Like each year, this year too started with many promises, the checklist, and then places to visit. A random plan to visit Varanasi was finally materialised. I would say two to three days are enough to explore the city. The ghats and attending night aartis—when everything blossoms in the sky as there are lights and prayers with the chanting of mantras all around—are a must-visit.
As I decided to head towards Varanasi, it was only a one-day visit, and yet I could cover and witness so much from the hubbub of the lives in the city, to newspaper printing, to thread weaving, to saree handloom workers, to murti workers, and of course, visiting the ghats.
I had started from Delhi by an early morning flight. From the airport to the main city, it took me around 45 minutes. It was less than expected, as the city was yet to awake, and, hence, the roads were empty, and the markets were closed. I was intrigued by the tiny mohallas and gallis, reminded of the movies that often shoot riot scenes in such gallis that are dingy and narrow with houses built on top of each other. By this time, my stomach shrunken with hunger, and I had to fulfill my desire for the famous aloo-palak sabzi (potato spinach vegetable) and poori (fried wheat bread). I am not at all a tea-totaler but I took a cup of tea too served in a kulhad (an earthenware cup) to build a taste for banarasi chai. In that one cup of chai, I could hear so many stories across generations about the city’s culture, and roz mara ki zindangi (everyday life).
The next few hours were spent meeting adolescents, where we sat and discussed their opinion on politics, education, infrastructure, Swachhta Abhiyaan, Delhi’s pollution, and “say no to crackers”. They shared how crackers are an intrinsic part of celebrating Diwali, and that Diwali wouldn’t be the same if there are no lights and no noise. However, they were concerned about the rise in air pollution and looked convinced about taking up a campaign to reduce the use of crackers over the years. They also suggested, or rather asked, why we don’t ban the companies making the crackers? Laughing, one of them added, “Didi we often joke about the Supreme Court ban on crackers after 10 pm, we ask among each other what will Supreme Court do to us if we light up the fire in the cracker at 9:55 pm and the cracker bursts at 10:01 pm?” We all giggled, but they also said, “Didi, Diwali toh patako se hi banti hai, par hum baat karenge sabse (Diwali is a festival of crackers, but we will talk around to spread the campaign)”.
Taking a walk in the city, one could sense the history submerged in the buildings and temples. Around the Kashi Vishwanath temple, there are police check posts and increased security personnel as Diwali neared —the temple is the highest wealth depository, after the Pashupati Balaji temple, the locals told me. They also shared that temple footfalls have increased over years, and most of the tourists are from abroad and South India, as the temple has a great significance and populace in history.
Kashi Vishwanath is one of the most famous temples of Lord Shiva. Considered the holiest temple of Shiva, it is located on the western banks of the holy river, the Ganga. The temple has been mentioned in the puranas (Hindu philosophy) and has a history of demolition and reconstruction. A visit to the temple followed by a bath in the river Ganga is considered to be a way of leading one’s life towards moksha (liberation). Around 3,000 devotees come daily to the temple, and 10,0000 on special occasions.Varanasi, is the third most popular choice for foreign tourists after Agra and Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh, whereas for domestic tourists, Allahabad remains the most popular spot. In fact, Allahabad will be hosting the Kumbh Mela in December 2019.
Walking towards Dashashwamedh Ghat, one of the most visited ghats, one can explore the market on both sides of the road amidst uninterrupted motor horns. As I was walking down the lane, there was a group of men coming down the other side,with a procession for a dead monkey, who was covered with roses and marigolds, in a rickshaw, followed by songs and beating drums. The sight of a dead monkey’s procession astounded me; I began thinking about the miserable unnoticed deaths of human lives, however, I was told that the procession was done as the monkey had died an accidental death—electric shock by cable wires. Death otherwise, is not so unusual in the city, I thought, looking at the bundles of wood around every corner.
I walked ahead only to stop by the Kashi chat shop, generations-old and famous for decades. The paani-puri are filled with hot, boiled peas, served with a bowl of paani. If you are a gol-gappa lover and you have tasted Kolkatta puchkas, even banarasi paani-puri can fail you. You will understand this, only when you have tasted it otherwise, ‘you have no idea what you are missing on in life’, as my fellow friend would say it while sipping the masala nimbu chai at the ghat.
The ghat is a sight: people busy taking dips in the Ganga’s waters, of kirtaans, of young couples sitting in the corners, of blossoming love, and pandits doing the puja. The ghat seemed to be much cleaner than what I had imagined, however, I was told that regular visits of the mantris (ministers) had led to the immediate and quick shine in the city. I was also told that big machines clean the Ganga overnight. The locals also showed me the marks on the ghat where the water reaches during the monsoon every year.
Walking inside Kashi, you will hear astonishing sounds of printing and rolling machines. Get into the lanes and you will observe women and home-based workers busy stitching clothes, making idols, weaving threads and sarees in the handlooms. The Banarasi sarees are bright and beautiful. The workers get only two hundred rupees per saree. It takes around four hours for a non-Banarasi saree imprint and weaving, whereas a pure Banarasi silk weaving would take around 25 days per saree, and even workers demand around ₹1800-₹1900 for them. The input cost is also higher in the production of the pure Banarasi silk saree. The same households in this area have been involved in the production of the sarees for generations.
Buying from here would cost me ₹700. A salesman told me: “Madam yeh silk nahi hai, uske jaisa lagta hai, asli silk me mehnat aur paisa dono jyada lagta hai (Madam, this is not pure silk, the actual silk cost and labour input is much higher than what we invest here)”. He also showed the strings of the actual gold and silver thread, which he unpacked while talking, “Yeh parivaar ka hai, isse sambhal ke rakha hai, asli hai (This belongs to the family, generations old, still pure and shiny).”
As far as my interaction with men (shopkeepers, cab drivers, and restaurants staff) was concerned, they approached me in an earnest and respectful manner. A cab driver had shown immense concern for the late flight I had to catch and the number of hours I had to spend waiting. Yet, not many women were wandering the streets. Around the ghats, I did see school boys wandering around but, comparatively, hardly girls were out. Most of them covered their faces while driving scooter or cycles.
When I interacted with one of the idol makers, she was very shy. Her sister, who is married in the same town, often comes over to help during the festive celebrations when they manufacture idols in bulk so that they can sell and earn more. Their mother died of illness. Their father had great knowledge of the wholesale rates and when and who to sell the product. However, the earnings are not sufficient for the family to bear their daily expenses for the entire year.
The city overall was a wonderful day’s experience.