From Varuna to Assi

“They were all thieves and robbers. We gave them legitimate employment. Now they and their families earn an honest living.”

Thus spoke Vicky, an erstwhile Bengali, now the manager of Palace on Steps.

“Are you quite sure they are fully reformed”, we thought of asking, but did not. Trust is an issue, but second chances are vital.

The boat ride became a little more exciting.

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We wanted two boat rides on the Ganga – plural because you must have an evening ride and a sunrise one, otherwise you will miss what Varanasi ghats are all about.

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The evening ride was managed expertly by a young boy who attends school during the day and spends the evening hours helping his father. The morning ride was with the alleged ex-dacoit himself.

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He was polite, he listened to all of our requests, and gave us information only when we sought it. There were no squabbles over money – the amount was pre-fixed and he thanked us with a smile. On our next visit we repeated the morning ride, this time his older son was our guide. And this time we expanded the tour. Usually they take you on a journey that spans from Scindhia Ghat to Shivala or Niranjani Ghat; but we wanted the whole trip: from Varuna to Assi ghat – the entire Varanasi.

There are famous ghats, then there are ordinary ghats. But each ghat has a story. I am sure everyone knows about Dashashwamedh, Harishchandra and Manikarnika ghats – they are the superstars.

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(Manikarnika in the morning)

But those like Chet Singh ghat, or Rana Mahal ghat, or Ganga Mahal ghat, have their own identities. Each and every ghat is important, but some are more attractive, some charming and some just full of grandeur.

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(Chet Singh ghat)

Dashashwamedh ghat is famous for its Arati now. Manikarnika, not to be confused with the upcoming film, generates a macabre fascination with all the bodies burning. And you find lots of tourists – people from this land or from other lands – watching with morbid interest. Although it is forbidden to (and terribly impolite to) take photos, clickity click goes the shutters. Cameras and phones become busy. Memory cards fill up, while memories burn to charcoal.

Harishchandra ghat is slightly better. It has an electric furnace along with the wooden pyres. It does not draw as much crowd as Manikarnika. But death is the flavour here too. And the buildings stand in their ominous and forbidding moods. Their walls blackened with soot: soot that once held life in it.

Behind the Manikarnika section of road that takes you across all ghats is an alley called Kachauri Gully. There aren’t a lot of Kachauri shops left. On enquiry we found out that once this was the place where the people accompanying the dead used to come for food. In the earlier days whole villages would turn up for a cremation. Apparently it is a matter of great punya (merit of the spiritual kind) to help with and see cremations in Varanasi; in fact equal to that of getting cremated there. So men flocked along with a combination of altruism and all true selfism. And those men had to be fed. In those days of Kachauri glory the parties would order Kachauris by weight – a decent party would need at least 10 kilos of fried flatbread. The curry was free. And on an average there would be a hundred parties (a very conservative estimate which has no research or data backing it) every day. So imagine just how much this floury business flourished! But with an expansion of crematoriums and of the entertainment business, the community feeling slowly perished. With it perished the business of community filling of stomachs. But the name of the alley stands and there are a handful of shops which still carry on the tradition.

In winter the city is visited by a very large flock of migratory gulls. And the river overflows with them. We bought some food for them, but an elderly foreign lady scolded me. According to her these birds were just vermin, and should not be encouraged. But they gave us great photo opportunities. And we did not listen to the lady.

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In Varanasi, or Benaras if you so prefer, we stay in a hotel called Palace on Steps (as you already know from the beginning). It is located right on the Ganga and is essentially a couple of renovated Havelis. Do not confuse it with the neighbouring Brij Rama Palace – an expensive and expansive citadel.

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This is a poorer cousin. But with round rooms that give you open views of the river, it is the place for us. There are plenty of hotels which give you such views, but this one has this wonderful old world feeling. Of course, you have to walk for a kilometre (no motorable roads, but a very narrow alley leads to it) through Bangali-tola and a Muslim area. It is quite wonderful how all communities have coexisted for centuries. (It is even more wonder-ful how we allow a handful of politicians and retards to escalate violence or violent thoughts.)

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(The Aurangzeb mosque is in the background)

You have to stay in those King rooms (the moniker itself betrays the price tag) to know what it means to feel the river.

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(Our first visit was on the day of Holi, and the boats seemed to have played as well)

From these rooms you can see the bend on your right; in fact, you can see far.

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Harishchandra ghat, with its constant fires, keeps on reminding you how precious life is. Let me re-present a facebook post that I had written on my second visit in January 2016:

Sitting in the hotel room overlooking the Ganga. Had to get inside because a monkey showed excessive interest in our holiday. The hotel staff had given me a large bamboo stick and the monkey, obviously unfamiliar with my heroic exploits, thought me capable of using it and left. But not without damaging one of the wooden chairs. It is 26° outside. Shouts of “Ganga Ma ki jai” is accompanied by someone playing “Doe a deer, a female deer” on the flute. Colourful kites are being flown and they are getting encouragement from an extra large number of seagulls. The sun is now on the wrong side of the day. A pyre is burning the end of an unknown life at the distant Harishchandra Ghat. A calm afternoon in the middle of Varuna and Assi.

Palace on Steps allows you to stop for a moment. Varanasi is frantic.

The Ganga Arati is one of the focal points of the current Varanasi experience. It is a choreographed and well rehearsed performance.

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Its impressiveness adequately covers up its artificiality. It is truly something to be experienced. And there are a couple of star purohits (priests) who give the camera ample satisfaction.

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Go to Chunar (don’t take a guide, they show you five spots and charge you exorbitantly).

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Ganga at that region is very impressive.

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Go to Ramnagar Palace. The museum is fantastic. One should try to look at the Palace from the river. It has a magnificent façade.

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If you are not afraid to experiment, try the Lassi there. (I will talk about Varanasi and its food another day.) And of course, go to Sarnath. Though it has lost its peace and quiet (I remember a very young myself roaming around the Stupas in the early 80s) but the history it contains cannot be missed.

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It is not merely the Ashok-stambh that you will find there, but a number of magnificent artefacts that will take you back to a significant space in Indian history.

The principal temple in Varanasi, the oldest city in India, is the Kashi Vishwanath temple. There is an extreme security arrangement – and when finally you reach the idol you are given exactly three seconds. Then they literally push you out. Don’t despair. The alleys leading to the temple are fascinating. This is the heart of Varanasi. Along with millions of people from all around, you get all kinds of wares, all kinds of pickpockets to be wary of, and all kinds of fauna (mostly bulls and monkeys in perfect syncretic cohabitation). It is no wonder that we heard an elderly white-skinned lady exclaim: “These people are crazy!” An afternoon walk from Godhulia to Dashashwamedh ghat will make you empathise with her astonishment.