According to the Hindu scriptures and texts, Banaras is referred as the center of the Earth. Mark Twain during his stay in India quoted ‘Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.’
Kashi/Banaras/Banares/Varanasi whatever you call it, the mystic experience never seems to end. No matter what part of the world you come from this city accepts you as a human and makes you a part of its own aura. There is a certain yet unknown reason that people wander off from faraway places and decide to stay here longer than they wanted to. According to the legends this city was created by Shiv and Parvati at the place where they stood at the beginning of time, hence the center of the Earth. Every traveler I met here during my stay in this city they described their experience with Banaras as passionate, divine and crazy and this feeling grew up on me during my stay for a week.
Banaras is like a maze, it keeps unfolding itself and every time you set to explore this maze it unfolds and presents something new in front of you. Banaras is as old as it can be and as new as you want it to be. My first impression of Banaras was like any other holy tourist spot in India. Crowded streets, hotels, auto rikshaws running around and lot of restaurants is what one identifies this city on first introduction. It follows with dirt, animals walking around and during monsoons there will be mud everywhere on the street. The first character of this city lies in absolute chaos that follows with divine peace.
As much as I was disturbed with the chaos I slowly became equally fascinated with different aspects of this city – culture, food, music, diversity and divinity, did I say food? Oh yes, the food, a part of Banaras that could have stopped me for a lifetime with the variety and till date I am not satisfied with my food hunting trail here. The narrow lanes are another part of Banaras’ character, these lanes have oldest of houses that have survived more than 100 years and they still exist. Life and death co-exist at the same time at this place and slowly the craziness in chaos turns into a spiritual kind.
During my stay in Banaras, I never missed visiting the river banks or ghats every morning and evening. The nature of the ghats simply changes as the day passes by. Visitors normally stay at Assi ghat because of some cool cafes and cheap guest houses and from here they visit nearby ghats like Dasaswamedh and Manikarnika. Boats go there but a frequent visitor like me would choose to go on foot and experience the constant newness of the city with passing time. The religious spirit is another thing that gives this place a character, it can be as simple as someone offering water to the rising sun or a woman praying in front of a tree or as complex as Ganga aarti in the evening.
The people of Banaras add another charm to the nature and character Banaras. Often described as Akkad or fakkad (careless or rebellious) these people are known as thugs and cheats. They’ll misguide you and ask you 100 rs for something that is worth 20 bucks only with a confidence that for once even you’ll trust them. You’ll find these regular Banarasis as a tea shop or another. They are never in a hurry for anything. With a cup of tea in hand, these people meet every morning and evening and indulge into endless discussions about sports, politics and whatever they can talk about. Surprisingly for being much akkad and fakkad most of the residents easily speak English along with French, German and Hebrew.
People come here from all parts of the world. Visitors from India come here for holy purposes and from abroad in search of meaning of life and mystery of death. The foreign crowd shows more of a curiosity here wanting to know more about India, the concept of many gods and rituals. They stay here for a long time learning yoga or music and slowly become a part of this city.
Here I found life in death and peace in chaos, the last evening in Banaras was spent watching the moon descend over the Ganges while a lot of people wandered around, playing guitar, singing or simply looking at the flowing river endlessly. I looked at the city that glowed in the moonlight around me that I had to say good bye the next morning and proceed further.