This blog post is dedicated to all those people who have asked me to guide them through Banaras, those who have called me for directions while sitting in Banaras , and to those who don’t know that the total number of days I have spent in Banaras, in all my life , are a mere seven. Unfortunately, I presumably have managed to see a lot of Banaras (so people think) in this little time.
To disappoint many, I have only seen what I can call “the tip of the Iceberg”. Banaras is a way of life, and I have to confess my love for the city through this blog post. Let me begin with my opening line, which will make some people really mad at me, I HATE THE MALAIIYO! And I am not going to make this another orgasmic saga of love of malaiiyo! So if you are expecting that, here is your chance to run away. Don’t say I didn’t warn you !
I have to thank Mystic Yoga, for introducing me to Banaras. The first time I went to Banaras, it began with the Sankat Mochan Temple. And I, as always, finished temple visit in a few minutes and started eating. What was supposed to be a quick snack, began with corn roasted on coal, then moved to a sharbat, and then to the lovely laal peda (which I conveniently forgot to offer to Hanuman Ji) and ended with some chaat. Well let’s not get into the nitty-gritty’s of timelines, or I am sure to bore you down.
Again, like in most of my stories , I know of two types of people who are visiting Banaras , One , that likes to stay around Dashashwamedh Ghat , and the second, that like to stay around Assi Ghat . I am the second type. I mean I love the hustle and bustle of Dashashwamedh and also the sights and sounds of Vishwanath Galli, But I’m not really too much of a religious person. I like the soul of Banaras, its dedication, its belief system and its sincerity. Also I feel that Assi Ghat is more “ME” in many ways. Like, I like the morning aarti more than the evening aarti. I know the Dashashwamedh aarti is hypnotic and again people won’t like this comparison. But when you see the salutation that the sun receives every morning, at Assi Ghat, how the city embraces the morning with Vedic chants and the aarti is followed by a beautiful morning raga recital, you will fall in love.
Another reason I love Assi, is that right after the morning aarti and the music recital, I can head to Lanka Chounk and be the first customer of Pehelwaan lassi. They make the best kachori according to me in Banaras! And the dahi they make is blissful. If you haven’t had the dahi jalebi for breakfast, you have missed a great deal.
So after waking up at 4 am, and then eating the kachori for breakfast, it is very important that you take a small 2 hour nap. It is like a mark of respect to the kachori. It should be allowed to play with the cholesterol levels of your body and an important job like that should not be disturbed. So after the breakfast, and the lovely slumber, it is time for some sightseeing. I usually like to spend a couple of hours walking around in Banaras. Just me, the camera, and some food thrown in here and there, is what I call heaven.
The Vishvanath Galli is a photographers dream comes true. Wherever you look, there is a frame waiting to be discovered. And, also I’m astounded by how oblivious the locals are to a city, the photographers from all over the globe want to photograph. Well, the Vishwanath Temple area is one of the most densely populated parts of Banaras, and also the oldest city hub. All the Bengali babus of the erstwhile Raj used to come here. The paan masala shops whose name signs are still written in Bengali will vouch for this. Not many people know that if you hunt, you can find some stunning Itter here. The beli and the kaala gulab are better here in Banaras, as compared to the Oudh and shamama of Luknow.
Another lovely place to go to is a Sardarji Achaar Papad Wale, in the Kachauri Wali Galli. Please don’t be expecting lovely kachoris here, it’s just an erstwhile name. The galli is a shortcut to Manikarnika, and all you see are dead bodies passing by every two minutes. So I just decided to switch my reactions off and entered the Sardarji Shop. Banaras is home to the best Stuffed Red Chili Pickle and also some stunning Aloo ka papad. Also, I was amazed to taste some interesting pickles like, Jackfruit, peppercorn, and eggplant. Do buy the oil free whole lemon pickle from here. It’s under-rated but is a brilliant cure for acidity.
Right outside Kachauri Wali Galli is where people eat the Malaiiyo! I can’t stand that dessert. This is a Foamy milky dessert, flavored with cardamom and saffron. Since Childhood, Milk has been a sore point of contention, and I have never come to like it. So the malaiiyo, in spite of its light airy texture, isn’t my cup of tea (or mithai). I found my calling in the old moiras (halwais) in Vishwanath galli. The pedas, stuffed parwal, and different halwas stole the show for me. The star was what was recommended by the locals. It looked like an off white mass (not very impressed by the looks). But my mommy told me not to judge a book by its cover, so I took a bite. And whoa! It was amazing. Very very sweet, but yummy. It’s called Magdal. It’s like a dal ka halwa, only ten times better and much less greasy. Well I was almost dead. Walking around Banaras with seven kilos of pickle in one hand and eating to the heart’s content with the other can be very tiring. So I suggest another short nap before the evening aarti.
One of the best ways to enjoy the Dashashwamedh evening aarti is by boat, but if you want to really click some aarti, the Tulsi Ghat aarti is really nice (but it’s not regular) see the Dashahwamedh aarti during regular days, instead of festivals, you will enjoy it much more. After the aarti, the shops at the ghaat start shutting, so it a great time to bargain. Do pick up some granitite chillums for all your friends who dope, makes a great gift, and weed and bhang isn’t a “HAW- WALA" subject in bears, its "Baba Vishwanath ka Prasad ". Now tell me, how cool is that! And what makes it better, there are government registered shops for it! And what is the best way to find these shops – Chat up with the lovely chatty "auto-wale-bhaiya". The friendly neighborhood auto-wala will take you right up to the shop for a small tip! So once you have had the stuff, there will be munchies. No better way to fill up than Kashi Chaat! The house special, Tamatar chaat is a crowd pleaser. Please leave your cleanliness hang ups at home , or be stoned out of your wits and just focus of the yummiest ( I do the first one ) . Recommendations? Tamatar ki chaat, poha, tikki, gulab jamun, kulfi. BLISS !
Once the local fare of Banaras is taken care of, we can move to the other fun things to do in Banaras. One must walk the stretch from Assi Ghaat to Dashashwamedh Ghaat . You can also do it both ways . Believe me , it feels spectacular . You can end up getting in touch with all emotions during this walk , from love you see in the eyes of newlyweds , to devotion of the people towards Ganga . From the sorrow in the eyes of the mourners of the deceases , who are praying for the salvation of the souls of the departed to the innocence of young children taking a plunge and enjoying themselves .
Another lovely thing to do is to drive to the Ramnagar fort . It is across the Ganga and takes about 45 minutes to reach . It is the erstwhile residence of the Family of the Kashi Naresh . Although the museum is in a very sorry state, it still will give you a good idea about the Regal Lifestyle of the Kashi Royal Family . The beautiful Palanquins , ornate furniture and regal clothing yearn for some attention. Photography is strictly prohibited , but spending a few hours here is like a read through a story book .
Some shopping is a must in Banaras . I always end up buying lovely dhotis here . Also , good paan masala, agarbatti and chunky junk jewelery, are worth spending on .Little carved granite boxes make great souvenirs and also sarees , how can one forget that . And if Doing all this doesn’t build up an appetite ,then you are in the wrong city ! One can always repeat the kachori cycle . But Banaras also has some lovely hidden gems . The IBA Café in Shivala is an absolute surprise package . Amazing Japanese and oriental food is on offer . And they make beautiful ginger lemonade . The Thai curry (mind you , CHICKEN) and the cheese cake are better than some of the restaurants in Kolkata .
The Pizzeria Vatika is a lovely place on Assi Ghaat that serves Wood fired pizza , hand make ciabatta and some scrumptious Apple pie . And the apple pie crust is the best I have ever eaten . Right beside it is a small café called the Ashish Café that is never empty. Humble floor seating , low tables , and brilliant homemade multigrain bread , house peanut butter and some organic honey ! Banaras is home to a lot of expatriates , some who settled here and taught their culinary traditions to locals . The accommodation is more pocket friendly and clean , thus it is home to some good , Italian , Lebanese , Korean eateries . Banaras , unlike many think , is also a cultural melting pot . Most of the Banaras Weavers are Islamic and thus the non-vegetarian food you get at the street side eateries around Shivala is actually brilliant! I have had some stunning fried fish and kebabs here .
Benaras or Kashi, is considered the oldest existing city in the world, and it never fails to astound me. I have developed a special bond with Dev Deepawali , The city’s most celebrated festival . This is the time Banaras is decked up like a beautiful bride . Fifteen days after Deepawali , on the night of Karthik Poornima, Dev Deepawali is believed to be the day on which gods descend on Banaras to celebrate the festival of light . Three Days before that, the city welcomes tourists for the Ganga Mahotsav . The ghaats are lit up with millions of oil lamps and the sight of the full moon amidst the sparkle of fireworks is breathtaking . The weather is perfect and the water levels are low, The city shines in splendor.
Whoever visites Banaras, I feel, leaves a bit of themselves there. Or perhaps take a little bit of Benaras with themselves. It could be a breath of incense, an echo of chants, a mouthful of flavors to remember for a lifetime, or maybe just a few pictures to treasure. But when you feel like coming back again, just remember, that there is a little bit of Banaras in all of us, just waiting to be explored .
Har Har Mahadev ! Har Har Gange !