I had heard from a couple of Americans I had met that the standard itinerary for any tourist to India always included a visit to Varanasi (or Kasi) and Agra; they also opined that Varanasi was amongst the most beautiful places they had been to. So I thought that it was time I saw within my country what outside tourists traveled here to see. It was a weekend after a tough week of work and I hoped it'd help clear my mind. I went to Varanasi via Delhi - overnight trains run from Delhi to Varanasi and similarly from Varanasi to Agra
My first impressions of Varanasi ranged from "so what's different here" to "how crowded can it get!". Varanasi is an impressively crowded city - kinda reminded me of a Mumbai rush-hour train. The main township is pretty mundane, but then, this is not what people visit Varanasi for; so I headed towards the Kasi Viswanath temple and the famous bathing ghats on the banks of the river Ganga.
I had been recommended by family that I should head straight to the Viswanath temple first, as its considered to be amongst the holiest shrines of Hinduism and I had landed up there on a Sivaratri. The Kasi Viswanath Temple is located in a narrow gully on the way to the Ghats; so narrow and dirty that I was at first doubtful if I was being mislead. However, the presence of gun-toting policemen assured me that I was headed the right way.
The main entrance to the temple is in a narrower gully, where stood a posse of policemen, almost strip-searching every visitor. To my surprise I was told that one couldn't take any bags / electronic articles inside the temple and that they had to be left in one of the numerous shops at the entrance. The shop I approached had a locker with keys which could open every locker in the cabinet!. With great reluctance (and due to a lack of choice), I left my valuables with the shopkeeper - taking innumerable assurances of their safety. It is indeed pretty sad that while having such stringent security regulations, the authorities couldn't bother to arrange proper locker facilities at the entrance.
The temple itself is pretty small one, housing the three primary deities - Lord Shiva as Kasi Viswanath, Sri Annapurni Devi and Sri Visalakshi. Thronged by devotees, the temple has a very spiritual atmosphere.
However, the most irritating part about the temple are the priests - almost every one of them looks for an opportunity to fleece money. Every Pooja needs a donation of 50/100/200/300/500 rupees, every Pujari literally clamors for money, and if one doesn't make an offering of at least 100 bucks they make weird comments like "can you only offer this much for the goddess?" / "only 200 bucks for a once in a lifetime opportunity?" / "can't you give 500 bucks to purify all your sins?" ! I was just stunned and disgusted. I'm a pretty religious person, have seen hundreds of temples across India and Kasi is one of Hinduism's most holy places - I couldn’t believe the kind of things I was hearing. I finished the multitude of offerings, "washed away all my sins" and made a hasty exit - praying to God to grant these Pujari's better intellect.
My next destination was the bathing ghats. The ghats are a huge array of steps leading down into the Ganga. While the ghats have been very melodramatically portrayed in all articles I had read, I found them to be pretty dirty, littered with cow-dung & all forms of horrible filth. I had heard that Kasi was the oldest Indian city, old as time immemorial - it also looks as if the ghats haven't been swept since then :|
Amidst all this filth are hundreds of foreign tourists, photographing everything in sight and viewing all the crap strewn about with amusement - as if in a jungle viewing the weird practices of the natives. I have often heard that Varanasi is the first place in the itinerary of any tourist to India - if so, they certainly take back a distorted first impression of India. True, India has more than its share dirty, filthy and crowded places - but Varanasi's ghats must rank amongst the worst in them. It is truly sad that one of India's most visited, touristed and holy places is so badly maintained.
Leaving the ghats, I caught a rickshaw to the Benaras Hindu University. The University - apart from being contrastingly clean - has a beautiful Viswanath temple of its own. Marble floored, lined with greenery and beautifully quiet, it provided the perfect solace to meditate for the crowd & dirt weary traveler in me.
Late in the evening, I headed back to the most famous of the ghats - the Dasaswamedh Ghat for the evening Aarti. It was a scenic time - with the flowing Ganges and its boats, people crowding to take a dip into the river and chants sounding from the temple. The priests came out to do a long Aarti along the river amidst a huge crowd singing praises of the Gods. It was a beautiful time - and for a moment I forgot the filth I was standing in.
Well into the night, I headed to the railway station to catch the train for Agra. Usually railway stations are amongst the dirtiest places in town - but Varanasi's station was surprisingly clean - maybe it was just the contrast with the filth, crowd and pollution in the city.
The train dropped me at the Agra fort station early on Sunday morning. Agra Fort is considered to be amongst the most important forts in the country - the place from where the Mughal Empire ruled the country. Made out of red sandstone and white marble, this Fort towers over the Yamuna. The intricate patterns on white marble, the sheer expanse of the fort and the view of the Taj along the Yamuna make the fort a memorable visit point. Rapidly closing my tour of the fort, I headed to the Taj. The Taj, as the Kasi Viswanath temple, has heavy security arrangements - but is much better provisioned in terms of lockers.
I had never seen the Taj Mahal before - had only seen photographs and read about it. However, its sheer beauty took my breath away - in white marble and phenomenal in size - it has a stunning presence. A place fit to be one of the 8-wonders-of-the-world. I was truly wonderstruck by the artistic brilliance.
I then headed out into the Agra city - for a quick tour. Agra is a dusty town which makes awesome "pethas" - sweets made of pumpkin. Late into the afternoon, with the sun scorching the late 30 degrees, and covered in dust from my visits, looking like a rag picker, I headed back to New Delhi - thus closing a long and interesting weekend tour.
For people intending to follow my trail: Overnight trains run between Delhi, Varanasi and Agra - however, since they fall in the popular tourist circuit, tickets need to be booked at least a week or two in advance. Both Varanasi and Agra are pretty dusty places - so take care if you are dust-allergic. Make a trip in the hand-pulled rickshaws - very few Indian cities have them left - and despite their bumpy ride, they are a worthy experience. Do not miss the Aarthi's at sundown at the Ghats of Varanasi. Beware of the omnipresent touts. Beware of the fleecing Pujari's. Also, the Ganges ain't all that clean at Varanasi that you can take a dip and come out smelling rosy - so be careful. And don't leave Agra without a box of pethas.