Some places safeguard their secrets in their deepest alleys while some bare it all, in their attributes. Varanasi is one such place that does both and thrives in its explicitly as well as mysticism. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, on the banks of River Ganga, this age-old city of Kashi stands synonymous to ancient temples, river-front steps (Ghats), spirituality, mythology, wisdom, emancipation, trade, music, art and craftsmanship. There is no denial to the fact that it is chaotic but the charisma is such that the world literally adulates it for its ideologies of atonement, redemption and salvation. Here I share 7 riveting stories for which you must walk in Varanasi.
- Every Ghat Has a Story!
- Wrestle Your Way to the Akharas
- Dig in the Pink legacy
- Walk for the famous Varanasi sarees
- Meet the wooden toymakers
- Do your own Street Art trail
- Be a foodie!
Varanasi is incredulously piquant all-round the year. The city makes you forget your joys and miseries. The sooner you surrender to its dynamism, the clamor and chaos of its Ghats, the gentleness of river Ganga, the umpteen number of stories, the aura of Kashi Vishwanath temple, eternal flame at Dashashwamedh Ghat, the labyrinthine of its lanes and the timelessness of the city grows on you immediately. The most fascinating characteristic about the city is that death isn’t mourned but celebrated here. I am not sure if there is any other city in the whole world where people prefer to spend their last days of the life and plan it accordingly.
Everyone finds their calling and different reasons to connect with Varanasi. After recurring visits to the city, I have found my path of nirvana in admiring its age-old crafts and unveiling the secrets of talent. Let us walk through the nook and crannies of the city and discover a different side of it. To start off, just be around the riverside to observe the various activities on the ghats. On one of the days, wrestle your way to the oldest akhara on the Tulsi ghat. On another day, knock on the doors of the native wooden toymakers of Khojwa. Then proceed to meet the Banarasi saree weavers of Peeli Kothi. Don’t forget to decode the dying art of Gulabi Meenakari. And last but not the least, explore the color splash around the city.
Just be there and observe, as every Ghat tells its story!
First things first. Begin your day at Assi ghat with the morning aarti (prayers) and wrap it up at Dasaswamedh Ghat with the mesmerizing evening aarti. In between, a morning boat ride is suggested to get acquainted with the whole enigma of Varanasi. Each ghat has a story and to soak in the individual vibes, just walk from one to another. Assi Ghat is called so because this is the place where river Assi joins the river Ganga, there is Janki Ghat which gets its name from the Sita temple, the Harishchandra ghat is named after the mythical Kind Raja Harishchandra, the Kedar ghat boasts of one of the twelve “Jyotirlingams of Shiva” (Kedareshwar Temple), Bhadaini ghat has a huge pump station, the Darbhanga ghat has a Bihar connect, Sant Kabir found his Guru Swami Ramanand at the Panchganga ghat and there is Manikarnika where dead bodies are burned and is also a prime Shakti Peeth. I am sure some of the above insights have made you curious and you will look for more.
Wrestle your way to the Akharas
After being impressed with the panorama of the ghats, I would recommend everyone to spend a morning exploring the oldest akharas of Varanasi. These institutions have been safeguarding 5000 years old art of wrestling (kusti) by training boys and girls on a professional level. Visiting Tulsi das akara on the Tulsi Ghat must be on your agenda. I always feel inspired seeing the mud-splayed, agile and feisty youngsters being trained by Mewa Ram Ji, one of the most experienced trainer wrestlers there. To those who wish to know more, he even shares details about the preparation of the soil of the wrestling ring, the daily exercises and the future of sports as a whole. During your detours, you may also visit the Adi Sankara’s Juna Akhara, the first monastic order that boasts of nearly 400,000 Sadhus (holy men).
Go for the world-famous weaving and the loom stories
No trip to this city should be complete without buying a saree and hearing the tales of its weavers. For the love of Banarasi sarees and other fascinating designs that this city has been creating for decades, a trip to old Peeli Kothi area is a must. This is the place where one gets an opportunity to meet the Muslim master weavers and hear them talk about handwoven pure silk, real silver zari work, Thankas, vintage motifs, Banarasi brocades, mish-mash of weaving techniques, legendary sarees and kinkhaab—the hallmark design of Varanasi. Fashion fickleness has been posing a great threat to these weavers but together we can save the original and traditional love of the city.
Dig in the pink legacy of the city
From its inception in the 17th century to 21st century, Gulaabi meenakari, an artistic method of enameling and filling designs with translucent pink in jewelry happens to be one of the oldest and impeccable artistic traditions of Varanasi. The city boasts of some of the most skilled craftsmen of this art and in some families the legacy is well persevered and the fifth generations of artisans are still involved in it. Those who have a taste in luxury and fashion prefer to buy traditional Meenakari designs for the highest prices.
Meet the Wooden toy makers
As they say, every narrow lane of Varanasi can be a revelation of sorts and I can’t agree more. Another of its craftsmanship legacies can be unearthed in the streets of Khojwa in the city. The little workshops, the artists and their lovely wooden creations -birds, animals, soldiers, idols of Ganesha and Hanuman will pull you into the charms of world-famous art of wooden toy making. As you walk around and interact, the artists happily share the nuances around procurement of wood, hand-carving and lacquering. The process entails cutting, peeling and shaping the wood with the help of knives, then carving and the finally, painting them with bright and natural colours. Don’t forget to buy these biodegradable and absolutely safe toys for your kids.
Do your own Street Art trail
If you have not visited the city in the past few years, now is the time. Street art is the new and cheerful reason to walk around. The freshly done murals and paintings all over the city have infused new life and energy in the old streets of Varanasi. Do take a stroll around the Kachahari (court) area to find unending wall art. The local artists must be applauded for their attempt to portray the popular aspects of the city- the Ganga aarti, the saints, music, art, dance and the famous personalities of Varanasi, in their art works.
Be a foodie
Even though if it calls for an extra mile, I would not miss on the thick creamed Lassi (sweet buttermilk), Banarasi sweets, spicy chaat and the sweet paan (betel leaf) of the city. Food is part of Varanasi culture and it is sin not to savor the delicious vegetarian snacks of Chowk Bazaar and Vishwanath Gali. You will find the condensed milk sweets in the Khoya gali, Banarasi Kachori in the Kachori Gali and chaat in Nariyal Gali. Here is a plan for the day, skip the hotel breakfast and go for some fresh kachori-sabzi and jalebi at Shri Raam Bhandar. In the day, try out Litti-chokha and in the evenings, don’t miss the tomato chaat at Kaashi chaat bhandar.
The story was published in SPICEROUTE -Spicejet Inflight magazine in February!