Travel : Chalo chalein Benaras

Travel : Chalo chalein Benaras

I left Benaras with mixed feelings. After three days of visiting temples, exploring the markets, walking down narrow gullies, watching the sunrise from the banks of the river Ganga, witnessing the evening aarti (offering of prayer to the river), dining, dressing up, and taking photographs, I felt content that I could tick one off my bucket list. But I felt none of the awe and wonder that I should have experienced in the oldest city in the world and one that was steeped in tradition and culture. The sights and sounds of Benaras which had touched millions who came before me from all parts of the globe seemed to have made no lasting impact on me. I worried if I had become indifferent. Had all my personal losses in the previous year made me insensitive?

Perhaps, the heightened excitement of being in the city that every Hindu aspires to go to, but few manage to; the disbelief that the journey that I had so long wanted to make had come to fruition, and the nervous energy that arises in the company of college friends, came in the way of experiencing the ‘mysticism’ that Benaras is known for. I believe to experience the aura of a place, you have to consciously urge your mind and the body to slow down and fall in sync with the beat of the place you are in . To achieve it in Benaras, I would have to allow my mind to be one with the waters of the Ganges that softly lap the ghats or tether it like the boats fastened at the dock, ready only to plunge into action to ferry pilgrims and tourists, or I would have to still my internal being like the ghats (steps) that carry the weight of millions of pilgrims who step on them to take a dip in the river with the hope that their sins would be washed off; or stay steadfast like the buildings and temples lining the ghats – that witness the chaos of life in silence. But, being my first time there, I had been too busy exploring, experiencing, observing Benaras with my eyes that I failed to let it seep into my being. This only means that I will have to go back to Benaras again,either on a solo trip or with my husband.

As I waited for my return flight after the trip, I began writing a post on Benaras. The words you have read so far are not what I had written at the airport. An encounter with a co-passenger on my return flight made me realize that I wasn’t doing the city justice if I wrote about Benaras as a mere travelogue.

What changed how I felt between then and now?
A woman sitting across the aisle got talking to me about my experience of a trip with girlfriends. Without getting into the details, let’s just say, we agreed on a lot of things. And that was enough for us to begin a heart-to-heart conversation. She asked me, “How did you feel in Benaras?” and I said, “Good.” My response was lacklustre. She prodded, “Did you feel the magic of Benaras?” I did not answer as I did not wish to disappoint her. I nodded my head and asked her about her experience. Her face softened and her eyes lit up as she spoke of the city- I saw ‘faith’ in her eyes that was refreshing and it was hard to remain unaffected. Two hours later when the flight touched down in Mumbai, I knew that something within me had changed. Before leaving, she asked me to make sure that I did not miss out on anything in my writing of Benaras. I assured her that I would try.

So, two days later, I scrapped out everything I had written earlier and began writing on a fresh page again. The sky was still dark and so was my room when I began writing about Benaras- the darkness around me and the quiet of dawn helped me to go back to the city. I allowed myself to walk through the ghats and ferry across the river Ganga- this time, minus the cacophony. The result was this post.

“Here religious feeling reigns supreme and no sensual thought ever seems to assail these beauteous mingled forms. They come into unconscious contact with each other, but only heed the river, the sun and the splendour of the morning in a dream of ecstasy.” Pierre Loti, French novelist

Benaras or Varanasi is to Hindus as the Vatican is for Christians and Mecca is for Muslims.

Background on why Benaras?

I had wanted to visit the city ever since I saw a picture of the ghats sometime in 2016. My wish to go there, however, had nothing to do with religion- it was the place that drew me in – the black river aglow with diyas, sadhus in a trance smoking weed, their bodies smeared with ash and their hair stringy and unkempt, and young brahmin boys in orange-coloured silk robes performing the Ganga aarti to the sound of drums, conches, and cymbals to a waiting audience. However, as Benaras is not a typical ‘holiday’ destination for kids, we did not think of visiting the place, and after a while, I forgot all about it until September 2020, (during the lockdown), when I was looking for a picture to paint. I found a painting of Benaras and the wish to go there resurfaced. As travelling was impossible then, I satisfied the urge to visit by painting it.


In March, when one of my friends from college said she was visiting India and asked if we were game to travel, we jumped at the idea. Having been locked in for two years, the three of us in our travel group of five (I suppose it’s safe to call us that now, as this is our second trip together) agreed immediately. Benaras was suggested, and Benaras it was! If someone had told me twenty-five years ago that I would travel to a place of pilgrimage with these girls, I would have thought the person crazy. But, like they say, fate has a funny way of bringing people together.

The four of us congregated at Varanasi on the 12th of March- from four different parts of India. My journey to Varanasi was one that I would like to forget, but I don’t think I ever will – the man sitting beside me had taken off his slippers and folded his one leg over his other knee so that his blackened feet pointed towards me. Gross! I survived the two and a half hour journey with Viktor Frankl’s book, ‘Man’s search for meaning’, which I picked up at the airport. Ironical, isn’t it? I thought so too.

Varanasi airport surprised me- shiny tiles, bright lights and spotless washrooms. The only thing missing was restaurants at the arrivals. So, the two girls who waited for me to arrive did so on empty tummies. So, despite being hungry, we left the airport and headed straight to Benaras, which is a one hour drive from the airport. The government-run taxi at the airport charged us 1200.00. My first impression of the city was that it was an undeveloped town- bumpy roads, insignificant roadside stores, traffic honking perpetually, minimal road signs with no dividers (so anybody could come from any side), and unassuming folk.

The ‘Hotel Temple on Ganges’, is a four-storey building that is unpretentious in every aspect. However, the rooms were clean and had A/Cs and hot water in the shower. The hotel’s USP was its location- being two minutes away from Assi Ghats. We dropped off our luggage and went to the ghats for lunch. I was ready to be overwhelmed- I had heard the Prime Minister began cleaning the ghat on the second day of his taking office in 2014 but I wasn’t sure how clean. Everybody I had spoken to, had visited a long time ago when the ghats and the river was a mess. The ghats surprised us- they were spic and span, despite the number of visitors- those who keep the ghats clean, work around the clock, in 3 shifts.

We walked down the ghats to a restaurant, five minutes away from the hotel, called, ‘Pizzeria- Vaatika Cafe’ which serves the best apple pie (if you go there, you must have it) and mouthwatering pizzas, baked in brick ovens. I totally recommend it. The quality is top-notch and the price reasonable. We had cold coffee, ginger-lemon tea, a Margherita pizza (we were so hungry that we gobbled it up and forgot to take a picture), a spinach-jalapeno pizza and apple pie.

Stepping into Benaras feels like you’re stepping back in time. It is the oldest city in the world and, as per Hindu mythology, it was created by the Gods. It is also believed that when the world finally ends, Benaras will be the only city to survive.
Varanasi, Benaras or Kashi as it is called, is a city in Uttar Pradesh, a state in the North of India. It is built on the bank of the river Ganges. Brad Pitt rightly said, ” I have never seen anything like Benaras. The city just spills into the river Ganges. It’s really, really extraordinary.”

The city has 88 ghats that stretch alongside the river. Most of the ghats are used for prayers and ceremonies. An aarti or prayer is held on the ghats at sunrise and sunset and no matter what day it is, throngs of people assemble to watch it- on the ghats or from the river, on a boat. On our first evening there, we watched the aarti from the river. The aarti is an elaborate affair, which takes around an hour. The main ghats from which one can witness the aarti is the Assi ghat (where our hotel was) and the Daswamedh ghat (which leads to the marketplace). It takes not more than half an hour from Assi ghat to Daswamedh ghat, if you walk at a comfortable pace. It’s all really one stretch of land that has been divided into sections and given different names.

After a hearty meal, we took our first boat ride (A boat ride that will take you through the length of the ghats and the boatman waits until the aarti is over, so you can witness it from the river, costs around Rs 1200.00 for 4 people). You can buy a lamp to light for Rs 10.00 and put it in the river once you are on the boat. Below are pictures, taken from the boat.

The evening aarti happens after sunset. We put our candles in the waters and the boatman manoeuvred the boat towards Daswamedh ghat. We watched the aarti from the boat – five pandits synchronized their moves to the sound of bells and bhajans (hymns). The quiet night was filled with the sound of claps from those on the river and the ones on the ghats. The flames in the five or more layered oil lamp glowed brightly, flickering as the pandit boys moved the lamps in a circular motion. Then there was the burning of incense, the sprinkling of flowers into the river and many more stages. It wasn’t very clear from the boat. What struck me was how other activities on the ghat came to a halt, so, the only activity was that of the aarti. The pandits stood along the stretch of the ghat. Smaller ghats had just one person performing the rituals.

The Harishchandra ghat, which comes before the Daswamedh ghat, is used as a cremation ground. The Manikarnika ghat also used as a cremation ground is after Daswamedh ghat. Neat piles of wood logs used to cremate the body can be seen on both these ghats. A common sight here is burning logs of wood, flames raising high, and black smoke meandering towards the sky as if carrying the soul. Mary Oliver said, “In the morning, we crossed the ghat, where fires were still smouldering, and gazed with our western minds, into the Ganges.” It is believed that if one is cremated in Benaras, they will be freed from the cycle of rebirth and attain moksha or salvation. It is no wonder that people close to death book themselves into ashrams here and await their death. Apparently, a person is allowed to stay for a maximum of two weeks, and if they do not die, they must return.

After watching the aarti (of which I will post pictures taken, tomorrow), we got off the boat and walked up the steps of Daswamedh ghat and into the marketplace- a narrow road which was filled with people, honking vehicles, vegetable and fruit vendors who had their produce in a heap on the roadside, monkeys and street dogs led us to Varanasi market. If you go like us to the market after the aarti, be prepared to have your senses shocked. An ‘explosion of sounds’ best describes the market.
If you’re one who loves shopping in old bazaars, then this is the place for you. There are a lot of hidden treasures that you can pick here. Amidst all the noise and the crowd, we managed to buy some oxidized jewellery, and indulge in chaat (street food) and the famous Benaras lassi (sweetened yoghurt drink). The market is a great place to shop for Benarasi saris and shawls as well.

And so ended our first day in Benaras- we returned to our rooms satisfied and tired.
I hope my words gave you a feel of the city and my personal journey to Benaras. Where my words fell short, I hope the photographs made up for it.
If you enjoyed this post, stay with me to read my second post in Benaras. I promise you, the photographs will get better as they were taken by my friend, who manages to get the most amazing pictures with her mobile phone.

Copyright@smithavishwanathsblog.com. All Rights Reserved.

P.S. The title of this post means, ‘Come, let’s go to Benaras.’

23 responses to “Travel : Chalo chalein Benaras”

  1. HI Smitha, this is a very interesting post. It is true that you need to get into the spiritual mindset of a place to reach beyond what you are seeing when you visit. I have experienced that at Canterbury Cathedral in the UK. It is lovely you could visit with your girlfriends.

    • Hi Robbie, your comment made me smile. You understood how I felt- and you experienced the same- that gave me a sense of relief. It means what I felt is normal.
      It was fun that we could go together and dress up and pose like college days😀

        • Absolutely, Robbie. It’s a blessing to find friends with whom you can travel with no hassle. It’s nice that both of us have been able to travel, even if for very short periods. Isn’t that our goal this year🙂

  2. So many layers to appreciate in your post. I can totally relate to the initial experience you share – of the mind becoming busy in a new place and missing out on the beats of the place seeping into our heart and being. I have a few places that I want to revisit just for that reason. I loved how you travelled with your girlfriends – something I would love to do.
    These places are so rich in history, tradition and literally the soul they carry – I am only overwhelmed by the idea of visiting Benaras – how will I do justice? 🙂 Your post bridges the gap for me quite a bit. And I enjoyed the modernity of pizzerias, the lush lassi and the river Ganges – and everything else that you compiled and composed so well together!

    • Pragabha, thank you, a hundred times for appreciating this post. I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right- telling people that I hadn’t been affected. Thank you for understanding and sharing that you too have felt the same at some point in time. I would definitely like to visit Benaras again, and slow down. I’m so glad my post bridged gaps for you- even if it helped one person, I consider myself fortunate.
      Pizzeria blew my mind way- its like sitting in a restaurant in Europe🙂. The Lassi is to die for. I believe the street food is also good. I did not dare to try it though.
      Thank you again, Pragalbha for hearing me❤

  3. Beautifully captured. We do have a long way to go before we learn how to slow down and be present in a moment without getting dragged into the past by our memories or pulled into the future by our anxiety. This city has taught me how to do just this. And yes – faith. As your co passenger rightly pointed out – you see faith everywhere. Especially on the road in the midst of the crazy traffic. Banares to me is like a condensed ‘universe’ and once we are in the city we open our eyes to the power of something greater than us. I really find myself in the chaos of Banares.

    • Thanks, Anu. I’m glad you enjoyed reading the post. I suppose it’s easier to cut out the noise around you, if you are there a second time. The first time is always difficult, especially when you are with friends and more so after the lockdown…its like birds released from a cage. It’s wonderful that you found your peace in Benaras.

  4. Thank you for this post. You managed to build a path and transport me there. I love the most your people photos: the smile, the eyes, and pride of an individual. Chances are high that I will never experience this for myself. And if you don’t die in two days, you must leave, is the saddest thing I’ve read lately. Also, if someone asked me before which the oldest city in the world was, I’d just blink and wouldn’t know the answer. Now I know!

  5. Excellent description of your trip details and amazing set of photographs to visualise and match your writing….Travelled with you on Day 1 and enjoyed the Pizza too😋…Also post pics of the oxidised sets you bought 😃. Waiting for Day 2 details 🙂👍

    • Thank you, dear Hema. You’ve already seen the second post…so you’ve seen the jewelery pic. It’s very reasonable there and the variety is amazing. It’s definitely a place to shop in. Pizzeria was great. Lol. Hugs.

    • Done. Let’s do it, Sweth. When you visit next- the four of us. I’m so glad you enjoyed every bit of the post and you saying, ‘well written,’ means the world to me. Love you😘

  6. Phenomenal photos and feel of Benaras ~ if the photos here get better in your second post, then I’m very much in for a treat. You open this post with such perfect honesty, with the opening photo of the burning candles at the bow of the boat, with the history of Benaras staring right back at the camera, it is the excitement of such a shot that makes me dream of making such a visit ~ however, as you say to fully experience such a scene you have to let it seep into your very being. Love this, because I’ve been to places and events where I was out of sync with the aura of a place, and while enjoying it – understood I’d have to return again 🙂 Still, the magic of your writing makes me want to experience this so much, I love this great quote: “In the morning, we crossed the ghat, where fires were still smouldering, and gazed with our western minds, into the Ganges.” That’s what I want to feel.

    Brilliant post, Smitha, and how I wish to experience such scenes. Wishing you a great start to the week, and look forward to reading more about this adventure. Take care ~

    • Thank you, Randall, for writing back. I very much appreciate your detailed response – it makes writing and sharing a post satisfying. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in feeling this way- not being in sync with a place- especially one where you desperately want to.
      I loved the picture of the diyas too…the blue of the boat complements the orange glow. Your description of it is beautiful-‘ the history of Benaras stares into the camera’.
      I’m sure you’d enjoy Benaras very much- there is a photograph everywhere, waiting to be taken.
      I’m glad the post makes you want to experience it. I’ve completed the write-up on Benaras. There are two more posts. Looking forward to your reading it🙂.

      Wishing you a wonderful week ahead too and may you travel again. Take care. Cheers,

      • Yes, being in sync with the place seems so much easier when you travel without expectations, but when expectations seep in it can throw you off a bit. Still a great experience, but… 🙂

        • True…I went with no expectations. All I knew was that I wanted a holiday, travel whenever I got the chance to ( thanks to the pandemic holding us hostage), and yet, somehow everybody else expected me to feel in a particular way. Lol. And I didn’t.🙂. I was trying to find the answer in this post, as to why I didn’t feel the way I was expected to. I gathered it was because of all the reasons I mentioned in the post. I suppose I will have to visit Benaras again to feel the place.🙂

  7. It looks and sounds like a place that could overwhelm the senses, so I can imagine you would either feel very spiritual or it might just be too much to find a connection. Even though you didn’t feel it, your words are still full of atmosphere.

  8. […] These pictures were taken during my recent trip to Benaras or Varanasi as it is called now. Varanasi is a place for pilgrimage for Hindus and Buddhists worldwide. It is said that it is the oldest city in the world. It is also where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. Some of the doors you see below are those of residences or shops and yet they have a religious flavour to them (the colour of orange or saffron that symbolizes Hinduism). To know more about Varanasi, you can click here. […]

  9. Hi Smitha… just got done with reading part one of your blog… I tried commenting on the post on fb but it said that the post has been removed. Re-writing the comment here…
    You have given a lovely depiction of the place, not only did you describe the place but I loved how you brought alive the vibe of the place too. I felt as though I was sitting on the small little boat and watching the Ganga arati myself! I didn’t know that Benaras, Ganga and Varanasi were all the same! I thought they were entirely different cities! 😊😊. Now onto part 2!!

    • Hi Soumya🙂. First,welcome to the blog. It pleases me to know you experienced the boat ride through the post. Thank you for appreciating the post and sharing your thoughts on it. Btw, I had no clue I was going to Kashi until a few days prior to the trip. So, that makes two of us😊. Hoping you enjoy part 2 and 3 as much. Happy reading!

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