Banaras is an ancient city, but it is also a living one and, like all living things, it changes. Whenever I can, I come to Banaras, to stay by the river Ganga at Assi, traditionally the southern limit of the city. Here, for centuries, cows have plodded over the mud bank down to the river and provided the milk that makes the city’s sweets so special.
This time as I walked down to the ghat, I was in for a shock. An old building on the corner had been demolished and become a mini-mall. There was a new parking lot over the former Assi stream, and new marble-floored pavilions where young men were enthusiastically encouraging a group of chess-players. The cool breeze of the Ganga caressed my face as I wandered open-mouthed on to a broad sandstone ghat stretching along a riverbank that had been bare earth a few months ago. In the distance another ghat was under construction. “Bahut badhiya hai, it’s very good, isn’t it?” remarked a sadhu sitting nearby. “And that’s the new Sant Ravidas Ghat they’re building.” Sant Ravidas was born in Banaras, the son of an untouchable leather worker. He became a saint and is held in high regard especially by Dalits and by Sikhs as his verses are included in the Guru Granth Sahib. The new ghat was a sign of the social and physical changes taking place in the city.
Across the Ganga, the familiar round towers of the Ramnagar fort of the King of Banaras glowed in the evening light. The white road bridge beyond had not rendered the pontoon bridge redundant and cyclists made their way over the river that is the glory of Banaras. Comforting and cleansing, the Ganga flows northwards in a great arc. The city and ghats lie on her western shore facing sandbanks, which in this season are planted with khira, kakri and melons.
The evenings on Assi Ghat are special. The most delicious tea can be bought for three rupees and two excellent chaat stalls do brisk business. The atmosphere is companionable and cosmopolitan. The city has for thousands of years been a place of pilgrimage and learning, and outsiders have always been welcomed. Assi in particular attracts people from abroad, and very often the most unassuming souls turn out to be formidable scholars specialising in Indian arts or languages. Sitting on the steps of the ghat, I fell into conversation with two young residents of the city, one a student studying for his Masters in Computers, and another who had never been to school and had just lost his job in silk printing thanks to new technology. Employment was a subject they both had on their minds, and they were also united in their appreciation of their city. People here are ‘smiley,’ they said, they live in and enjoy the present.
Our conversation was interrupted by the beginning of the evening aarti. At Assi this is a miniature version of the spectacular ceremony at the main Dasaswamedh Ghat in the centre of the city. There a great line of priests simultaneously sway great pyramids of blazing oil lamps in worship of the goddess Ganga, to the sound of many bells and gongs. On Assi, one young pandit, the string of crystal beads round his neck reflecting the flames of the lamps, performed the ceremony while spectators were handed flower petals to throw into the sacred river. It was a little regimented, and as I held my handful of petals, I looked beyond to where a lone woman, the anchal of her sari covering her head, held one small earthen lamp in the palm of her hand and circled it before the river. Somehow that sight was much more moving. As someone once remarked, you cannot buy simplicity.
Women are very much custodians of tradition in Banaras. Even in the cold month of Magh, they come at sunrise to bathe in the river and offer flowers, light, incense and water to the 10 Shivlings and the images of Hanuman, Vishnu and the goddess beneath the pipal tree on Assi Ghat. In temples, in innumerable shrines and all along the riverbank, similar offerings are made. Exquisite images dot every part of the city. Even a simple orange stone decorated with two white eyes with black pupils can astound you with its beauty. The 20th-century artist and scholar Alice Boner, who settled in Banaras, explained their impact by saying, “The primary purpose of sacred images is not to give aesthetic enjoyment, but to serve as focal points for the spirit. They should, and that is their ultimate intent, lead back to meditation and the comprehension of that transcendent reality from which they were born. If they are beautiful, it is because they are true.”
Another name for Banaras is ‘Kashi’, Shiva’s city of light, and his Vishwanath temple is the central point of pilgrimage. There is a saying, ‘Every pebble of Kashi is Shiv Shankar’ and the proliferation of his symbols makes it seem so. I often find it difficult to find time to remember God even for five minutes during the day; in Banaras the landscape reminds me constantly of the eternal. It helps me to put myself in place and the problems of life in proportion.
Early next morning I set off by boat to experience the unmatched ‘Subah-e-Banaras’. It was misty and the sun rose a sober saffron disc sending a trail of orange light across the milky waters of the river. One after the other, rose the steep stone steps of the ghats, ending in manmade cliffs of golden sandstone, buttressed with round, angled or scalloped towers above which were ashrams and palaces, their bracketed balconies supporting pillars of various designs. These contrasted with the towering shikharas, like clusters of miniature mountains, with their golden pinnacles. On the ghats themselves were the living heritage of the city — the bathers and worshippers.
In the thousands of years of its history the city has been destroyed many times and the ghats as we see them today are largely the result of a great building drive begun in the 18th century by Indian rulers such as Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore. But the rulers from all over India and from Nepal who endeavoured to establish themselves in this city of salvation, were inspired by ancient architecture and built in a way that was in perfect harmony with the city’s traditions. The local stone they used gave a unity to the buildings and the scale of the enterprise made it a wonder of the world.
We passed the great gateway of Chait Singh, named after the king of Banaras who chased the British out of the city in the 18th century, the busiest ghat, Dasaswamedh, and Manikarnika with its sacred pool believed to have been dug and filled by Vishnu himself at the time of the creation of the universe. A city of small shrines covered the steps of Panchganga Ghat. Drifting to the limit of the sacred city we reached the temple of Vishnu known as Adi Keshav. Here the stone ghats end and fishermen spread out their nets. The trees and yellow mustard flowers reminded me that one name of Banaras was Anand Van — the forest of bliss where Shiva and Parvati wandered together.
Adi Keshav is one of the shrines visited by pilgrims following the 55km long Panchkroshi parikrama around the outer boundary of the sacred city. For the faithful, Kashi is mapped by spiralling pilgrimage routes and the Panchkroshi is one of the most important. Ideally this pilgrimage should be made on foot, but for those who don’t have the time, but do cherish the desire, there is a way honouring the whole of Kashi, and thereby the whole world, in a few short steps.
Hidden down a narrow lane in the heart of the city, surrounded by tall buildings, stands a red temple in characteristic Banaras style — a triple-arched mandap with the sanctum beyond. This unique building — nobody knows when it was built or by whom—is the Panchkroshi temple, the pilgrimage in miniature. As I circumambulated the temple I passed niches, each of which held a carved stone image representing one of the pilgrimage’s 108 shrines. There were other temples represented too — 301 in all. In one niche Ganesh rode on a rat as big as himself and in another Kal Bhairav, a form of Shiva, stood with his club and dog. I had never visited this temple before and was thrilled to discover it.
Before leaving the city, I climbed Tulsi Ghat, another of my favourite places. Here in the early 17th century Tulsidas completed the Ramcharitmanas. Now-adays it is home to the head priest of the Sankat Mochan temple, the most important Hanuman temple of the city. Behind me wrestlers exercised on the earthen floor of an akhara. In the shade of a pipal tree sat a young man dressed in a simple white cotton dhoti and kurta and a distinguished grey-haired gentleman who seemed strangely familiar.
He was in fact none other than Pandit Ajay Pahonkar, one of the great vocalists of Hindustani classical music, who had come from Mumbai to pay his respects to the Mahant. He told me what attracted him most to Banaras. “I find in this city all the authentic culture of India and real affection. I can forget the world that has forgotten what it is to be truly human. Here there are no pretensions, social or otherwise. You are accepted for what you are as a human being, not for your wealth or position. See,” he gestured to his companion, “he is a wealthy businessman and I a leading artist and we are sitting together on the ground. It is God who brings us together.”
On the ghats below, boatloads of villagers from Sarguja district of Chhattisgarh mingled with parties of Sikh followers of Guru Ravidas. The sacred city had brought them together too — as it does all who come here. Truly, there is nowhere like Kashi, the City of Light.
Banaras is connected by air to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Khajuraho. Banaras’s airport is 22km from Banaras, and a taxi to the city will cost Rs 500. By train, it’s easier to reach Mughalsarai, 17km from the city.
Banaras is a great city for walking, especially on the ghats and in the thousands of lanes. Boats can be hired by the hour, many now come with diesel engines. Cycle rickshaws are the best option for the city with autorickshaws and hired cars for longer distances.
Where to stay
High-end The cantonment on the north of the city has a good range of luxury hotels. Clarks (Rs 5,000-10,000; 0542-2501011-20, www.clarkshotels.com) is one of the oldest and has the advantage of the heritage Peshwa ki Haveli on the ghats for guests to visit. The Radisson (Rs 5,000-11,000; 2501515, 1-800-1800-333 (toll-free), www.radisson.com/varanasiin) is one of the newest. There is also the Gateway Hotel Ganges (Nadesar Palace Grounds; Rs 4,050-8,200; 2503001, www.thegatewayhotels.com).
Mid-range There are good mid-range hotels overlooking the Ganges. Among the best are: Hotel Alka (Mir Ghat; Rs 350-1,575; 2401681, www.hotelalkavns.com), Palace on the Ganges (Assi Ghat; Rs 3,500; 2315050, 2314304), Hotel Ganges View (Assi Ghat; Rs 2,500-3,500; 2313218, www.hotelgangesview.com) Shiva Ganges View (Mansarovar Ghat; from Rs 2,500, 2450063, www.varanasiguesthouse.com).
Budget There are plenty of these all along the ghats and near the Vishwanath Mandir. If you want to be round the corner from the temple try Yogi Lodge (Kalika Gali, Dasaswamedh; Rs 60-350; 2392588). On the ghats try Vishnu Guest House (Pandey Ghat; Rs 350; 2450206).
Where to eat
The hotels and guesthouses provide excellent food, often authentic vegetarian. Bars and non-vegetarian food are readily available in the upmarket hotels of the cantonment. You can find Middle-Eastern, Japanese and pizzerias in the most unexpected places. However, nothing can beat the local lassi and the snacks or the sweets — try them at Ram Bhandara in Chowk.
What to see & do
See the ghats by boat. If you take one from Assi you can drift all the way down to Adi Keshav, where the Varuna river joins the Ganga. In the evening you can moor at Dasaswamedh to see the celebrated aarti of the Ganga there.
Banaras has amazing built heritage in its temples and residences, though much of it is dilapidated or modernised.
Walking is also the only way to enjoy the famous Vishwanath Gali, which sells everything that sparkles and shines for worship and secular use, including bangles, suits and saris.
No visit to Banaras is complete without a trip to Manikarnika Ghat. There is a great view of the Ghat from the Rajput Palace containing Man Singh’s Observatory, which is open to the public.
The leafy campus of Banaras Hindu University is shaded by giant trees and has a wonderful museum of art and archaeology Bharat Kala Bhavan (11am-4.30pm). The galleries have on show stone sculpture from ancient Banaras.
Sarnath Buddha preached his first sermon a few kilometres to the north of the city and the stupa and deer garden there are not to be missed.
Ramnagar The museum and fort of the King of Banaras are also open to the public and make a fitting climax to a boat trip across the river