras to capture the sunrise at the ghat. A foreigner, an old man, sat at one corner sketching the Ghat, not missing a single detail. People started coming by, taking a dip in the Ganga river, lighting diyas and leaving the lit diyas and a few flowers into the water. Many women changed their clothes in the open after taking a bath in the Ganga river. This movement of people seemed so natural and beautiful.
We had a good bun and butter, Gilebi and Kachodi wala breakfast and took an auto to Sarnath in the afternoon. Sarnath is one of the four Buddhist Stupas and is the first place where Lord Buddha preached for the first time after gaining enlightenment.
Our next plan was to see the Benaras saree weaving. I read an article about a village called Sarai Mohana, where people weaved Benaras Sarees. Though I read a lot about this village on the internet, none of the locals we asked knew the location and many of them decided that no such place existed. Our auto driver took us to a nearby saree store. We went inside the store, and did not find any saree that had the original Benaras weave. Many of them looked like duplicates. My mom, being an expert in identifying the original weaves, argued with the shopkeeper asking him to show an original weave.
We left the place and asked the auto driver to take us to Sarai Mohana. He did not know the place and had never heard of it. We used the google maps to reach the village, but did not see any weaving going on.
We asked the villagers and finally a middle aged man saw us and said he would take us to a house where they weaved the sarees. Sarai Mohana is a little village, with many of its walls colourfully painted.
We were still unsure if the man who was accompanying us could be trusted , but we silently followed. At one point, the route seemed lonely and we even decided to go back, as the situation was getting more doubtful. The man assured us took us to a building which was a little away from the village.
It was a blue coloured two storied building. As we entered, we saw a few young men roaming around, a group of middle aged men sitting in one room, surrounded by sarees. They all belonged to one combined family and worked together. The family was very sweet and they welcomed us in to see how they weaved the sarees. They showed us the machinery they used and how they embroidered a weaved saree. They supplied Benarasi Sarees to stores all over India, but were very little known in their own city.
They were such a humble and cute family.
We did a good lot of shopping and returned totally satisfied. We had a free lunch at the Gaudiya Matt that day, took some rest, and got ready for the evening Harathi.
We walked to the Ghat slowly that evening. The crowd was filling in, and we found a place to sit and watch the Harathi. Slowly the place was fully occupied, without leaving even a foots gap anywhere. Thousands of people came in to see the Harathi. Some of them also got on the boats that were parked on the Ganga river, as there was no place on the Ghat anymore. Seats were arranged on some of the boats, which costed a little more.
The platforms on which the pandits stand to give the Harathi were decorated with flowers and all the necessary items were arranged, before the Harathi began. The Harathi was really a beautiful scene to watch. It took place for nearly 20 mins in different variations. No wonder that some people visit Kasi, just to witness this scene.
We got ready and booked a cab to the airport. We stopped at the ” for the breakfast and then flew back to Hyderabad.
We covered all that we wanted to see in these 3 days, but, to experience Kasi, a lifetime is not enough. For those who have time in hand, a slow trip to Kasi gives more time to explore and breath in the air. It is a place that conveniently gives space for a low budget/ no budget travel. There are many Dharma Satras that provide food and stay for free.
Have a good time exploring Kasi, and mind you, be aware not to get cheated or fooled !