The Exotic World of One Hundred Ghats

Experience Issue 188 Jul, 2017
Text by Prachi Goyal

It is the most sacred site for Hindus the world over, for others, a place to explore and discover inner divinity

A mystic blend of nature’s grandeur and enigma of human existence, Varanasi is visited by many people from all over the world for a spiritual experience, or to introspect and find themselves. Its beauty is beyond expression, and cannot be captured in words. It is the primary capital of Hinduism in India, and a lot of foreigners come here to experience the culture and learn the language, or just to meet the people of this wonderland. 

The predominant feature of the city are its ghats (a series of steps leading down to a body of water, particularly a holy river)—more than a hundred of them—all leading to the majestic Ganges. It is an amazing feeling to witness the beautiful city on a morning boat ride on the Ganges across the ghats. You need to wake up as early as five in the morning to see the mesmerizing sunrise, which is a sight to behold. The Assi Ghat offers free yoga sessions every dawn, an added delight to the refreshing sight of the morning sun.

The one thing I learned during my stay in Varanasi is that, the populace is warm and welcoming. They will invite you to eat lunch with them, have a meaningful conversation, and let you experience their culture—a welcoming surprise for people of metropolitan cities, who keep to their own business at all times. When you walk down the streets of Varanasi, you can smell the local food. The milk stalls are the best part about the cold evenings in Kashi (the other name for Varanasi). Locals are very fond of hot milk and cold lassi. 

You could not just live, but thrive on the street food in Varanasi. Eating littichokkais an experience in itself. Poha-churamatar, as they call it, is vastly different in its taste from what you would eat in, say, Mumbai. Pizzeria Vatika at Assi Ghat serves authentic apple pies with ice cream and wood-fired pizza and fresh juices, and is famous amongst locals and tourists alike. It overlooks the ghats, and is right next to a wonderful little bookshop that also sells beautiful postcards. 
The sentiment you feel after attending a Ganga-arati(a part of the puja, in which the deity is worshipped with lighted wicks).in the evening at the ghat is going to stay with you for a lifetime. A soothing calmness engulfs you as you get lost in the harmonious chants and ceremonial rituals. You can see lots of foreigners who come to the ghat in the evenings to experience the arati.

Banaras Hindu University (BHU) is an important part of Varanasi, where people from all over the world come to study and experience the authentic India. Their children go to local schools there, while the parents themselves attend classes at the university. The setting of the community there is inconstant, but not unsettling. Everyone is accommodated there, and feels right at home. BHU offers various courses, such as music, art, vernacular languages, etc.

Get lost in the lanes of Munshi Ghat. Take some time to admire the wall art and the beautiful carvings on the tiny colorful doors. Stop to talk to the locals, and buy some local incense. The Mona Lisa Cafe and the German Bakery are really nice, with great wifi access and decent food. Go silk-shopping in the local market, where you get the best silk shops at the most competitive prices, to buy your stash of Varanasi silk sarees. From highly exclusive work that are supplied to the biggest retailers across the metropolitan cities, to the smaller shops that cuts the cost of the middle man, this is your one-stop arena for silk shopping.

The evening arati at Dashashwamedha Ghat must be a part of your itinerary. The main ghat in Varanasi on the Ganges, it is decorated like a bride every evening for the arati. One beautiful detail about this ritual is that, once prayers have been offered to the chosen gods, it is then dedicated to the observers. This comes from a Hindu belief that divinity lies within every human being. No amount of photographs can do justice to the soulful experience of a gazillion temple bells and conch shells going off simultaneously, with the pandits performing the puja with an entire squad of lamps and diyas, all in unison. The smell of incense soaks your senses, and it is best to be just in the moment. Find yourself a good spot, and also, don't forget to float off your plate of flowers and a diya in the river, along with a wish. 

You can spend your whole life in Varanasi. It is a very welcome getaway from the hustle and bustle of cities, an once-in-a-lifetime experience. So, like Julia Roberts,set off on a journey of self-discovery to rediscover and reconnect with your true inner self, and Eat. Love. Pray. in Varanasi.