The morning sun rises from the east bank, golden light like ribbons ripple across the moving Ganges. In the distance, the air is rent with sounds of holy chants, and also ‘Allah o Akbar’. It is dawn in Varanasi, the city of incandescent light. Ever moving, ever changing through the ages, through the wisdom of sages, and through the birth of one of the oldest cities in civilization. Steeped in ritual, effervescent with the sanctity of cross cultural religions, Varanasi stands a silent testimony to ages then and now.
As deft threads of gold and silver weave through warps of shimmering silk, the ancient art of brocade weaving intersperses, with echoes of sound. The air resonates with the ethos of Hindustani classical music, the shehnai, the sitar, tabla, among other instruments. Melodious voices in tone and timbre blend with the sound of ghungroos, as dance and music lay claim to the various gharanas, renowned worldwide.
Temple bells toll in the late afternoon light, shadows lengthen, and the day takes on another flavour, ancient temples, palaces and havelies show the edifices of architecture, in stone , lime washed walls and brick work, juxtaposed with lattices, spires, arches and domes. Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist architecture, co-exist in harmony. Architecture is textured along alleys and pathways, broad avenues, and the endless Ghats that dot the river.
Ghats embody the spirit of Banaras, there are over 80 Ghats, each with its own legend. It is here that you will find the meditative sadhu, the snake charmer, people from all over the country engaged in rituals, or bathing . The Ghats of Banaras is what ties the city with the threads of faith.
As you descend the many steps into a fast flowing river, the Ganges rise up to embrace you. Murky waters, and floating debris, are no deterrent to the staunch believers of faith. Faith that the mighty Ganges descended from the locks of lord Shiva, washes away all mortal sins. To die in Kashi — as Varanasi is also known– is to attain salvation from rebirth, and while at the ghat of Manikaran, the fires of death burn all day and all night, The smell of burning flesh mingles with incense, and prayers are chanted as the priest twirls his sacred thread, linking man to that strange destiny we call life.
It is in Varanasi that great travellers laid the seeds of education, and under various dynasties, the arts, philosophy, and the sciences flourished. The BHU is one such seat of learning.
It is this introduction to the arts that gave Benares, the unique distinction of being creatively evolved. Craft traditions, are rich in their interpretation as well as the skill with which they are executed.
Varanasi, is a city where the festivals and fairs perpetuate the lifestyle of all who visit and all who live there. Almost all through the year there is some or the other celebration. However there are some which are better known than others and draw the crowds into a vortex of fervour.
There can be no city that exists without food. Varanasi has many gastronomic delights. Predominantly vegetarian, it is fairly renowned for its ‘satvik’ or pure food. Kachoris, puris and potato curries, are commonplace and do for a quick snack. Thandai and lassi are mixed with nuts and essences.
The paan, a heart shaped betel leaf, is legendary, in Indian stories, as a metaphor for several interpretations. The leaf is rolled with condiments, sweeteners, nuts and lime paste. There are many variations to suite different palates, woven into the many dimensions of Banaras. The Banarasi paan is symbolic of the local lifestyle.
Traditional sweets, in myriad forms are laid out like a banquet feast. Made from pure ghee, and milk often flavoured with nuts, the sweets are a delight to the palate, and the gastronomic experience of the city brings people from all corners of the world to experience tastes unknown.
Varanasi lays claim to heritage, as almost no other city in India does, it draws people from far and wide, through the chaos, of humanity, and art, and architecture, through belief, and faith, through light and dancing shadows, through the flow of the mighty Ganges. The river wends its way to the Bay of Bengal. Not without taking Varanasi in its wake, pulling oars, the boatmen row endlessly.
The Ghats resonate and are luminescent with the aarti, holy chants, music and dance all come together in a celebration.
A celebration called life.