This past weekend, I took the Vibhuti Express to Varanasi with a group of Kolkata friends. Our tickets were booked rather last minute so we ended up going to Varanasi in sleeper class and with “reserved against cancellation” seats which meant that we had to share berths! Though the journey there wasn’t comfortable, our excitement about the trip kept us in high spirits as we made the 15 hour trip across four states (West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh).
Varanasi–also known as Kasi and Benaras–is the holiest city in India. It is home to over 2,000 temples, lies on the banks of the Ganga, and is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities (around 4,000 years!). It is a pilgrimage spot not only for Hindus but for Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists–gurus of these three religions have been associated with sites around Varanasi. The name Varanasi itself is a simple little portmanteau: the Varuna tributary runs through the northernmost point of the city while a small stream runs by Assi Ghat, at the southernmost point of the city. As the city spans from Varuna to Assi, it is called Varanasi.
We stayed at Teerth Lodge, a comfortable guesthouse just minutes from Dashwamedh Ghat and the Kashi Vishwanath Temple–the number one pilgrimage spot in the city. The centrality of our location proved to be a boon–we spent our time visiting the many famous temples, navigating through Varanasi’s narrow lanes, and drinking lassi at every possible occasion. Varanasi is perhaps most famous for its evening Ganga Aarti, an hour-long immersive experience where a number of priests salute the Ganga amidst devotional music and flashy lighting. Despite the stifling heat (over 105° F), the Aarti was completely worth the wait.
My favorite part of the trip was watching sunrise over the Ganga. Farida, Calynn and I woke up at daybreak and rented out a boat to travel along the Ghats. Though it wasn’t even 6 AM, the city was completely awake! Pilgrims bathed in the holy water of the Ganga, boatmen staffed the riverfront, calling out “discount prices” for tourists, and the animals of Varanasi lumbered along the gullies.
We also spent a morning at Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first teaching at the Deer Park. Sarnath is also home to an archeological museum that houses the original Ashokan Lion Capital (!), the very piece that is the official emblem of India. The museum also has a number of important Buddhist sculptures, including many that I’ve seen on slides in art history classes. Sarnath is a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists around the world and had much to see–the Dhamekh Stupa, monastery ruins, and Sri Lankan temple all are worth a visit.
Luckily, on the way back, we managed to get off the waitlist and get our own berths! Traveling in sleeper class, as I realized, is always an adventure. I ended up getting back to Santiniketan almost 5 hours later than planned. Despite a lot of exhaustion, it certainly was an enjoyable trip–made even more wonderful because of the company of my Bangla buddies!