The sound of the motor guiding the bajra through the water was loud. Loud enough to drown out any other sound that could compete—the laughter from the ghats, the train rushing along the tracks on the lower deck of the Malviya Bridge, or even the lapping of water against the boat. We cruised along without a care in the world. I didn’t mind. It gave me a chance to gather the thoughts whirling about in my mind.

I was introduced to the paradoxical city of Varanasi during my formative years. As my mother would read aloud Satyajit Ray’s Feluda stories to get me to sleep, it had been ‘Joi Baba Felunath’ that had caught my attention, apart from ‘Sonar Kella’, of course. Durga Puja was around the corner, and Feluda had stated that Kashi was a second home to Bengalis. The descriptions of narrow alleyways, religious men, abandoned century-old buildings, and Feluda’s shrewd outmanoeuvering of his businessman nemesis; scenes would play out vividly in my head, keeping drowsy eyes open way past bedtime.

Older than ancient, Kashi’s mysticism has always attracted visitors. American novelist Mark Twain described the city in 1897 as ‘older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together’—and he had a point. Varanasi’s history makes it a complex religio-mythological construct, requiring practised navigation skills and a keen eye to peel off each intertwined layer.

One of the oldest living cities in the world, the religious say it was Shiva, the destroyer of evil among the Trimurti, who had founded it 5,000 years ago; historians opine it is about 3,000 years old. Later in the 8th century, Adi Shankaracharya’s teachings established the belief that death in the holy land would provide salvation from the cycle of birth and rebirth—a bath in the Ganga washing away all sins. Varanasi is an equally important Buddhist location, as Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon after achieving enlightenment, is just 10 kilometres away. For Jains, it is believed Parshvanath, the 23rd tirthankara, was born here.

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A view of the city and its iconic ghats
A view of the city and its iconic ghats

Modernity came about in the 18th century. The Marathas—the Scindias, Holkars and Peshwas—came and built ghats along the Ganga as an act of power. Other rulers followed suit as they gained autonomy from the waning Mughal Empire. Coming from Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and even Nepal, their locals created the eclectic mix that is the population of Varanasi. The current royal family claims descent from Shiva, but can trace their lineage to a zamindar in the 18th-century, adding another dimension to the population.

The city dons many hats—cultural capital, revered centre of learning, trade, and spirituality, and a hotspot for medicine, yoga, and music; Varanasi has propounded multitudes through the ages. Banaras Hindu University’s founder Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, novelist Prem Chand, saint-poet Tulsi Das, music maestros Ustaad Bismillah Khan and Ravi Shankar—at different points in time, they have all called Varanasi home.

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The young participate in a Hindu ceremony at sunrise
The young participate in a Hindu ceremony at sunrise

As we cruised down the Ganga, Varanasi’s richly interwoven past came alive in its 80 ghats (four more have been added) that give a taste of the city’s history, culture and beliefs. Filmmakers have used them as focal points for storytelling, writers describe its details to make books come alive, locals depend on their livelihood against this backdrop, while for tourists, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime getaway.

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Sadhus or Indian holy men in Varanasi
Sadhus or Indian holy men in Varanasi

We crossed many other bajras—in them were families, groups of friends, tourists, photographers, and of course, locals. In olden times when the city wasn’t as crowded as it is today, I would imagine photographers and artists going about documenting everyday life. Not much has changed today, as SLRs and paintbrushes have been replaced by powerful digital cameras and smartphones. On every bajra there was at least one person photographing the ghats that make Varanasi instantly recognisable.

It was my second day in Varanasi, and after a crash course in history, spending the day on the water seemed a good idea. The narrow alleyways in the city are too crowded; no matter how hard you try to memorise a path, you eventually get lost, as I did earlier in the day en route the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Thankfully, a pandit ji was kind enough to take out some time and give me a quick tour that proved fruitful.

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Religious objects carried by devotees can be spotted on the ghats
Religious objects carried by devotees can be spotted on the ghats

Despite waking up at the crack of dawn to see one of the most revered temples in the world, looking at the long line of devotees at the entrance made me think I had arrived too late. “This line? There are hardly any people,” said the amused pandit ji. “Come in an hour’s time, and then you’ll see what a line is.” The gold-plated domes and spires caught the light of the morning sun, as we jostled our way past security. The devotees are firm in their faith, coming from far and wide to catch a glimpse of the Shivalinga inside. They are driven by the belief that a darshan of this Jyotirlanga (one of twelve holy Shiva temples) and a dip in the holy waters will help them attain moksha. A darshan at Kashi Vishwanath led to experiencing the holy in two other temples in the city: the Durga Mandir, and the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple. Both fall high under the purview of Hindu worshippers, who flock here from around the world. While the former is more abuzz with chants, holy smoke and innumerable devotees, the latter is peaceful, shaded, and less crowded—or maybe that was just my perception? Varanasi’s famous laal pedas are offered to Sankat Mochan to alleviate all trouble and suffering. I saw most comply with the belief, as they brought sweets to lead a healthier life henceforth. While I don’t possess a sweet tooth, I had received firm instructions to bring back a box for a friend—an absolute non-believer, he had spent his formative years in the holy city.

With religion taking a backseat, it was time to explore other aspects of the city—history and culture. Not used to waking up at the crack of dawn without any nourishment, I was famished; a cup of coffee would definitely not power me through the day. Making my way towards the Banaras Hindu University, I came across a hole in the wall shop, where an aged gentleman was busy frying kachoris and a younger man, selling them. Two plates of kachori-sabzi later, I felt the need to know the name of this place and give a recommendation to others. “Madam, we have no name, but the shop is over a hundred years old!” they laughed.

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Lassi is a yogurt-based drink garnished with almonds, pistachio slivers and saffron
Lassi is a yogurt-based drink garnished with almonds, pistachio slivers and saffron

The Banaras Hindu University seemed cut off from the dusty city; greenery, peace and quiet greet you once you enter the gates and make your way to the museum (Bharat Kala Bhavan). Not just art by famous artists like MF Hussain and Jamini Roy, the museum also houses a priceless collection of decorative arts, textiles, excavated artefacts and of course, miniature paintings. It’s the collection on which the fame of this place rests. Left to myself, I could spend hours in there, but it was time for another excursion. The Ramnagar Fort is further away from the city, but the 17th-century palace is now connected by a bridge that makes commute easy. The palace itself is well maintained, but the museum was a disappointment. Covered in layers of dust, vintage American cars, palanquins, arms, textiles, and even a superbly restored astrological clock are on display. It’s a glimpse of the royal life of yore. However, it wasn’t the fort that attracted me, but the lassi shop outside. An earthen glass filled to the brim with delicious, creamy lassi and rabri was exactly what I needed to relinquish my thirst.

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Banarasi brocade, high quality silk being woven on a loom
Banarasi brocade, high quality silk being woven on a loom

Varanasi’s handloom heritage goes back centuries.A hub of intricate precision since the Mughal era,when weavers had migrated from erstwhile Persia,the Banarasi brocade is pure handcrafted luxury with an international following. And with Indian designers working closely with weavers, the Banarasi silk has undergone a transformation. My mother had come here with her family over 35 years ago in search of the perfect Banarasi silk sari for her wedding, as was the tradition among my lot back then. I don’t believe she’s worn it after, but the rich blue cloth added a radiance to her face that still shines through the wedding photographs after all these years. “You should get a sari too,” she had said before I left for the holy city. While searching for one in shops saves time, it robs you of the Varanasi experience.

In the heat of the afternoon, I found myself in a little lane heading to a house, when a handloom near its entrance caught my attention. A weaver had taken his position on the loom; using the deft movement of his fingers and feet, he pieced together a design on yards of beautiful pink. It’s a family-run business, and the younger son came forward when I entered the showroom. Mesmerised by the shades of magenta, violet, green and so on, my heart leapt with joy. I fell in love right there, touching and feeling the exquisite handmade pieces. However, as far as affordability goes, one needs to find and lock down a range, as I did for my own.

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Ganga aarti in the morning
Ganga aarti in the morning
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One of many shops near the Manikarnika Ghat lane that sell goods for last rites
One of many shops near the Manikarnika Ghat lane that sell goods for last rites

This brings us back to the moment on the bajra. Headspinning with knowledge, collecting my thoughts became an effort, when suddenly the boatsman cut the engine. “Manikarnika Ghat,” he pointed, as we drifted closer. The funeral pyres are always lit on this ghat, amplified by a persistent smell of death and decay—it’s said one attains salvation after being cremated here. I thought of the celebration nearby I had witnessed the previous evening—the Ganga aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat. The devotees’ offerings of lit candles and flowers, floating on the water; priests chanting and singing as lamps were offered to the goddess to gain her blessings; their intricate hand movements as the beacons of light were held high; the masses who gather to witness it—the aarti is as unique as it gets.

Varanasi is beyond comprehension. Life and death coexist, and celebrations make way in the middle. Royalty and commoners have co-mingled; devotees and non-believers have no trouble getting along. A city as old as time, Varanasi needs a first-hand experience, at least once in one’s lifetime.

The Information

Getting There
Air India flies directly from New Delhi to Varanasi. Direct connections from Kolkata, Hyderabad and Mumbai are also available.

Where to Stay
Varanasi has options across all budgets. I highly recommend the luxurious Brijrama Palace (approx. from 15,000; Darbhanga Ghat; brijrama.com).

Where to Eat
No restaurant serves alcohol and non-vegetarian fare in Varanasi. For breakfast, head to one of the many little corner shops serving kachori-sabzi and sweet jalebi. Wash it down with fresh lassi from Shiv Prasad Lassi Bhandar (Ramnagar Fort).

What to See & Do
>The morning Ganga aarti at Assi Ghat; evening aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat.

>Take a bajra (boat) ride along the Ganga.

>Visit the peaceful Banaras Hindu University grounds and museum, and soak in the art (Entry: 20).

>The Ramnagar Fort and museum (Entry: 50).

>The Manikarnika Ghat hosts Hindu cremations daily, all throughout the year. The setting can be sombre and macabre, but it is very popular so let it be a personal choice.

>Kashi Vishwanath Temple is one of the holiest religious sites.

>Sarnath, 10 km away from Varanasi, is the famous location where Buddha preached his first sermon after gaining enlightenment; visit the stupa and museum (Entry: 20).

>Buy a handloom Banarasi silk sari. The Chowk area has several traditional stores.