Sunday, February 21, 2010

Flavors of Varanasi - Where to Eat

Varanasi is not just a city of temples but also a foodie’s paradise. You cannot turn in Varanasi without bumping into a thela (push-cart) of something tasty. The sumptuous and appetizing yet tangy and flavorful North Indian food and snacks are the best options to try at Varanasi. Be it the crisp Khasta Kachoris (puri stuffed with ground dal and hing) dipped in delicious aloo matar curry, spicy Papdi chaats, crisp Pani Puris with the awesome flavor of jeera, hot and tangy aloo tikiyas (crisp and with chhole) melting in your mouth, or the teekha Samosas served with mint, coriander and tamarind chutneys -- all these chatpate and mouth watering snacks will surely set your taste buds rolling, the moment you enter any lane in Varanasi.

    On the very first day of our stay in Varanasi, we found a thela under a large banyan tree diagonally opposite the Durga temple where we had some pani puris and hot tikiyas.

[ Chaat push cart diagonally opposite Durga Temple ]
    We tasted similar flavors at Deena chaat (Deenanath Kesari) at Nariyal Galli near Chowk. One unique item which I had never tasted before was the ‘Tamatar (Tomato) Chaat’. Served in kulhads, it is a mixture of thick tomato gravy (simmering on a hot tawa), chhole, peas, onions, a range of spices thrown in along with a number of different chutneys and a good squeeze of lime, topped with farsan and coriander. Its sweet, sour, spicy tang dances on the tongue and I will definitely recommend it if you happen to be at this place. They also have Chuda matar (poha and peas with dryfruits - completely different from the kanda poha my mother makes at home), Spinach papdi chaat and Gulab jamuns besides the regular chaat fare.
[ Deena Chaat ]
[ Tamatar Chaat at Deena ]

One word of caution, however, is that most of the roadside chaats are prepared in Dalda, Vanaspati Ghee which can be hazardous (besides being unhygienic, of course) to ones health. So be careful and think twice before gorging.

    Those having a sweet tooth need not worry either. There are a number of old sweetshops near and around the chowk area like the Madhur Jalpan, Ram Bhandar near Thatheri Bazaar and Shri RajBandhu in Kachori Galli to name a few. Shri RajBandhu situated in the lane leading to Manikarnika ghat, had a wide variety of sweets. We, however, purchased the famed Lal Pedas for our friends and relatives back home. What's more, they also had samosas and kachoris claimed to be cooked in Pure Desi Ghee. Though they were a little expensive than its roadside counterpart, they tasted much better and were definitely worth the extra bucks.
[ An Assortment of Sweets lined up at Shri RajBandhu] 
[ Famed Lal Pedas at Shri RajBandhu ]

    Bread of Life bakery at Shivala Ghat started by a German was probably the first bakery in Varanasi. Bread here is prepared in their very own bakery minus any chemicals. Visit here for their fresh chocolate cakes or muffin pancakes with maple syrup, croissants, fruit buns, pizzas and sandwiches. Mostly frequented by foreigners, do drop in here if you appreciate value for money with regard to quality, hygiene and cleanliness.

[ Bread of Life bakery ]
    Two things I strongly recommend you to bring back from Varanasi are the Gajak (a dry sweet, made of sesame/til seeds) and the Achaar (pickle). There are a number of shops selling gajak in the Chowkhamba lane and we took it from a shop (no name) just below the pole. The gajak tasted really nice and we regretted having bought just one box back home from Varanasi.

[ Gajaks at Chowkhamba ]

    You can find 3 to 4 old shops- Sitaram, Suresh, Siyaram - in the lane leading to Dashashwamedh Ghat selling achaars, morabbas pickled in mustard, special papads made of potatoes and also curd based papads …. all of them self-prepared by them. Their ‘Mix Achaar’, which lasts for as long as one year, is the pick of all the above items.

[ Papads, Achaars near Dashashwamedh Ghat ]

Varanasi - Where to Stay

    We were very fortunate to stay in ISKCON, Varanasi - The holiest of all cities. It is centrally located at Durga kund road near the Durga kund Police chowki. Unlike the ISKCON in Allahabad where there was no charge for the life members, here we were charged Rs. 300/- per day. The rooms here were very clean and well maintained. Moreover, the Prasadam (bhog presented to Lord Krishna) offered by ISKCON is pure and Saatvik and very home like. Staying at ISKCON amidst the Krishna bhaktas is always a wonderful experience.
 [Guest House]

[ My Room ]

However, if you aren’t a member and wish to stay here then do check out if they allot rooms to non members and the relevant charges.

Contact details:

Hare Krishna Mandir, International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON):
B 27/80 Durgakund Rd., Near Durgakund Police Station, Varanasi UP 221 010
Tel: (0542) 246422 or 222617 or 07376471566.

        Besides ISKCON, however, there are a variety of hotels, ashrams and mutts in Varanasi and can choose from among them according to one’s budget.

Hotels like Scindia Guest House, Palace on Ganges, Ganpati Guest House, Hotel Ganges View are very close to the ghats and offer rooms with a view of the river. These are good if you want to experience the full ambience and the scenic beauty of the city but may be a bit on the expensive side.

        If you are running on a modest budget, Varanasi offers a range of hotels and ashrams/dharmshalas for such tourists. Search the internet to get the contact numbers (some of them even have their own websites) of these hotels.

    It’s advisable to book your place of stay beforehand to avoid any inconveniences on reaching there. Though, make sure to keep factors such as the room cleanliness, power cuts, facilities being offered such as the A.C., Geyser and its proximity to the main ghats in mind before booking one.

Kashi Yatra – My Journey to the town of Spiritual Wealth

Varanasi is known by three names- Kashi (The city of Sacred light) is the oldest name, followed by Benaras (Bereft of Sin) and currently Varanasi (Remover of Sin). Varanasi has been the most venerated pilgrimage for all devout Hindus since times immemorial. It stands on the banks of river Ganga, the holiest of all Indian rivers, which only adds to its legacy. The unique relationship between the sacred river and the city is the essence of Varanasi. Here, the Ganga is believed to have flown from heaven to wash away the worldly sins of humankind. The Ganges, which normally flows southeast, reverses its course and flows north for a while at Varanasi, which is considered very auspicious.

The city is mentioned in Holy Scriptures like Vamana Purana, Kashikhand, Narad Purana, Shiv Purana, Buddist texts and in the epic Mahabharata as well. Sarnath (10 km from Varanasi) is the place where Buddha preached his first sermon after enlightenment, and the city itself is believed to be the birthplace of Parsvanath, the 23rd Tirthankar. Therefore, Varanasi is a renowned pilgrimage for Buddhists and Jains as well.

 As soon as I stepped in Varanasi - The earthly abode of Lord Shiva, I could feel a deep sense of mysticism and divinity engulfing me. Varanasi - Named after the confluence of two tributaries of the Ganges, Varuna flowing towards the north and Asi to the south - it has attained immortality.

It is said that Varanasi resides on the Trishul (Trident), the weapon of Lord Shiva, and will not get destroyed even during Pralaya (End of world).  Kashi is Moksha (salvation) puri. People believe that the one, who is graced to die at Kashi, attains liberation and freedom from the cycle of re-birth.

This unique city inspires us to reflect about life, to ponder over creation and the insignificance of the temporal wealth in the face of death. Thus, I would say that to be in Varanasi is a soul stirring experience, an experience of self discovery, a journey through the present and the past in search of salvation…

How to Reach Varanasi

Varanasi is well connected with all the major cities by air, rail and road.

Babatpur airport is 22 kms out of the city and there are a number of flights from Delhi and Mumbai.

    There are three railway stations- Kashi, City and Varanasi Junction (also known as Varanasi Cantt), which is the main station. The city is served by trains from all metros and major cities across the country. Rail is definitely the most cost-efficient mode of travel and the most sought-after by people traveling from various parts of India. So make sure you book your tickets well in advance especially if you are traveling in the main season (October-March).

Buses are a good option if traveling from nearby places of Uttar Pradesh.

    Traveling within Varanasi, I feel that cycle- rickshaws are the best mode of transport. Though auto-rickshaws, unmetered are also a popular mode of transport. The rates for both of these are negotiable and they are found all over the city. Vehicular traffic is not allowed at the roads leading to Dashashwamedh and other ghats for most part of the day. Around the ghats, walking may often be the fastest mode of commuting as traffic jams are common.

Friday, February 12, 2010

My Allahabad Journey in Photos - II (Magh Mela)

Along the way to the Triveni Sangam...

 [ Pilgrims coming from all directions with a 
single goal of taking a holy dip at the Sangam]

[ Security men at the Mela ]

  [ Look at the crowds we were a part of !!]

[ Gathering of Sadhus in one 
of the various religious camps ]

[ An elderly couple enjoying the chaats ]

[ Giant wheel at the Mela ]
 [ Temporary Colonies during the Mela ]
[ Hanuman Temple near the Sangam ]
 At the Triveni Sangam...

 [ Crowds eager to cleanse their souls ]

[ Taking a holy bath ]
[ Coconuts, lamps and flowers
for offerings to the holy river ]
 [ Seeking blessings from the 
waters of the Holy Sangam ]

 [ A sage makes his way out ]

 [ Performing Charity ]

 [ Spot the TV vans and a 
Watch Tower in the background ]

[ Devotees performing a ritual ]  

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My Allahabad Journey in Photos - I ( Where to stay - ISKCON, Where to Eat, Anand Bhawan )

A Single Photograph Speaks More Than A Thousand Words

Covering My Allahabad Yatra (Journey) in Two Parts - First Being This And The Second Part Covering The Magh Mela.

Reaching Allahabad...


[ Rains catching us unawares at Allahabad railway station ] 

ISKCON Temple Allahabad 
Where I Stayed
 [ Entrance ]

 [ Temple ]

 [ Guest House]

[ View from the Guest House Terrace] 

[ View from verandah ] 


[ Fresh Vegetables in Garden ]

[ Goushala (Cow Shed) ] 

Bikanervala, Civil Lines



A Lovely Mansion - Anand Bhawan 


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Journey of Enlightenment - My Personal Experience of the Magh Mela

 The main reason for people visiting Allahabad is to take a holy dip at the Triveni Sangam. It is believed that taking a bath here washes away ones sins and grants liberation (Moksha).The Triveni Sangam is the confluence of three of the most revered rivers of IndiaThe Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. We had decided to take a bath here during the Magh Mela which is the annual festival of Allahabad held during the months of Jan-Feb. It is also known as the ‘Mini Kumbh’ as it gets converted to the ‘Maha Kumbh Mela’ every 12 Years. Every day hundreds of people come to take a bath in the purifying waters of the Sangam. But the number increases manifold during this time of the year. This year, though, the Mela held special significance due to the occurrence of Makar Sankranti on the 14th Jan and the coincidence of Mauni Amavasya following the Grahan (Solar eclipse) on the 15th. We were to bathe on these two special days. On both the days my experience was more or less the same except that on the 15th, we had waited for the eclipse to get over to take the bath.

[ Starting the walk towards 
the Sangam ] 
    I was a bit apprehensive since I had heard that about 10-20 lakh pilgrims will be taking a bath at the Sangam on the 2 days combined. Finally on the 14th - The Makar Sankrant Day, braving the cold and the chilly conditions (around 5-8 deg. Cel), I prepared myself both mentally as well as physically to proceed for the Snan (holy bath/dip) at 7 a.m. My mother was the most excited of us, leading and guiding us from the front. The boats which are the most popular mode of transport to the Sangam were closed by the government to avoid unwanted local crowd. We, therefore, hired a cycle rick who dropped us some good 2-3 kms away from the Sangam at a place known as the Minto Park, as vehicles beyond this point were not allowed. Rest of the distance everyone had to cover on foot. From that place, till the eyes could see and beyond, the entire stretch of land leading up to the Sangam, resembled an enormous sea of pilgrims and I could sense my apprehensions come true. But my notions were soon dispelled as I covered the course of the 2 km long journey.

[ Crowds moving as one ]
    Starting the walk, I could see many people carrying sacks containing their belongings, I guess, on their heads walking for miles, having come from all over India. There were people of all ages, genders, babies clinging to their parents, saffron and yellow clad sadhus (sages), and policemen shouting instructions to the devotees. I saw stalls selling everything from tea, fruits, chats, prasads, flowers, diyas even plastic bottles to fill the water of the holiest of the holy. There were puppet shows for the kids, an amusement park, shops selling clothing items like dress materials from Surat, sarees from Banaras, traditional footwear and jewelery from Rajasthan and much much more.

 [ Sea of pilgrims carrying babies, 
belongings on their heads ]

       The ‘Bhule Bhatke Shivir’ (Lost and Found Camp) loudspeakers were continuously blaring out new names of the people who had got separated from their near and dear ones. I saw people holding onto whatever piece of clothing they could get their hands on of their relatives so that they don’t get separated. The famous hindi film cliché ‘Mele mein bichda hua bhai’ dawned on me and I found the grip of my hand on my brothers jacket tighten. Living in a crowded suburb of Mumbai and having experienced the crowds first hand, I have to admit I had never seen anything like what was before me that day. The sheer number of people overwhelmed me. But it was all well managed as there were numerous entry and exit points and people generally stuck to the Keep Left rule.

 [ People holding on to the whatever they 
could get of the near and dear ones]
 Nearing the Sangam, I saw many yellow, blue and white colored tents spread across large areas on both sides of the road. It seemed like a whole city full of tents had come up. My mother told me that people who do Kalpvaas stay here. I recollected a conversation my father had with a co-passenger in the train while we were coming here. Aged between 55-60 years, we were amazed to know that he was visiting the place to do Kalpvaas. It changed my perception that only Sadhus and Babas do so. People doing Kalpvaas are known as Kalpvaasis and stay in tents for 1 month. He told us that they are required to take a bath at the holy Sangam before sunrise and again before sunset. They eat only once a day so that rest of the day they can devote to meditations, bhajans and praying to God.

[ Kalpvaasis tents and camps ] 

       Besides the Kalpvaasis, many sages, yogis and religious gurus had set up their camps , all adding a different dash of colour and a distinct flavour to this unique festival. Religious talks and devotional songs going on inside could be heard by people like me walking outside from the loudspeakers that had been put up by some of these camps. The famed Pandaas were not to be left behind. There were some entire colonies dedicated to them. They could be identified by distinct symbols drawn on fluttering flags. We tried finding ours but could not locate him and proceeded further. The city of tents had something for everyone from markets to eateries even hospitals, all temporarily put up for the event. I could see devotees camped out with women cooking on wood-fires, kneading dough to make chapattis, buying veggies, chatting excitedly, drying clothes and people keeping warm near fires. I saw T.V. vans of various broadcasters come to cover the Mela. I realized that now we were very close to the Sangam.

[ One of the numerous religious camps ] 

[ TV vans waiting for a story ] 

One hour and a tiring but nevertheless stirring walk later, we finally reached the Sangam area. Suddenly, the large mob had dispersed to the various ghats spread out in the vast Sangam area and it seemed to me a lot less crowded now. The Triveni Sangam is a confluence of three rivers: the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati as stated earlier. Of these three, I was informed that the River Saraswati is invisible and is said to be flowing beneath the earth and meets the other two rivers from the base. I could easily make out the muddy water of Ganges which was flowing rapidly merging with greenish still water of the Yamuna. The river Yamuna ends at this point while the Ganga continues till it meets the sea at the Bay of Bengal. There were announcements urging the devotees to vacate the ghats as soon as they finish bathing to make way for the next onslaught of bathers. I could see people meditating, performing various rituals, prayers, reading sacred texts, some getting ready for the bath, some coming out shivering after taking a dip, or simply keeping a watch on ones belongings. The one common thing uniting everybody there was The Thread of Faith. However, the sight of little children crying relentlessly being forced to take a bath in such cold water deeply saddened me.

 [ Devotees near the Sangam ]

[ People taking a holy dip ]

       My mother told me that all the Gods are present at the Sangam today and we are blessed to have to have got an opportunity to take a holy dip on the auspicious day which millions other crave for. The meaning of which I realized the moment I arched my back and lowered my head in the spiritually purifying water of the Sangam. I was transcended to a celestial world which crossed all material boundaries. It was an experience which cannot be described in words and can only be felt or understood in person. We all prayed to Maa Ganga and offered holy water to the Sun God to receive His blessings. We then floated a diya and prayed with our eyes closed. Heading back, I saw long bearded turbaned Pandits and poor women along with their children making their way through the crowds asking for donation of clothes, grains and of course money. We too took this opportunity to indulge in some charity. I was told by my mother that any good deed done during this day has a multiplier effect and is ideal for meditation and charity.

 [ Flowers & Diyas for offerings ]

[ People indulging in some charity ] 

       Each minute I spent in this captivating carnival was a prayer, every moment of it dipped in divinity; it was truly an expedition of spiritual enlightenment. It is impossible for me to give a picture of everything that was happening in and around the Mela, since my every stride bought with itself a whole new experience. There was so much to see, so much to feel, so much to soak into…believe me, one has  to be there , in the midst of it all, to really get a hang of it. Yes, it was crowded and yes it was cold, very cold; but let me assure you of one thing every second of it, is worth a visit.