Tag Archives: Uttar Pradesh

What has the spiritual capital taught me at Banaras?

Kashi for the pilgrims, Banaras for the historians and Varanasi for the modern… How it is religiously important, culturally vital, historically notable… There is enough said and done about this city through literature that is available as early as mythology, history and the modern contemporary. If I had to write about the same stuffs here, then this post would be just another summary with my perspective in it. However, I still use this one sentence to re-iterate the common belief: ‘No time is long enough to be at Banaras’.

The immovable faith of the people, the ever crowded streets, delectable street food, the elusive power of the Naga Babas, the hippie culture of the westerners, the rich history, the mythological importance, the intriguing cultural heritage, dance, music, poetry, handloom, education, art, architecture- The list goes on endlessly that holds so much significance. Hence, keeping it all aside, I wish to make a list of what this city offered to teach me-

1. Work is Worship: This old man agreed to pedal us around for a rickshaw tour of the heritage campus of the Banaras Hindu University. The humility in his speech, the five-o’clock shadow in grey on his weather beaten face and the sinewy legs spoke volumes of his wisdom and hard work for this 60+ someone. He has seen those innumerous people come and go to this sacred land. At the end of the tour, he stopped at the Bharat Kala Bhavan museum complex on the university premises. We told him that we wouldn’t need much time there and would be back in half-an-hour. We failed with our words, and the quickest we could come out is after one-and-half hours. There was no sight of this old man for as long as our vision could stretch. The man did not carry a cellphone and we didn’t know his name to enquire with the people around. We had waited for another 30minutes now. We were uncertain whether to wait for some more time or leave without paying his fees. In just then, we heard the tinkle of his cycle bell as it screeched to a halt in front of us with a little girl in the rear seat. He explained, “I was getting late to go pick up the kids from school and drop them home, they would panic or else”. This man did not worry if he lost the money that we owed him, there was something else he considered more important. As we sat on the rear with the little girl on my lap, I was reminded how for this man ‘Work was Worship’. One has to stay committed to what has been assigned.

2. Solo travel helps in self-discovery but having a travel mate provides security: While we finished the Ganga Aarti, savoured some delectable street food and returned to the hostel at around 10.00.p.m. we found that 3 of our roommates were fallen motionless. We checked with them to know what had happened. While one held on to her stomach and started to cry of pain, the other 2 ran to the restrooms… Having barely any strength to talk or stand, one of them managed to say that they had food poisoning. On being requested for help, the men running the hostel conveniently pushed the responsibility of nursing the girls on us. Since 2 of them were burning with high fever, we rushed them to the hospital (supposedly the best in town) for medication. On arrival, the hospital authorities refused to provide first aid without submitting their passport and paying an advance of Rs.30000. Forget being able to talk, these girls barely had any conscious to tell us where they had kept their belongings. And we ourselves being strangers in the place, it wasn’t going to be easy helping those girls. It was well past 12.00.a.m. while we were running around the dark, rainy streets of Varanasi for the required documentations so that the girls could get their first aid ASAP. With the physical condition they were in, with a no-electricity night, cocky/horny street hawkers who were hovering around and adamant auto-rickshaw drivers trying to make quick bucks out of the helpless situation, it would have been rather impossible for the expats hadn’t they found us! While the attitude of the guys running the hostel, the hospital and one of the girls among the patients itself is a story to write about, this whole episode taught me one thing- The importance of having company while travelling or at least having an acquaintance in the place one wishes to travel.

3. Serving food is divine, do it from your heart: There are eateries in every nook and corner of Varanasi that serve authentic cuisines from almost all parts of the world to cater to the international tourists who throng in large numbers. Any food that is offered with a true heart gets its added flavours… We had found our favourite hangout at the Phulwari restaurant, conveniently sharing the premises of the Godowlia Kaali mata temple. With a traditional ornate welcome gate opening into a casual shack like place with basic cushions and bamboo chairs and a mud-smeared kiln for making their wood fried pizzas, it offered a very warm ambience. And having personal attention from the waiter was overwhelming. He made sure we got precisely what we wanted while we were confused running through the long menu. He even went to the extent of getting some herbal drink from the next street to help me with my headache. He offered us with the best thandai of Varanasi, chilled to perfection and served in clay bowls to retain its authentic flavour; delivered at our hostel on the last day of our visit! There is so much more about providing customer service and hospitality- this man was at his best!

4. Do not question the untold: The Ganges is a powerhouse of inspiration. She’s holy, pure, sacred and selfless. While we took a ride along the shores of the holy river, the veteran boat man patiently answered all our questions about the holy city. While umpteen things can be discussed in lines of communalism, history and science, Not to be debated about: the Ganga at Banaras is a lifeline. It’s a way of life. Irrespective of religion, caste and creed, faith is the only thing that has kept the people going here… Every baby born in this land imbibes it in the genes… It’s at times important to understand the significance and let things be. Do not be overwhelmed to exhibit your education by venturing into a zone to only be littled by the magnificence of the faith.

5. There is no escape from the cycle of life and death: While we were sitting on the steps of the Manikarnika Ghat and watching the flames engulf the body of the deceased on the banks of the holy river, a volunteer sat next to us to proffer his knowledge about the significance of every ritual in Hinduism starting from the birth of a person until he bites the dust. He goes on to explain why Hindu culture does not encourage women from performing the last rites. Women being emotionally weak, tend to cry at funerals. This makes it difficult for the soul to break the attachment and leave the body. With soot from the fumes rising from the burning ghat settling all over us, it was a good long 2 hours of narration of the rituals associated with life and afterwards. At the end of which, I was left wondering with a continuously running stream of questions about life and finding its worth. They were thousands of unanswered questions which I hope to go back to the ghats someday, to find all my answers!

The Land of Ramayana- Ayodhya

We were scheduled to arrive at the land of Ramayana- The Epic of Indian Mythology! Ayodhya is believed to be built by Manu, the first man on earth as per the Vedas. This land was the capital of Ikshvaku dynasty of Suryavamsha- lineage of the Sun, of which Lord Ram was the most popular ruler. Lord Ram has been revered as a symbol of a perfect man. Irrespective of religion, every child born in India grows up listening to stories from the Ramayana. Young girls grow with dreams of having a husband similar to Lord Ram. That said, it was no less a dream to travel all the way to the land where the greatest empire of all times existed.

A small platform which ended even before the train made its 1 minute long stop, very laid back village scene and just 2 tracks with a yellow ‘AYODHYA’ railway board welcomed us as we arrived there by an afternoon train. An old man and his cycle rickshaw awaited us on the other side of the tracks. We told him our hotel’s name and he said 50 Rs. We hopped on to the cycle and our dream journey kickstarted!

It was as if the rickshaw was our time machine that took us back in time as it slowly inched through the main commercial area.. A typical rural setup. Dusty roads were flanked by old tenements on both sides from end to end. The rich embossings on the facades of each house was unique and gave us a sense of an era bygone. Each house enclosed a shrine from where the smell of incense had filled the environment. The main street had everything being sold in the stalls from colourful plastic ware, brass souvenirs, religious beads, clay articles et all. The Chai-wallas were busy serving their brew in clay cups and the Jalebi-wallas were spiraling the batter into hot oil. Fruit vendors did brisk business on carts.. Amid all this, the prayer chants of ‘Ram Siya Ram, Siya Ram Jai Jai Ram’ from the temples in the bylanes echoed in the air giving us the sense of a heavy atmosphere. There was so much character in this small stretch! Just as if we were woken up from a dream, our rickshaw halted and our driver broke the silence- “Madam, your hotel.” he said pointing out at a very modern building which looked very sophisticated for an otherwise laid back country side.

We freshened up and had a rather sumptuous meal at their inhouse restaurant. It was already sunset time and upon enquiring about the nearest sightseeing places, our hotel caretaker told us to head towards the ghats to catch the Saryu Aarti. We had to rush as the sun was nearing the horizon. While we were asking for directions and running towards the Lakshman Ghat, my friend and I stopped abruptly at a sight.. The first glance of the Ayodhya that we had heard about, as kids. A visual treat that looked straight out of a fairy tale. ‘This is AYODHYA, Man!” we both blurted in unison. The oblique rays of the setting sun added a glorious gold to this Royal beauty. Although the structure is relatively new from the 19th century or so and not the original Kingdom that Ram had spent his days at, we stood there dumbfounded for a couple of minutes. After taking an eyeful of it, we walked towards the Lakshman Ghat were the Aarti was about to begin. We hitched a boat ride across river Saryu and back, from where we watched the aarti. From there, we took a rickshaw to the Hanuman garhi main road to get our dose of kulladwala chai before we called it a day.

IMG_20170307_070712
Our “The AYODHYA view” at Lakshman ghat

Next day, we woke up early to reach the ghats for the aarti during sunrise. Post that, we took a walk along the chawl photographing the artistic friezes. We explored the inside streets and the several temples inside those ancient tenements. Treta Ke Thakur, Ram ki Paidi, Nageshwarnath temple are all in this surrounding. We got talking to several residents both Muslims and Hindus and they all seemed excited to share what Ram meant to them. For some Lord Ram was a brother, for some a father and yet for some a son.. A curious family from the chawl even invited us over to their house for breakfast and took us across the fortress to introduce us to their relatives.. We were deeply moved by the innocence and simplicity of these people. We then bid a warm goodbye and headed towards the heart of the town..

From there, we reached the Hanuman Garhi, an important temple built on a fortified walled structure high above the ground level. Lord Hanuman is believed to have had kept a vigil on Lord Ram as a kid. A man offered to guide us around other important temples around the place. Some being Dashrath Mahal, Kaikeyi Mahal, Baal Ram Mandir, Dant Dhawan kund among the important places out of the 7500+ temples that are believed to exist in Ayodhya. Kanak Bhawan was the highlight of the places with its architectural beauty. This structure is said to have been entirely plated with gold (Kanak) back when Kaikeyi had gifted it to Sita during Ramayana. A board on the wall explains the evolution and modifications done over different periods and by different rulers who ruled Ayodhya. We attended the aarti at noon before heading towards THE PLACE!! “Ram Janmabhoomi”.

Being one of the MOST controversial areas in India, we had to deposit all the things in a safety locker including watches, water bottles, cameras- basically everything before entering the premises of the birth place of Ram! Rifle armed commandos guarded the entire area. We had a long queue and four rounds of frisking to really get there. Women guards frisked us in really uncomfortable places and it was a strange experience to go through, inside our own country. I was made to throw away even the vermillion I had kept in my pocket from the Hanuman Garhi temple because they couldn’t trust me on carrying random powder. With all the embarrassment, uncomfort, tiredness in the scorching sun- when we finally made it there: I did not realize that it was Lord Ram’s birth temple. The King of Ayodhya!!! Small idols of Ram, Sita and Lakshman were placed inside a Swiss tent as if the trio were still continuing their vanavas in the Kaliyug. Off-beat camping in a deforested jungle. I burst into tears and I didn’t have a reaction. I went berserk for a while until my friend calmed me down.

We couldn’t visit the Ayodhya research centre which has lot of information collected from across the world about Ramayana and the holy land of Ayodhya. Mani Parvat on the outskirts is another place I would suggest if you have time which gives a good view of Ayodhya. Although a 20Rs. per head ride in a tempo can take you to Faizabad, the district headquarters; I would recommend you to take a 1000Rs. boat ride along the Saryu which will take you to Ram Ghat at Faizabad for the evening aarti.

Summary: My entire stay here has been a great one with both Hindus and Muslims coexisting and helping me get around the place. Never did I feel the communal rife. It is one BIG political ticket for easy votes and in interest of no social harmony. Like really!! When there is Ali in Diwali and Ram in Ramzan, do we really need to fight in the name of God??? The question needs to be pondered over…

Must buys: Chillums (clay pipes), handmade religious cotton carry bags.
Must dos: Get a glance of the Ramayana trail on the India map at the Ayodhya research centre, boat ride from Lakshman ghat(Ayodhya) to the Ram ghat (Faizabad)

The not so Holi- Festival of Braj Bhoomi

Holi is Big in Northern India and the most beautiful in the Braj Bhoomi- the Land of Lord Krishna. Festivities start a week in advance with Lath-mar Holi in Barsana and Nandgaon, phoolonwali Holi (Holi played with flowers) and Widow’s Holi in Vrindavan, Huranga at Baldeo and Holika dahan and Rangowali Holi at Mathura and Vrindavan are some of the major parts of the festival. Articles, blogs and photos are all over the internet about how beautiful this celebration is and the fun of participating in the festival of colours. Deeply inspired, a two week trip was planned through the state of Uttar Pradesh whole-ly, to soak in the festive fervor of Holi.

As per plan, we reached Vrindavan to spend the last two days of Holi- the main days and get coloured in different hues of Gulal. The plan was to reach the hotel, change to clothes that we had kept aside specifically for Holi and then go out to the areas where the colours were being thrown at. However, the entire town was already painted with colours by the time we arrived in our delayed train. A samaritan helped us get an e-rickshaw so that we could reach our hotel. The rickshaw had to squeeze its way through the crowd that had already gathered out on all roads. By the time we reached the hotel, we started to feel miserable about having wasted our leaves and having travelled all the way to Mathura from Bangalore was a big mistake. It was very unfortunate that our experience of the famous Vrindavan Holi was no-where close to fun. Although we were inside the rickshaw, we felt more vulnerable to getting coloured than the rickshaw itself. Goon like mobs would specially target people who were new to this kind of celebration. I had atleast 4-5 men together hold me by my head inside the rickshaw and colour my face. Few others even pulled my scarf and shawl to ensure that every inch of skin was coloured. No! It was not a pleasant way to welcome guests to a new place!

Banke Bihari temple in Vrindavan is where Holi is best celebrated with the priests throwing colours at everyone. On the day of Choti Holi, although we managed to go to the temple, we were drenched in wet colours. Leave that, our faces, hands and every bit of skin was chapped because we were smeared either with coloured cement or sand. This mixture is a norm and hurts like hell when it is being thrown at. We somehow managed to catch glimpses of Holika that were being burnt in some interior corners of the town. Women folk had gathered around effigies placed in the middle of firewood, food grains, vegetables and all other important things required for burning the pyre. We were colour soaked till the bone by the time we braved the task of reaching the safe confines of our hotel doorstep amid all the cemented colours and sand. Taking pity at our plight, our hotel incharge asked us to stay indoors the following day, as the last day could get wilder.

Finally, the main day of our fortnight long trip had arrived. But, we could barely think of venturing out on the streets on the day of Rangowali holi. Since our hotel was located in the main city area, we set our chairs out in the balcony of our room on the 3rd floor and watched the frenzy on the streets. It was disappointing to watch the Rangowali Holi turn into an event of Kheechadwali Holi (Holi played with water from the drainage). This kind of celebration can give the worst memories especially for girls and foreigners while goons attempt with ruthless amount of coloured glass powder. It can affect your eyes, skin, blood vessels anything! On top of it all, people are sloshed in Bhang and one cannot be sure of what’s gonna happen next!

Really, I’m not exaggerating the displeasure; the festival of colours is exaggerated through good photography by the photo enthusiasts who are all mostly male. I’d bet you not to plan your Holi trip to Braj with a bunch of girlfriends or with anyone who is new to this area. I strongly recommend you either plan on the day of Phoolon wali Holi or be a part of a private Holi celebration at a friend’s place amidst known crowd. This trip to Mathura has left scars of ir-repairable displeasure and sadness!

IMG-20170311-WA0001
The Banke Bihari temple Clicking credits: Gowtham Shastry