Benares, the Holy City; thus ran a hoarding right outside the magnificent building of the Varanas Railway Station, welcoming one to this eastern Uttar Pradesh city on the western banks of the Ganges. Benares or Varanas is ancient as probably India itself, to be precious 5000 years old. And it seems to still live a few years in the past.
It is not just a city; it is an experience in itself. An experience like no other especially for us Delhi-bred variety of youngsters who are so used to big cars, bigger malls wide roads and branded stuff. In many ways, it is an eye opener; it opens you to the other side of India. The side, which we choose to ignore or simply are ignorant of. It’s like any other small town in India but it still has its own distinct unique heartbeat.
For starters, there are no traffic laws. By ‘no’ I really mean none at all! (At least so it seems.) The roads are flooded with rickshaws, cycles, two-wheelers and auto rickshaws. And if you are lucky you may spot a Zen or a Santro (sedans probably don’t even exist!) To cross the road just raise your arm and signal the driver of the rickshaw or auto, and he shall oblige with pleasure. And of course no helmets and no speed limits are there. People go at their own sweet pace, hey are never in a hurry. The upside of this is: no road rage and a city that is safe for women ;( even for riding scooters.) The drivers are also friendly and helpful, with no intentions of thugging you; and simply love playing ‘guide’ to their passengers. One particularly chatty auto-rickshaw driver took us, with great enthusiasm, to a road side tea stall that served tea in earthen cups called ‘kullhars’. (And it was by far the best tea I have ever had.) He even gave me a detailed description of the latest Bhojpuri movies and film stars with utmost excitement. It is this small town spirit and warm heartedness that touches you, some thing that the metropolitans had lost a long time back.
And how can I not mention about the abundance (rather over-abundance) of cattle that live and litter on the streets. To cows, bulls and buffaloes add pigs, dogs, goats and monkeys and there is a mini-zoo on every road. And enough dung to actually solve India’s energy crisis! As with most old cities the streets are narrow, the houses small and the shops smaller. But the hearts are big and warm.
Varanas in many ways is a city that believes in large numbers. Large number of temples (every corner, every crossroad, every nukkad has a temple), large number of foreigners, numerous ghats and numerous communities. Bengalis, Marathis, Punjabis, Muslims, and Hindu Brahmins all live together and work together. During the festive season, the women shop for Eid and Diwali together. The Ganges serves as a conflux for the various communities. It is a sight to behold when hundreds of people take their dip in its holy waters each morning, as it stretches for miles embracing the golden hued horizon. Ironically the city drain also flows into this very river adding to the pollution created by washing of clothes, bathing of cattle and immersing remains of the dead. It is indeed a sorry sight. The ghats are ancient stone steps that have survived many a centuries and paint a contrasting canvas of ‘dhoti clad’ sadhus and Brahmins alongside foreigners, with digital cameras, out here to capture the Indian spirit. They come from countries as diverse as the US, Russia, France, Germany, Poland, South Africa and Sri Lanka as backpackers to study Indian culture and history, (and for other things as well!)
Amongst the may hem of this bustling and noisy city, The Benares Hindu University serves as an oasis. Pristine, peaceful and beautiful; is the ideal description of the campus. The massive university covering 1300 acres, not only has state-of-the-art residential and recreational facilities, but also a handsome temple for lord Shiva, built by the Birlas. Popularly known as VT (an abbreviation for Vishwanath Temple), it is the tallest Hindu Temple of India. Unlike other Hindu temples that are dirty and noisy, it has an aura of peace and tranquility that drenches you to your soul.
Benares is a city set back in time, but by no means it is backward. What a welcome sight it is to a hardcore Delhite like me to see a McDonalds and yes, even a multiplex! Varanas now has three-four big malls sporting all the major national and international brands. The mall culture sure has spread far and wide!
Let me now conclude my monologue on Varanas by saying that it is a quirky city with a life and soul of its own, which is unique to it. It is like a melting pot of myriad cultures, traditions and ideologies that ultimately exist in a very homogenous manner. One cannot call it a ‘must visit’, but for someone who likes a bit of adventure and wants to appreciate the diversity of this country in a true sense, Benares beckons you.