Tuesday, December 11, 2012

November Trip to Varanasi (Benares)

How do you describe Varanasi? I recently told an Indian friend of mine that it's like "the rest of India is a Cafe Latte...and Varanasi is like espresso".  It's concentrated. "India on steroids".  One-hundred-and-fifteen years ago, Mark Twain perhaps said it the best: "Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together". (1897)

It is a city that I have wanted to visit for many, many years.  It probably was not that high on Amy's list...but I had been telling her since we arrived in India that I was not going to leave this place until I had seen Varanasi. We had some time over the Thanksgiving (U.S.) holiday...so we booked a trip with Eve at Fugazi Travel once again.  Thank you, Eve! It would be a three-stage trip.  Amy had to be in New Delhi for Deloitte recruiting duties (this was Part One - we left on Sunday, she needed to conduct interviews Monday and Tuesday.  Part Two would fly us from Delhi to Varanasi for three days of seeing the sights. Then, in order to avoid a full day sitting in the Delhi airport, we would fly to Mumbai and then up to Rajasthan to see the palace city of Udaipur for Part Three.

We headed for Delhi (actually Gurgaon) and the Leela Palace there so ASB could do her every-so-often recruiting thing. Deloitte has a new office in Gurgaon.  The hotel is always nice and it's adjacent to a huge mall - and the mall has a micro-brewery/restaurant inside...and a Chili's, too! She was all finished by Tuesday evening... so we got a good night's sleep and headed out on Jet Konnect 9W 2423 direct and non-stop to Varanasi.

Our first hotel choice, the Taj Palace, was sold-out because this was truly the "high-season" for Varanasi.  We ended up staying at the Radisson Hotel in town and it was just fine for our needs. Our very-good guide - provided by Abercrombie and Kent through Fugazi Travel... took us that same evening to the main ghats down on the Ganges River where we participated in our very own special private aarti at the riverside.  Then we had great seats on a rooftop where we could see everything... Amy went for a wee walkabout and I think she scared our guide a little... But all was well....

The next morning we got up at the crack of dawn and visited the Daswamedh Ghat and watched the sunrise over the Ganga (Ganges) from our own private boat....and watched the locals and the pilgrims take their ritual baths.  Another great touch...we had a masseur on board that gave us both intense foot-massages for about $1.00 each.  Yeah...that was a bargain at 10-times the price!  We saw a body arrive for funeral preparation as we exited the boat at the final ghat... Amy said that whe had never seen a dead body before...so - some local kid took her down to get a closer look.  The steps were steep and slippery so I just stayed above and watched...

Walking the old narrow streets and alleyways of Varanasi is where you really understand how old the place is....and that Mark Twain was right all those many years ago. The place is ancient!  There's a huge security problem in part of the old city...the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is there...one of the most holy, if not THE most holy place dedicated to the Lord Shiva.  What makes it a security risk is that - right next-door to the temple...literally sharing the same "lot" - is the Gyanvapi Mosque or Alamgiri Mosque. Evidently, unless you are Hindu or Muslim...you are not going to see these two famous places up close and personal... we got pat-down searched and went through a metal-detector...and all we got was a peek while standing on the top step of somebody's porch. A little disappointing, but I have seen the inside of the Shiva Temple on the television...and it's really crowded inside.

Later in the day, we went to an amazing place just outside of town called Sarnath.  Sarnath is the deer park where Gautama Buddha preached his first sermon...a very holy place indeed.  

The next day we had breakfast and headed out to the 18th Century Durga Temple...drove through the Banares Hindu University and went to the Bharat Mata Temple - which pays homage to Mother India.  It was this day that Amy showed her St. Francis side, feeding dogs and elephants and monkeys at every stop.

As usual...we needed to find a luggage store to buy an extra suitcase for taking along all our treasures...and for keeping our check-in bags below the 20-Kg. per bag limit.  Not an easy task...but we commandeered a local auto-rickshaw and got the job done!

Next: On to Beautiful Udaipur in Rajasthan!  

Please see our Facebook Photo Albums of our amazing time in the holy city of Varanasi: