I had two alternative routes to get to Varanasi from Gorakhpur – the route via Azamgarh and that via Mau. I plumbed for the latter as it is nomenclatured NH29. Pradeep had warned me the previous evening that the ride up to Dohrighat would be rough, and it turned out to be so. When I crossed the River Saryu and the Muktipath I thought I would ride on in comfort. It did not turn out that way. Intermittently the road condition used to worsen to the point of wondering if I will ever get to a continuously good stretch. The road was better after Mau and more so after Gazipur. However, the minute I came into the vicinity of Varanasi, I hit a bottle neck. The mix of traffic was so astonishing and agonizing. I was ‘stampeded’ by buffaloes in a small road, where traffic was diverted to. I could do nothing but watch the whole episode with a smile and a prayer on my lips. I wondered if I would ever find my way to the Varanasi railway station, where Pradeep had arranged for Dwivedi to meet me and conduct me around the various local sights. I suddenly happened to be in front of the railway station – the façade of the station is very striking – and I cannot explain the relief from 45 minutes of the most excruciating drive. I would strongly suggest a DDr, a doctorate in driving, to be awarded to those who can drive in the cities of Patna and Varanasi for 24 hours each without being grazed, driven into or even mauled. However, honking produces results in Varanasi, unlike in Patna. Those it is intended for glance at you, show you a hand to mean that they will continue on their merry drive and seek your indulgence! No wonder, Varanasi (Kasi) is arguably the most continuously lived in city in the whole world. Tolerance levels are very high and everything and everybody has a place on the road.
After lunch we set out for the Durga Temple, to start our local sightseeing. The Temple, as most other temples in Varanasi, are out of bounds for non-Hindus. The Temple was also under heavy guard, with the recent bomb explosion at one of the ghats. There is a history of bomb explosions in Varanasi in the recent past. The gated tank offers very good views of the temple from the outside. The Sankat Mochan is a Hanuman Temple and it is believed that praying here is a sure way of relieving yourself of tensions and grief. The Kasi Viswanath Temple, built in 1776, is the most visited in the city. The temple has 800 kgs of gold on its domes and tower. The temple is heavily fortified and security is extremely heavy. Next to the temple is a huge mosque, which was built by Aurangzeb over a razed temple. Post Babri Mazjid, the mosque is heavily protected. The Kasi Viswanath lane leading to the temple is one of the most colorful you can be to with all sorts of religious and personal effects sold in the shops there.
The next destination was the ghats. We went to the Dasawamedh ghat first, primarily because it was in the news just a few days back for the bomb explosion at the ghat. The two Dasawamedh ghats have the most eye catching Ganges arthis; they are the most popular spots to visit in the evening. Before witnessing the aarthis I decided on a boat ride. Fortunately I got Sonu and his boat. The young fellow was a wonderful guide for the ghat visit. The Ganges is full of boats, powered and non-powered. Theer were quite a few foreign tourists too. The stories and facts behind the establishment of the numerous ghats are educative and illuminating. A few of them are:
· Harishchandra – Believed to be the ghat where he undertook cremations after collecting his dues. it is second in importance to the Manikarnika ghat for cremations. It also has two electric crematoriums for the poor.
· Dasaswamedh – Brahma is supposed to have sacrificed ten horses at this place, which gives the ghat its name.
· Munshi – used by Munshi Premchand.
· Mansarovar and Man mandir – built by Raja Man Singh of Amber, Rajashtan.
· Kukat Ganga – the temple slants into the River; believed to be a mother’s curse. Two restorations failed to correct the slant.
· Manikarnika – Shiva is said to have laid a curse on the ghat, when he could not retrieve the earrings of Parvathi, that there would be a body being cremated at the ghat all through the day and night. It is said that at this ghat, the principal cremation ghat, fire has never gone out, even in the monsoons. Dead bodies are handled by ‘doms’.
· Narada – The dirtiest and a totally deserted ghat is the Narada ghat. It is believed that Narada left ‘chuglis’ at the ghat after a bath there, due to which even the best of friends and the closest of relations will fall out with each other immediately after a bath at this ghat. Hence, neither does anyone bathe at this ghat nor does it get cleaned.
The Maha Aarthi between 6.15 and 7.15 pm is a must see. It is done on both the Dasaswamedh ghats, one has five aarthi bearers and the other seven. The ghats are jam packed on the shore and in front of it by boats. The rhythm and the grace of the aarti bearers has to be seen to be believed. The aarthi can be enjoyed on the ghat as well as from a boat. A wonderful end to an eventful day.