The epicentre of yogic faith, perched on the banks of the holiest river in the country, sadhus, gurus, temples! Surely this is the place! Alas, probably not folks. This is a place where Hindus venture to confront the truths of their faith; and that my friends is not always a very enlightening experience.
But if you plan to stay in Varanasi to experience India at its core, you picked well. Benares (formerly known as) is a melting pot of Hindustani food, culture, tradition and faith. While you may not achieve spiritual enlightenment in the Holy City, here are 3 things about my experiences in Varanasi that are sure to raise your spirits!
The story of Varanasi is prevalent across the Ghats, through its narrow walkways and carved into centuries old infrastructure. India is stooped in incredible folklore and mythology, with a central theme of good overcoming evil in most instances. Uncommonly known as the oldest city in the world, the first inhabitants of Varanasi date back to the 2nd century; and while today it is known as one of the seven sacred Hindu cities of India, Benares wasn’t always the land of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. For almost five centuries, Muslim rule dominated and all but wiped out any notions of the Hindu faith. Only through the benevolence of King Akbar, in the 16th century, did Hinduism return to Varanasi, to never leave again.
Food in India is overwhelmingly defined by culture and tradition. With over 22 nationally recognised languages across 36 sovereign states and regions, there is bound to be diverse interpretations of food. Situated in the state of Uttar Pradesh, central-north India, Varanasi sits firmly in ‘Chaat’ territory. “What is Chaat?”, you ask. These small-yet-filling snacks come in different sizes, shapes and styles. Common examples you’re sure to come across include: Aloo Chaat, Sev-Puri, Papdi Chaat, Mixed Chaat and Palak Chaat. Chaats are a collision of Indian spices, tamarind sauce, fried flakes, cream, cilantro and potato! For first-time travellers, it’s wise to choose a busy stall or dine-in to avoid the infamous Delhi Belly. Over and above the savoury chaats, Varanasi is notorious for its sumptuous desserts, like Pedha, Gulab Jamun, Rasgulla and Jalebi. If you have a sweet-tooth, plan ahead and book your next dental appointment now.
I mentioned above that many Hindus make the pilgrimage to Varanasi to reconcile their interpretation of the ancient faith with the resident Masters. After reading and listening to countless stories from and of the Ganga, the feeling of actually being in the city for the first time is truly a sensory nirvana. Within moments of being on Ghats, Varanasi’s unparalleled influence on Hindu art and literature is so ubiquitously clear. To that end, I like to call it the religion of Varanasi. A place where anyone can enter, fuse history with faith and leave with a sense of fulfilment. Whichever faith you follow, whatever doctrine you believe, whoever you pray to, in the religion of Varanasi there will always be common unity.
As a Hindu growing up outside of India, I found myself challenging the claimed realities of many anecdotes and references to my faith. Until my first trip to India as an adult. I experienced a land so fertile and diverse, it’s no wonder the claim of ownership of Hindustan, across history, was seen as a monumental achievement. But as we know, seldom does beauty come without baggage. Poverty. Corruption. Chaos. Modern day terms, unfortunately synonymous with the call of India. Who is to blame? Who is responsible? Who is really to know? But having now been back to the country many times, I think I’ve figured out how the locals deal with it.
The root of which you will find in Varanasi. My conclusion: There is certainly something in the water in Benares.