Out of Delhi (825km)
Words AURELIA FERNANDES
Photographs T KRISHNA PRABAKAR
It’s hard to not conjure up images of Dashashwamedh Ghat when you think of Varanasi – thronged by devotees, the air filled with incense and the sound of prayers. The Ganga aarti is a phenomenon like no other but, unless your faith is deeply rooted and you have no fear of massive crowds, finding a spot to witness this one-of-a-kind act of faith is close to impossible.
There is one way to witness an aarti that is almost as impressive in its glory, but it comes at a price – waking up really early to make it in time for the 5am aarti at Assi Ghat. While all the fanfare remains the same, there’s barely any crowd to brave, so you’re sure to absorb the act of devotion in absolute peace. Once you’ve received your blessings, start your day off with a cup of piping-hot lemon chai, sold by the hawkers on the ghat, who will try their best to convince you that tea with lime juice trumps tea with milk – and almost succeed. Once you’ve warmed yourself up, hop on a boat and catch the sun rising over the Ganga as it bathes the river in a warm glow. Watch out for river traffic and wave at fellow travellers as you gently cruise along. When you pass the ghats, you’ll spot people busy with their morning rituals, beginning their day with prayers. Keep your eyes peeled for the famed Manikarnika Ghat, at which bodies are cremated. While you won’t see any funerals in the morning, the Shiva temple, with its red walls covered in layers of soot, looks otherworldly. You’ll also come across the Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple, popularly known as the leaning temple of Varanasi – take a picture, it makes for a nice photo-op. When you get off the boat, get ready to witness a true-blue desi workout. On your way to Tulsi Akhada and at the akhada itself, you’ll find young boys and girls training under the watchful eye of a seasoned pehelwan. As you’ll find out, there are spots within the akhada itself that are deemed sacred – be mindful. Watching the athletes take each other on is certainly going to leave you with an appetite, so head next to Om Shree Ram Bhandar for some piping-hot kachori sabji and jalebis. Once you’ve had your fill, swing by the Weaver’s Colony in Lallapura, to catch Varanasi’s famed artisans in action. Watch their hands rhythmically move with practised precision, carefully and delicately weaving thread into works of art.
If you still have some energy left, make way to Lassi Corner, to indulge in a glass of its deliciously thick lassi, topped with a generous serving of malai. A few steps away is a tiny paan shop that has a fan following of its own. One bite of the crunchy betel-leaf parcel and you’ll be convinced that the hype is real. If you’re not ready to end the day just yet, get on a boat again and sail towards Dashashwamedh Ghat, to catch the evening aarti. While you might not be able to secure a place on the ghat, the boat affords an interesting vantage point too. It’s a fitting way to bid goodbye to the devout city – watching the compelling show of devotion as you stay afloat on the Ganga before joining in the prayers and asking for a few blessings yourself.