Varanasi, the oldest city in the world, teeming with activity in every lane and by lane, has its own special charm. When I stepped out of Varanasi airport on a surprisingly warm February evening, I was looking forward to exploring the ghats, a boatride on the Ganga and visiting Sarnath. Also known as Kashi / Benaras is the land between the confluence of two ancient rivers, Varuna and Assi with Ganges. This is the oldest (nearly 3000 years old) continuously inhabited cities in the world where modernity and old world charm rub shoulders comfortably.We reached Dashashwamedh Ghat just before the break of dawn the following day. This ghat is perhaps the most spectacular and has interesting anecdotes associated with it. It is believed that Lord Brahma specifically built this ghat to welcome Lord Shiva, while some others point to the fact that Lord Brahma performed a ritual wherein he sacrificed 10 horses here. We settled down in a country boat to cruise down the famed ghats. There are close to a 100 ghats along the river extending from Raj Ghat in the North to Assi Ghat in the south. These have been built by several kings and heads of states over the years. We floated down the ghats in slow and steady pace witnessing the bustling Prayag Ghat followed by the fervent open air bathing and holy dips in Kedar Ghat.
As we moved along, it was a wonderful experience watching young children performing yoga asanas on the ghats and and feeling the vibrations of the melodious chants that wafted through the air lending warmth to the misty surrounding. Soon we were approached by an enterprising salesman steering his floating store. I was impressed with his novel selling style and enthusiasm to show us his ware.
The river water was opaque and dark but hardly a deterrent for the devout who were busy taking dips and filling bottles to take back home. I remembered my grandmother, carefully guiding me through the sacred dip in the Ganges several years ago and fervently murmuring, rather pleading to the river to bestow good health and well being on me. I was rather amused and recalled asking her if this ensured all my homework and exams will be henceforth taken care of by the river while I indulge in a prolonged nap or aimlessly wander in the neighbourhood. I took a handful of the holy water and sprinkled on my head and mentally asked for forgiveness for my inability to take a dip in the dark waters of the holy river.
The boat cruised to the far end, reaching Manikarnika Ghat where most of the cremations take place. This ghat reminds of the impermanence of life, of creation and destruction. Legend has it that Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati visited this ghat to grant a wish to Lord Vishnu. Apparently, when Lord Shiva was taking bath, he lost a precious stone from his earring and hence the name. There is a partly submerged temple on the ghat which was apparently built by a son out of love and respect for his pious mother and the sacrifices she made for him. Structural engineers and critics may feel otherwise, but the truth is that a mother’s love and affection for the child are beyond any form of repayment!! The sun in all its golden glory peeped through the stray clouds. We paid obeisance to the golden sun by floating lamps (tea lights), and chants of Gayatri Mantra, in praise of the sun reverberated around. Silent observers to a divine spectacle, experiencing nature’s abundance, each one of us in the boat expressed gratitude for yet another beautiful morning. The sea gulls were suddenly energized by the appearance of the sun. They flocked towards the sky in droves, expressing joy and happiness at the sight of the sun. It was a moment of celebration of life and light.The boat dropped us back at Dashashwamedh Ghat and as I climbed the steps, I kept looking back, gazing at the orange hues playing hide and seek with the grey clouds. The heart craved for more, some other time, some other day. It was nearly 7.30am and I had a busy day ahead. As I climbed further to reach the winding ghat road a sadhu smeared in ashes caught my attention. He smilingly approved when I requested for a picture.A few steps ahead, I was amused by the camaraderie of the goats on the steps. Black, brown, white and grey, it was perfect harmony. I walked through the winding ghat road lined with small kiosks and shops selling simple souvenirs, containers. The road side eateries were setting up shop and the fragrance of the delicacies filled my lungs. I wanted to savour the samosas (triangular shaped fried puff filled with vegetables and fried in oil) and jalebis (syrup coated batter fried sweet, resembling a pretzel), but had to postpone it for the future. Soon, I was in front of the famed Shiva Temple- Kashi Vishwanath. I stopped by the gateway, watching devotees scramble to get in. I smiled, I already met Lord Shiva this morning in all his glory in the cool breeze, glowing sun, chirping birds, mellifluous river, smiling boatman, carefree animals, obliging sadhu, enthusiastic salesman and perhaps I will meet him at the next bend in yet another avatar !!