Benares is a rich, technicolour dream that explodes on your senses, one sight, sound and smell at a time. Yes, it is dirty and many shadows lurk under its old skin. And yes, that bit has been glorified to the point that it may even repulse some folks when they have to walk on its pan-stained, sorely defiled cobblestone streets. Even so, Benares is a city that evokes a deep-seated fascination for anyone who loves places with character, history and strong cultural identities.
It is not often that you go to a place and come back feeling a little lost, a little overwhelmed, and a little delirious, all at once. Benares does that to you. You want to breathlessly discover so much more of it on your feet or on board a cycle rickshaw, and yet just sit still in one spot, say by the flowing Ganga, to imbibe the peace it exudes. You want to disregard the shrine-fanaticism, but you stop in your tracks for a moment when you happen upon an idol in a wall or on the pavement, taken by the positive energy that surrounds it. You want to re-do the things you did the day before just one more time before it’s time to go back to your life. You want to turn away from the painful things and turn right around and at once embrace the little joys it offers. You want to be there for every offbeat experience and yet disappear into all its renowned, magnificent acts with a thousand others. The whole point of a city like Benares, so radiant and promising from a boat on the Ganga at sunrise, and so full of despair in the darkness of its alleys where people cling on to dear life consumed by the filth of their past, is the dichotomy.
Here is a list of recommendations that you should definitely go for in Benares.
Sunrise On A Boat
If there’s just one thing you absolutely must make time for, against all odds and your urban body clock, it is this. Sunrise on the Ganga is simply breathtaking and you will be enamored by how, despite the gridlock on the river with several boats paddling about within inches from one another, and umpteen eager beavers flashing their cameras at the rising sun, a sense of sheer bliss and calmness will wash over you.
There are no adequate words to describe just how mesmerizing the sight is, of the liquid gold of the sun splashing on the steel-grey sky across from your vantage point on a boat, and the ghats gradually filling up with people on the other side.
The boat rides are typically Rs. 200 per person, and last for about an hour and a half, starting at 6 am. You can arrange for the rower to come and pick you up from your hotel/ home-stay, and take you to the Ghats. Do stop for a Kullad Chai (see below) on your way to fuel up for this sublime experience!
The Aarti is just as magical from the Ghats as it is from a moored boat a few feet into the river. There’s something so captivating about the rhythm of the prayer and the flickering glow of the lights against the ebony of the night sky, that you forget all about the milling crowds and the resulting congestion. The devotion of the priests as their swaying bodies perform the rituals is a pleasure to behold. The burning incense, the flare of flower petals, the chiming of the sacred bells, the cadence of the chanting..all come alive so majestically that it’s hard not to be enamoured.
For just Rs. 10, you can buy a ready-to-light diya (lamp) and light it as the Aarti progresses, to set it afloat on the river!
Kullad chai is a must have in Benares. We met a friendly chaiwala who gladly gave us a bunch of kullads to take home. A handful of crushed ginger steeping into chai boiling over in a dented kettle over a coal stove is the best thing you’ll set your eyes upon, whether it is at the crack of dawn or at dusk.
Only in Benares will you encounter friendly cops who show you the way to a cozy little nook where you will dig into the most delectable kachori-aloo saag at half past seven in the morning. Of course you’ll have to top that breakfast with piping hot jalebis and some dahi, if you fancy it, and thank the cop and all of creation for putting you in that place at that hour. Sunil’s Mishtan Bhandar is your go-to place for this burst of morning deliciousness.
Lunch at Granny’s Inn, prepared by the ever-obliging cook – Kashi, is sumptuous to say the least. Priced at Rs. 250 per head, it comes with salad, dal, two sabzis, rotis, and rice.
For snacks, you could try Deena’s Chaat shop, or any snack shack around the corner, where samosas and kachoris are ready just when you crave some.
One of our most favourite places to eat in was Niyati Cafe. Homestyle food peppered with the amicable banter and warmth of the owner, Ravi. We tried everything from Chowmein to Dal Fry and really loved it all.
The Brown Bread Bakery has some nice breads and cakes, for Christmas! It’s a wonderful little tuck shop to clock into when the morning is just opening up into endless possibilities, and when you need a break from the deep-fried desi goodies.
Baati Chokha is a delightful restaurant serving authentic UP style food: baati, chokha, rotis, rice, dal, chutneys, salad, churma, kheer. High on the spice and heat factors, the food is quite the grand feast and will definitely leave you asking for surplus dessert, even if you’re full to the gills. The ambience is warm and inviting, with charpoys and traditional murals, and the place is packed with throngs any given time of day.
Malaio is a typical Benarasi dessert, which is made particularly in the winter months, by exposing thick, creamy milk to the kohra or mist, under the wide open night sky. Then, in the morning, the milk is infused with badam (almond) powder, kesar (saffron), sugar, rabdi, and fresh cream, and whipped in a traditional churning device. The result is an almost non-existent, towering foam of cream. The subtlety of the sweetness makes this even more special as it melts into the depths of your mouth, tingling on the tongue for just a few seconds so you can discern its goodness. Ceremoniously washed down with badam milk, this is an ambrosial treat to the taste buds.
While we were at the Malaio-wala’s, we heard a bunch of people frantically asking for extra servings of kadhai doodh or skillet milk. That’s exactly how the milk is treated, at the malaio-wala’s, and eventually, how the rabdi is made, too.
We had several helpings of rabdi, alternating with hot jalebis, after dinner, when we would just take a stroll down the lane, taking in the aroma of burning coal and all kinds of food, ranging from deep-fried to slow-simmered. In fact, we met a lovely young couple who claimed that their late evening samosa binge was actually dessert, after a long hour of culinary exploration around the bylanes near the Vishwanath temple.
We cannot recommend Granny’s Inn, run by two adorable grannies – Asha & Aruna, enough. It is a charming home-stay with clean, well appointed rooms adorned with Benarasi silk curtains and fresh linen. The foyer, living and dining areas are filled with quirky wall art and plants potted in innovatively repurposed coke bottles, among other containers. The hosts are friendly and warm and make you feel right at home, always ready to guide and assist you in your plans. They’ll even organise a cab for you, if you wish to go on a day trip.
Sarnath, a 45-minute drive from the heart of Benares, is the site of Gautama Buddha’s first sermon after he attained enlightenment.
The place is buzzing with activity on any given day (save for Friday, when the museum is closed), and is dotted with monastic institutions and temples, a vast expanse of excavation ground which is home to the Ashoka pillar and several Buddhist relics dating back to the third Century BC.
The main attraction is the Dhamek Stupa, a massive commemorative structure of Buddha’s first sermon, inscribed with prayers in the Brahmi script. It stands tall against the flat expanse of land, marked with the ground-level archeaological finds.
The museum is across the street, and is filled with antiquities ranging in time from third century B.C. to twelfth century A.D. The exhibits range from sculptures of Buddha in sitting and standing positions, Vajrapani, Bodhisattva Padamapani – made from a variety of materials like red sandstone, chunar sandstone, etc. – to earthy objects like figures of birds, animals, everyday utensils. The biggest draw of the museum is perhaps the Lion Capital, India’s national emblem (the pillar-base is at the excavation site, and the head is at the museum), with its lustrous Mauryan polish, at 2.31 meters in height. (No cameras inside the museum).
There is also a unique and fascinating exhibit – a fragment of an umbrella, with an inscription from the Kushana period, depicting the four noble truths of Buddha’s first sermon at the deer park.
There are street vendors selling everything from artifacts to beaded jewelry around the museum, and many gift shops selling silks and souvenirs, too.
The streets leading upto the Ghats are filled with little shops and carts, selling a host of knickknacks, flowers, sweets, fabric, Puja paraphernalia, etc. Ambling down these streets and the gulleys they lead to could in itself be a great way to spend time and revel in the vibrant, eclectic appeal of Benares. You’ll likely encounter cows and their dung, motorcyclists and pedestrians, persistent hawkers and beggars, children and toys, monkeys and dogs, dilapidated buildings and cobwebbed windows..all along.
Some of the things we found are: sandalwood logs and powder, copper tumblers, rosary necklaces, beaded bracelets with Om motifs, wooden stamp blocks, Christmasy bells, scarves and stoles, German silver jewelry, and a stainless steel wire roaster, of all things under the sun. The seller of this roaster was kind enough to also provide a recipe for baingan bharta, in an effort to elaborate the utilitarian value of his ware.
All things considered, Benares can never get too much with you. As if the mesmerizing mornings and evenings on the Ghats aren’t enough, you’ll find that Benares has its heart in the right place outside of the Ganga too. Benares is alive 24 hours of the day, and its steady pulse will fill your heart, seemingly at the ready to fall into your dreams long after you’ve left its grip. Benares is the quilt of all this and much more that falls outside the realm of words, which you’ll want to wrap around you forever. Do go to Benares, and come back a little richer, and perhaps a little humbled.