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varanasi travel

Travels & Other Escapades

A Day in Varanasi – The Ghats & Death

November 22, 2022
Assi Ghat on Chhath Puja.

Boats anchored at Assi Ghat. We were there on the day of Chhath Puja, and all the ghats were festive.

“Oh Agastya, One should not be amazed at the notion that this Ganges is really Power, for is she not the Supreme Shakti or the Eternal Shiva, taken the form of water?”

The Ghats of Varanasi are legendary.  Originally all the ghats were clay, but today many of them have been rebuilt with concrete steps.  The ghats here that infuse the city with a certain air of romance.  Walking along any of the ghats (which remain largely unchanged for the last 3000 years), it’s possible to imagine the wooden ferries transporting goods from other kingdoms to Kashi.  Yogis, brahmins, travellers, kings, servants, artists, philosophers…all came to Varanasi on these ferries.  And like visitors today, they were also on a quest…

And the most poignant quest for a living being is a peaceful death.  Drifting along the Ganges, the bustling life at Assi ghat contrasts strikingly with the burning pyres at Manikarnika Ghat.  There is a saying that goes ‘Kashyam maranam muktih‘ which means ‘Death in Kashi is Liberation’.  It is believed that if you die here, you’re sure to attain moksha.  According to legend, this is because Yama has no power in Kashi, and it’s Shiva that presides over your death.  So this city finds itself the receptacle of the old and the sick.

Subah-e-Banaras at Assi Ghat.

The Ganga aarti, a part of the Subah-e-Banaras program at Assi Ghat.

A boat ride on the Ganges is a mandatory part of any itinerary.  Watch my video about Varanasi (including boat rides) here.  Our boatman led us to the Hanuman Ghat, from where we were to board our boat.  It’s unclear why or how this ghat gets its name.  A large number of South Indians inhabit this ghat today, including Mr. K. Venkat Raman.  The next ghat is the Chausathi Yogini Ghat – which was our first destination for the day.

Chausathi Ghat

The Chausathi Ghat – You can still see the domes of the old building and a new board in English is placed right under the old one written in Hindi and painted on the wall of the buildling.

It is said that once upon a time Holi used to be celebrated on this Ghat in honour of the 64 yoginis.  Legend goes that when Shiva wanted to come back to Kashi, he sent many emissaries to King Divodasa.  Amongst these were the 64 yoginis…

Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple

The Leaning Temple of Varanasi. It tilts at an angle of 9 degrees!

Rickshaw ride near the ghats.

On a rickshaw after ages! Near the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.

Travels & Other Escapades

A Day in Varanasi – Called by the Yoginis

November 6, 2022
My pride and joy.

Ever since the publication of my second book, I’ve been compulsively taking photos of both books. This picture was taken during a particularly leisurely breakfast during Diwali week.

Those who’ve ever been to Varanasi know that any amount of blogs/books/videos fall short in describing its unique vibe.  There’s so much the city has to offer that one trip isn’t enough.  Whether it’s food, textiles, history, yoga, architecture, culture or spirituality – there is something for everyone.  In writing about my time in Varanasi I wasn’t sure how to encapsulate my experience in a single blog.  So this time I’m going to try something different.  Instead of encapsulating, I’m going to see if I can recreate a special day for you.

During her first visit to Varanasi, my friend Sowmya discovered the Chousathi Yogini temple there.  Her account intrigued me.  The temple she described was architecturally different form the ones we had seen in Ranipur Jhariyal.  What’s more, there was only one yogini idol in the temple.  Yet, the priest insisted this was the temple.

This city is fabled to be as old as time, an ancient city whose narrow winding web of lanes are fragrant with the smell of devotion, where faith is palpable even in seemingly forgotten crevices.  A city whose power can be felt in the crowds that still throng there in search of salvation.  A city where you can casually enjoy a glass of lassi at the Blue Lassi Shop and hear people chant ‘Ram naam satya hai‘ as they carry their dead to the Manikarnika Ghat…

 

Shopping from Pilgrim's Bookstore.

I’d recommend reading ‘Banaras City of Light’ before you visit Varanasi. But I’m having a good time reading it even after my trip. ‘Benaras’ was recommended to me by the guy manning Pilgrim’s bookstore the day I visited. I’d recommend a visit – they have interesting books, postcards and bookmarks.

I love researching a place before I visit, and there is so much on Varanasi.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to read up, so I decided to listen to a few podcasts.  I came across a reference to the 64 yoginis in one of them.  Sitting in my comfortable seat in the Vande Bharat Express train, I had an uncanny feeling that the Yoginis had called me.  And I must track them down.

The question is, in a city teeming with temples, how do you find information on an elusive (and perhaps even forgotten) cult?  Turns out, I didn’t have to look too far.  Stay tuned for the day that unfolded….

The first thing I saw when I de-boarded the train at Varanasi.

When I saw this sight in the crowded railway station, I couldn’t really connect to it. Not sure if I love Varanasi now, but I certainly long to return.