Cursed and haunted, just five of the 108 intricately carved temples stand amidst the ruins at Kiradu near Barmer in Rajasthan
Banaras, or Varanasi, is famous for more reasons than one. Right from its status of being one of the oldest inhabited cities of the world to its spiritual connect, heritage, wandering monks seeking salvation, zari embroidery, food, architecture and the Ganges, I guess these are more than enough to tempt anyone to set out on a trip to the city. I decided to take the road that leads to Banaras, Uttar Pradesh from New Delhi. Spread along the banks of the river Ganges, Banaras is often described as India’s spiritual capital and rightfully so. Irrespective of the continuous influx of tourists from across the globe, the place holds enough magic to delight and create intrigue in the minds of the even the most well-trodden travellers. Banaras spells its charm on a person along with the various ghats and temples that make it a special place. From the Assi Ghat up to the Shri Panch Agni Akhara Ghat, there are total 88 ghats, and most of them are used for ritual ceremonies and holy dips.
My first encounter with the soul of Banaras is more spiritual than religious. I witnessed the evening Ganga aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, closest to the Vishwanath Temple, the main temple of the city. A group of priests perform the “agni pooja” (worship to fire) dedication to Lord Shiva, River Ganges, Surya (Sun), Agni (Fire) and the entire universe. The whole ceremony is hypnotic and the synchronisation of the priests astonished me. Next was the Manikarnika Ghat, one of the most soul-stirring moments I ever had. Also known as the cremation ghat, Manikarnika Ghat is the holiest place for the final death rituals as per Hindu mythology and it is believed that the person attains salvation when burnt here after dying. I was fortunate to witness this ultimate celebration of life so closely. After a moving evening, I checked in to my stay in the city, Brijrama Palace hotel. A heritage property built after renovating a 200-year-old palace built by the King of Darbhanga. It allows the visitors get close to the royal way of living. The food of Banaras has enough vibrancy to keep you engaged. I tried the famous tamatar (tomato) chaat , aloo (potato) chaat and the kulfi faluda and knew why no other state can beat Uttar Pradesh when it comes to the soul-satisfying street food.
Nearly an hour-drive from Banaras is Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first sermon to the five disciples and where the Buddhist Sangha came into existence through the enlightenment of Kondanna. In the third century BC, Emperor Ashoka had magnificent stupas and monasteries, as well as an engraved pillar, erected in Sarnath which holds equal importance to the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. Though most of them are in ruins now, they are still worth visiting. The walls of Mulagandhakuti Vihara, Sri Lankan Buddhist temple, house murals documenting the life of Gautam Buddha. Visiting the Archaeological Museum educated me about Buddhism and how it influenced the world, teachings of non-violence, important dates and more. The journey that started with a soul-stirring experience in Banaras ended on a soul-soothing moment in Sarnath.