Varanasi, the land of joy and death

Pootle list #23 Eat the street food in Banaras

My great grandfather’s grandfather – an imposing figure as evinced by his massive painted portrait (it covered an entire wall that I grew up in awe of, and it is of little wonder that I still believe that God, with a capital G, is mustachioed and wears a brocaded floor length coat) and a very rich man, by all accounts, decided, one fine day, to renounce it all and leave for Varanasi. Hinduism advises, that in the twilight of a man’s life, he’ll do well to detach himself from the affairs of the world, and spend time in prayer and solitude, readying the soul for its final journey. It is also believed, that if one is fortunate enough to die in Varanasi, the soul attains moksha and is freed from the cycle of life and death. That’s what the dear man, presumably, was aiming for.

I am not quite there yet.

People visit Varanasi – the world’s oldest living or continually inhabited city – for many reasons. There are temples galore, a humongous university, shops that sell everything from the famed banarasi saris to metal and brasswork items. Many go as wedding guests, if the hennaed hands of many of my return co passengers is anything to go by. Yet others go to immerse the ashes of their loved ones in the holy Ganges, on the banks of which the city is built. It was to Varanasi, that my parents took my brother several years ago (I was yet to arrive, so to speak) for his tonsure ceremony, the very first time he got a hair cut. Further, I also understand that funeral tourism is actually a thing.

I put Varanasi on my bucket list because I saw a television show, a few impressionable years ago, in which the anchor scarfed down a milk confection called Malaiyo available only in Varanasi, and only in the winter months. He waxed eloquent and seemed to be in heaven. So I went to experience the masti of Banaras, the city which revels in its street food, celebrates marijuana spiked milk, where the locals have permanently orange stained lips that come with chewing paan – betel leaves pockets filled with areca nuts, rose petals reduction and other intoxicating substances. I was not disappointed.

I hoped, quite romantically, to get a sense of the ancestral spirit, for a trace left behind in the stones and pebbles, in the ripple of the river. It would be plain eerie if that had actually happened, and I would have been scared out of my less sentimental wits. But let’s just say that on this front as well, I was not disappointed.

They say you can’t explain Varanasi; the only way to understand it is to experience it. So I shall leave you with some photographs from my trip. I hope you get to visit some day.

Prayers floating in the water, souls on their final journey. My tryst with the Ganga
Chet Singh built this fort in the mid eighteenth century. Warren Hastings, the first British Governor General of India, imprisoned him here. They say he escaped using a rope made of turbans.
They also say that that every particle in the city has Kashi (or Shiva)
If you explore the miniscule lanes near the ghats, you will stumble upon temples so old that it would seem that time itself has shrouded them in secrecy
The Bindu Madhav temple was a grand one, built in the seventeenth century. A couple of decades later, along came Aurangzeb who demolishing the temple, built the Alamgir Mosque on its remains. Later, a much smaller temple was built next door. Today, the temple priest and the caretaker of the mosque are glad if company visits. The Gods seem to enjoy the quiet slumber.
Of anchors and setting sail
Just another day in the land of masti and mrityu
Eat street aka spicy deep fried food heaven.
The reason it all began. Malaiyo is made by leaving milk out at night to catch ‘os’ or dewdrops. Then flavoured with saffron and pistachio, this sweet confection is a delicate cloud of deliciousness. Served in clay pots, and finished with a complimentary ladle of cold saffron milk.
Brush strokes against a canvas of dawn sunshine
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Rumi

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