As Salman Rushdie says in Midnight’s Children: Banaras was already old when Buddha was young. With its curious mixture of the ancient and the contemporary, the sacred and the profane, a trip to Banaras is like taking your five senses on an adventure. “Where else can you find death and closure existing smack in the middle of everyday hurly-burly, urchins playing, washing drying on the banks of the river, worship, rituals and tourist-hungry touts all together in a state of chaotic co-existence?” asks Riitu Chugh, strategist, account planner and story-maker (you can follow her on Twitter @junoesque). “Every little nook and corner have a story to tell.” This is a place where the word Mahadev, meaning God, is used as a default expression to communicate a myriad of emotions – it can be a greeting, an apology or nearly a prefix or suffix to any expression.
The prospect of being in Banaras for Dev Deepawali – which falls on Kartik Purnima every year, seemed incredible. Legend has it that this is the day that Gods descend from Heaven to celebrate their very own Deepawali in Kashi and hence the ghats are lit up with millions of lamps to celebrate the occasion.
How did you travel to Banaras?
We flew from Delhi and since we booked ahead of time – flight tickets were reasonably priced. It’s an hour long flight. You can also opt for overnight trains.
What was the climate like?
I went in November 2016. It was hot during the day. Late nights and early mornings needed a single sweater.
Your first impression of Banaras?
Dusty, mucky, and chaotic.
How many days did you stay in Banaras?
Three nights, four days.
Where did you stay?
At Granny’s Inn, Varanasi. A cute little homestay run by a pair of feisty grannies. Much like a home away from home. Centrally located, charmingly done up with local craft-based accents, and modern plumbing. With staff ever willing to brew endless cups of tea and arrange for transport at short notice. And arrange for cheque payments for car hires in those early days of demonetization.
Three must-visit places in Banaras
- Subah-e-Banaras Experience at Assi Ghat where there is a Ganga Arti that takes place as the dawn breaks over the river. Accompanied by shlokas chanted along and a yagna that occurs in tandem – the experience is at once sublime and surreal. Followed by a classical music recital where morning ragas are performed. You can also see the most unusual sight of hundreds of locals and tourists doing yoga on the ghats.
- A boat ride on the river Ganga both at dawn and at sunset. Try floating lit diyas in the river ( each diya ensconced in a patal with genda flowers) and experience the joy it brings
- Do a guided walk. There are plenty of options to choose from. Pick yours and immerse yourself in another world.
Three must-eat foods in Banaras.
- Aloo- Puri – Jalebi from Madhur Jalpan Grah for breakfast. The jalebis are infused with rose-water.
- Palak Patte ki Chaat from Deena Chaat Bhandar – spinach or palak leaves coated with besan and friend to a crisp and used as a base for the chaat with sweetened curd, spicy and sweet chutneys creating multiple flavours and textures that explode in the mouth.
- Malaiyo – or milk foam made in winters feels like fairy food as it melts in the mouth.
What are the best places to shop in Banaras?
- Veave’s Studio – a quiet, charming place that showcases weaves and printing techniques of the city but in elegant, understated designs.
- Taj Estate for traditional saris – fabulous designs and quality but priced on the higher side and not the best service that one experienced.
- Ushnak Mal in Godowlia for the widest range of Banarasi weaves in the form of fabric and saris
What is the one thing one should buy in Banaras to take home?
A Banarasi silk saree or dupatta or fabric.
A memorable anecdote
There is a quaint little place called ‘ Dosa Café’ located close to Dashashwamedh Ghat. It’s in a house that opens onto a tiny lane that always has crowds moving back and forth from the ghat. A little room at the front of the home has three tables that seat four each, and that’s a squeeze. An array of dosas are available – each one can be custom –made in butter/ghee or olive oil. The charming young lady chef also offers a chocolate truffle idli on her menu. I must say that the dosa I had here surpassed all tastes and I have had more than a few dosa experiences. Crisp, but not overly so. It was substantial enough for me to sink my teeth into. Flavourful like nothing I have had. The chocolate truffle idli seemed like sacrilege – but tasted sublime. Also every morning there is a particular cow that comes by and waits patiently outside or even attempts to stick her face in till she is given her dosa by the owner and sent on her way. The day I visited – my animal-mad friend and travel companion did the honours.
What’s the one place in Banaras that will remain etched in your memory forever?
The Kashi Vishwanath Temple located at the BHU campus. I cannot forget the Panchmukhi Mahadev (Shiva with five faces) idol in this temple. It is mesmerising. I could not take a picture as photography is prohibited.
How much money do you need to have a decent holiday in Banaras?
Flight Ticket INR 7,000 (return). This is from Delhi
Three nights stay at Granny’s Inn – INR 9,000 (Double Room )
Car Hire INR 1,000 ( the outer limit for travel to Sarnath. Within Banaras – auto rides were a more viable option. )
Airport Transfers (SUV ) INR 900 one way x 2 = INR 1,800
Eating out daily INR 500 – 750 for two
Dev Deepawali Experience INR 2250 per person
Shopping and gratuities extra
What would you would like tell people who are planning to visit Banaras?
Ignore the dust and the muck and the crowds. Every square inch of Banaras has a story to tell. Listen and feel. Take the help of locals for off-the-beaten-track experiences. Do walks with trained guides on pre-decided trails but don’t hesitate to deviate from them for unexpectedly wonderful discoveries and experiences. Make sure you get your ‘me-time’ with the river. An evening on the ghats just soaking up the atmosphere and gazing at the river – is a must
All photographs: Riitu Chug