It felt like the five elements of nature gracing their presence together here at the Dashaswamedh Ghat in the city of holy waters, Varanasi. Or call it Kashi, as from ancient times or Benares as the locals call it or simply Varanasi as all of us know it.
As I sat on a large sized boat brimming with many other tourists, gazing towards the ghat now filled to its capacity, a visual treat was awaited to unfurl in front of me on the banks of river Ganga. The spirited July evening mood and the bubbling emotion within me, seemed to have ticked off to the surroundings too. The light breeze bringing with it the musk of the earth, the flowers strewn on the riverbed as if, coming from the nearby ghats to greet the audience and the glittering diyas doing a little dance along the ripples of the water. All this set under a clear, moonlit sky. It felt like the five elements of nature gracing their presence together here at the Dashaswamedh Ghat in the city of holy waters, Varanasi. Or call it Kashi as from ancient times or Benares as the locals call it or simply Varanasi as all of us know it. The much-awaited evening (a.k.a sandhya) aarti finally began lighting up the atmosphere.
This spectacle of Sandhya Aarti at Dashaswamedh Ghat unknown to me until few hours before my arrival, goes on for exactly an hour with no change in timings. Be seated before that or be ready to miss it, I learnt this the hard way on my next visit to Varanasi with family. As you arrive to witness the aarti, there are two views that you can choose from, either from the ghats closer to the priests performing it or from one of the boats tied to the banks on paying a nominal fee based on your seat of choice. I decided to capture the bigger frame and chose from the boat. The evening aarti is a sight to behold, for letting you immerse in it entirely with the breath-taking view of the lit up ghat along with the clinkering of the bells. This euphoria leaves a lasting impression wanting you to truly come back for more. After the aarti when the crowds filtered out, it was little odd to see the same ghat going back to its usual self. Where just an hour back there were hordes of people assembled here and the next moment, none. I could now see the local people like the flower seller closing her day’s sales, the boat-man anchoring his boat to the banks and what stood out to me was the hermit with an ash-smeared body who sat amidst this view immersed in his thoughts. Feeling straight out of a postcard picture of Varanasi, I captured my shot too.
The next day while I was wondering what more remains to be seen in the morning, the boat ride I took across the Ghats is prettiness exemplified. The colourful boats, the brick walled houses with graffiti on it, the devotees taking a dip in the river all make a pretty sight. As you cross-by the many ghats, I saw the Manikarnika Ghat at one end, lit with a few pyres. The departed are cremated as per Hindu tradition, and they say this is where one earns redemption and seeks solace in heaven. The sight did leave a queasy feeling. On the other end there was Ashwamedh ghat as one of the oldest ghats where prayers are offered. In my first visit with my folks, I had also crossed by boat onto the other side of the river enjoying the weather, sipping tea, and observing people take a dip in the holy waters. In my second visit, I took that holy dip. Did I feel like it washed off my sins? Now that is what I am still pondering.
I also made a visit to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, one of the oldest Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. That particular day, being very crowded I focused on not getting trampled and the food journey to begin after that. While coming back from the temple I experienced the narrow lanes of Varanasi filled with sellers of flowers, finery, and tasted one of the best kachoris I ever had.
As my experiences of Varansai were coming to an end I ask myself, is the city thriving? As a city attracting tourists from worldwide, as a centre for spirituality and culture, is the city doing justice to its visitors? Well, hard to say. A delayed arrival to the city in my first visit itself, traffic nightmare while heading back after the aarti, roadblocks, and need for a major cleanliness drive around the temple and the ghats are the open ends I witnessed. A government agenda and plan was somewhere missing for a city that has all the right to be a UNESCO world heritage site.
Yet, how should I remember the city as? For its flaws or as a place to seek a spiritual awakening, for what it is pre-dominantly known? Perhaps, not yet. The city can be seen through many lenses, rather the lens chooses you based on your life’s perception at that moment. The city can unfurl to show you what you wish to see. And I chose to see Varanasi from the lens of rich heritage, culture, and the spectrum of colours it radiates. A city as old as India which has seen through being Kashi, through Varanasi and Benares and the many other names it identifies itself. This place for me will always dominate the calm over the chaos, that is Varanasi for you through my lens.