Friday, August 2, 2013

Pilgrims Progress "Mahakumbh" - Part 2 - Allahabad, Varanasi, Bodhgaya

Varanasi - Ganga Aarti (Evening Prayers) at Dasaswamedh Ghat 
Old Post Office Building, Varanasi
As mentioned in Part 1 of the blog, the author, out of pure curiosity, decided that this was the year that he had to visit the Mahakumbh, fulfilling a desire to see a spectacle of religious fervor and also observe that how the logistics of providing for upto 30 million pilgrims worked out. The intention was also to follow the pilgrim trail from Allahabad to Varanasi and Bodh Gaya, a route traditionally taken by most pilgrims to the Mahakumbh.

Varanasi's Lanes.
Allahabad and Chitrakoot covered, the Mahakumbh experienced and enjoyed, we look forward to hitting the pilgrim trail. The early morning train from Allahabad to Varanasi was comfortable and got us there in time for a late lunch. Comfortably, ensconced in the comfortable 3 GTC officers' mess, we set out to explore Varanasi.
Exploring Lanes and Discovering Holy Cows.

Varanasi, Benaras or Kashi as it is known to devout Hindus, is one of the oldest, or arguably the oldest living cities in the world, with a history dating back 3,500 to 5,000 years, depending on which historian one follows. It derives its name from, and is situated between the rivers Varuna and Assi where they join the Ganges. It retains an old world charm and most Hindus consider it the center of the cosmic universe. As Mark Twain once said, "Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together."  
Varanasi - Boats on the River.
Be that as it may, the author only wishes that Varanasi's residents and authorities get together to clean out the dirt and debris of history. It does seem that the old city has not been cleaned since it was established. The lanes are dirty and there is always a good chance of being gored by a holy cow or bull. Priests please note, it is not a 'foreign unbeliever' but an Indian Hindu Brahmin that's saying this. That being said, the dirt and grime is only a small distraction from the eternal allure and mystic experience of the city.


Varanasi has myriad attractions to offer everyone and almost each visitor sees and experiences the city in his or her own fashion. As a city of temples, with some of Hinduism's holiest shrines located here. As a center of learning, as the world famous Banaras Hindu University has its campus here. 
Juna Akhada Priests going to The Aarti.
A place to die and go to heaven, which many old widows and geriatric pilgrims make a beeline for. A great spiritual and touristic experience, as is evinced by the hordes of tourists, both Indian and Foreign. A keeper and purveyor of the art and craft tradition, as the lovely carpets and Banarasi Silks testify. There is something for everyone.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple

The Kashi Vishwanath Temple, near the river Ganges, is Varanasi's main attraction for Hindus. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the temple has been destroyed and rebuilt over millennia. The latest edition was commissioned by Ahilya Bai Holkar in 1780. 

The Jyotirlinga (sacred stone symbol) is 60 cm (1.9 ft) tall and 90 cm (2.9 ft) broad, the golden spire soars 15.5 metres (51 ft), over the gold-plated dome. The gold plating consumed 1000 Kgs of gold, offered by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. There is also a GnanaVapi (wisdom well), located in the temple compound. This well is located between the Temple and the Gyan Vapi Masjid, the mosque built by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb over the foundations of the original Kashi Vishwanath temple, that he demolished. Both the temple and the mosque share the same complex, albeit separated by an iron fence.

Multitudes going to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.
The temple is approached from the bathing Ghats on the Ganges, through an insalubrious narrow lane. It is always crowded with worshipers and pilgrims, especially at prayer Aarti times. During religious festivals like the Mahakumbh and Shivratri the crowds are almost unmanageable, with waiting times for entering the sanctum sanctorum running to 5-6 hours. The temple opens at 2.30 am and closes at 11 pm.

The other temple that's on every pilgrim itinerary is the Sankatmochan Temple dedicated to the Simian God, Hanuman. Hindus believe that a visit to this temple wards off bad luck, troubles and travails coming their way. The best way to visit this temple is by boat.

Ganga Aarti Evening Prayers.
Other famous and popular temples are, the Sakshi Vinayaka Temple of Lord Ganesha; the Kaal Bhairav Temple; the Nepali Temple, built by the King of Nepal on Lalita Ghat, in the Nepali style; the Bindu Madhav Temple near the Panchaganga Ghat. Varanasi's Bharat Mata Temple is probably the only temple in the country dedicated to the 'Mother India.' It was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in 1936. Another recent temple is the Tulsi Manas Temple built in honor of Lord Rama in 1964 at the spot where Tulsidas composed Ramacharitmanas, the vernacular version of the epic Ramayana.
Crowds Gathering for the Evening Prayers - Aarti
Another 'Must See' on any tourists' itinerary is the Ganga Aarti, or evening prayers that are performed every evening at sunset at the Dasaswamedh Ghat, near Kashi Vishwanath Temple. 

Similar Aartis or Prayers are performed at Haridwar and Rishikesh, too, but the Varanasi Aarti, probably to provide a spectacle for tourists, has become a highly stylized and choreographed ceremony. Although it's spectacular, many devout people consider it to be too much of an extravaganza to be really meaningful in a spiritual context. If the normal prayers are not spectacular enough, in Varanasi, a Maha Aarti (great prayer) takes place on a particularly elaborate scale at the end of the Hindu year on Kartik Purnima.
Travelers watching the Prayers from the River

The Aarti is performed on a stage by two groups of young pandits (priests), all draped in golden and saffron colored robes, and holding ceremonial lamps. It commences with the blowing of a conch shell, and continues with the waving and circling of oil lamps in elaborate patterns.  
The movement of the lamps, synchronized to the rhythmic chants of hymns and clang of cymbals, the sandalwood smoke from the incense burners and the devotional music all combine to create a mesmerizing effect against the darkened sky. 
A Young Priest at Prayers
Small leaf boats with oil lamps and offerings are floated down the river at the end of the prayers. This looks very pretty but just adds on to the pollution load of an already polluted river. 
The rapt crowd at Prayers.
The Aarti attracts large crowds. The best way of viewing it is by boat from the river. Alternatively, many shops in the vicinity hire their balconies out to tourists.
Tourists Boating at Munshi Ghat

Vijaynagram and Kedar Ghats
The Ghats are another feature of Varanasi. These stone stepped embankments along the bank of the Ganga, are the defining sight of the city. This is where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions. All the Ghats are considered as locations on "the divine cosmic road". Accordingly, various Ghats have different uses, depending on their location. 
The Last Journey - Cremation Ghat

There are at least 84 Ghats with several being owned privately. The famous ones are the ancient and main Ghat Dashashwamedh, which is located close to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.
The Lonely Mourner

The Manikarnika Ghat, is the Mahasmasana (meaning: "great cremation ground") and is the primary site for Hindu cremation in the city. The Harishchandra Ghat (also a Hindu cremation Ghat), the Panchganga Ghat, the Kedar Ghat and many more. 
Quite a few Ghats are associated with interesting legends, which guides and boatmen regale you with. 
An Evening Boat Ride on the Ganges
A Morning or Evening boat ride on the Ganges, viewing the multitude of shrines, temples and palaces built, "tier on tier above the water’s edge", is a popular visitor attraction.

Varanasi was teeming with travelers who had made it their next stop after having a dip in the Ganges at Allahabad. 
Visiting Temples

The disadvantages of traveling with a religious friend were evident. He wanted to visit every temple possible. The boat ride and visit to the Sankatmochan temple were manageable and we had a great view of the Ganga Aarti from our boat. 
Cremation Ghats - Please Photograph from a distance
The Juna Akhada, whose Gurus and Acolytes had moved to Varanasi from the Mahakumbh, was visited and some interesting wisdom gained. 

We viewed the Cremation Ghats from a distance.  
Many visitors think that the Cremations at the Ghats have specifically been setup for their edification. They crowd in, forgetting that they are intruding on someone's grief. Please use a telephoto lens and click from afar. 
Calm Early Morning Boat Ride
The author, however, after having one look at the multitudes waiting to get in and on being told that the waiting time was at least four hours; said a flat "No" to a visit to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, much to the friend's dismay.
Lassi - The Ultimate Yogurt Drink
Avoiding potential discord, the guide informed us that the best time for visiting this temple was very early in the morning, by 3 AM, when it is almost empty for the Mangala Aarti (3 - 4 am) and that entry for the same is by tickets. 
One magnanimously sacrificed his sleep for a night to humour his friend; and tickets procured, we set out very early for the temple. 
The stillness, calm and the peace of the shrine were enjoyable. Inspired by the blessings of Lord Shiva, we wended our way to Dashashwamedha Ghat for an early morning river cruise on a row boat, followed up by a traditional Varanasi breakfast of deep fried Puri, Kachori, Sweet Jalebi and Lassi. All very tasty, but with enough calories to give one a cardiac arrest.


Varanasi - Vegetarian Thali
There is a constant battle between residents of Lucknow and Varanasi as to which is the 'Food Capital' of Uttar Pradesh, with denizens of each city claiming the 'Good Food' crown.

An impartial observer like the author would hold Lucknow as the undisputed winner of the Mughalai and Non-vegetarian food competition; with Varanasi taking the honors in Vegetarian cuisine, Indian snacks and the outright all India Championship for Indian Sweets, especially those made from Milk and Cottage Cheese.

The Vegetarian Thali, an 'All you can eat' platter offers a variety of snacks, salads, vegetables, yogurt preparations, breads, rice and sweets is very popular here and you can find a Thali to suit most budgets.

A 'Budget' Non-Vegetarian Thali 
The one advantage that Lucknow enjoys over Varanasi in culinary stakes, however, is that Lucknawi cuisine can easily be sampled in a variety and range of restaurants. Banarasi cuisine on the other hand is more restricted, with the best food mostly being available only at the tables of traditional families. To enjoy really authentic Banarasi Khana (food) you have to get to Varanasi's main market area, or better still, have a Banarasi friend invite you home. 
That being said, however, there are a few good purveyors of Banarasi cuisine and restaurant aplenty that offer Banarasi snacks and milk sweet creations. These vary greatly in price and quality.
Banarasi Dum Aloo

Banarasi Dum Aloo, a tasty potato preparation of fried potatoes in a rich mildly spiced gravy, is a local specialty.

Aloo Papdi Chaat
In Varanasi you have to try local snack specialties such as Kachori, Aloo Papdi Chat, Golgappas or Pani Puri and, other street food like Puri Channa, Dahi Bhallas et all .
Varanasi - Street Food Vendor

The city is also known for its desserts, especially Indian Sweets. Residents of Bengal are justly proud of their sweets, especially those made from 'Chena' or cottage cheese, but for sheer variety and quality in Indian desserts Varanasi 'Halwais' or sweet makers are the absolute kings.
Taste My Sweets Before Buying
Each street has it's own specialist 'Halwai' some specializing in 'Khoya' or sweets made from thickened milk . Others in sweetmeats made of Nuts, Fruit, Vegetables, Chick Pea Flour or cottage cheese. Something for every sweet tooth.  
Sweet Choices

Paan, a betel leaf and nut preparation, either sweet, aromatic or containing tobacco, is not really food, but is used as a mouth cleanser after meals.
This Banarasi Paan is something that Varanasi
is famous for, all over India.

Paan - The Mouth Cleanser

Master Weaver
Arts and Crafts

Silk weaving is perhaps the most renowned art of Varanasi, with Banarasi Silk Saris forming an indispensable part of an Indian bride's trousseau. The world-famous gold and silver brocades and richly worked silk saris are passed on for generations as heirlooms. 
'Budget' Fabrics Drying after Finishing
These days less elaborate Silks, Georgette  and even fine Cotton are woven to cater to a wider market, as the pure gold and silver thread Zari fabrics can now only be bought by those with very deep pockets. Unfortunately, master weavers are getting scarce, as younger people are not interested in taking up this craft due to low pay and exploitation by middlemen and commission agents. 
Banarasi Silk 'Zari' Saree

Brocade Silk Fabrics
Apart from Banarasi saris and brocades, craftsmen in Varanasi also produce wonderful pieces of brassware, copperware, musical instruments, wooden and clay toys and antique designs in heavy gold jewellery.
The hand-knotted carpets of Mirzapur, Bhadoi and Varanasi are world famous and form the bulk of exports from this region.
Bhadoi - Finishing Hand Knotted Carpets

Carpets are judged by knots per square inch and the best ones can have upto 800 (20 x 20) knots per inch. Prices are determined by size, the number of knots, the complexity of the design and the quality of silk or wool. 
Persian and Tribal Designs
The Iranian weavers brought in by the Mughal Emperors, were the originators of carpet weaving in Uttar Pradesh. 
A Handmade Mirzapur Silk Carpet
Their designs allied to high quality of Cashmere wool and Silk resulted the rise of quality carpet weaving in India. The general design of carpets in Uttar Pradesh is an influence and blend of Iranian, Moroccan, French and Turkmen patterns modified by local designers and woven by master weavers. Some of the popular designs are in the style of, and named after cities and provinces of Iran such as Sarough, Hamadan, Tabriz, Kashan, Isfahan, Khorasan.

The main shopping areas in Varanasi are Chowk, Gyan Vapi, Vishwanath Gali, Thatheri Bazar, Lahurabir, Godoulia or Dashswamedh Gali and Golghar. Inveterate shoppers can bargain hunt to their hearts content. 
A Carpet Factory
Better still, hire a cab and visit factories and craftsmen directly. It gives one a chance to see craftsmen at work and to pick up an exquisite heirloom fabric or carpet at prices that are far lower than that one would pay even in the Varanasi Bazaars, leave alone the high street at home.

Cheap but Good Imitation
A word of caution, the principle of 'Emptor Caveat' or 'Let The Buyer Beware' applies to transactions in small shops and market. Cheap imitations, nylon and rayon are often passed off as real silk, in Saris and Fabrics as well as Carpets. Buying with an expert or from a reputed vendor is strongly advised.
Mahabodhi Temple Bodh Gaya


True to our intent of following the pilgrim trail, we set out by early train for Bodh Gaya, sacred to all Bhuddhists as the place where The Buddha gained enlightenment and also an ancient city venerated by Hindus. Bodh Gaya is normally the last stop of the Allahabad, Varanasi, Gaya travelers. Our comfortable train got us into Gaya, the railhead, by late morning. Hiring a car, we checked into the very comfortable OTC mess and then proceeded on to visit Bodh Gaya.
Monk Meditating

The main attraction in Bodh Gaya is the Bodhi Tree under which The Buddha gained enlightenment and the UNESCO world heritage Mahabodhi Temple.

The Mahabodhi Temple is one of the four holy sites, in India, related to the life of Lord Buddha, the other three being Kushinagar, Lumbini and Sarnath. 
Trunk of The Mahabodhi Tree
 Legend has it that Emperor Ashoka the Great, who had converted to Buddhism after the Kalinga Wars, visited Bodh Gaya 250 years after Buddha's Enlightenment and laid the foundation of Mahabodhi temple.
After the decline of Buddhism in India, this temple was abandoned and neglected. It was restored by Sir Alexander Cunningham of the British Archaeological Society, along with J.D. Beglar and Dr Rajendralal Mitra, in 19th century.
Crowds at Mahabodhi Temple

In 2002, the Mahabodhi Temple was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site with the following description. "It is one of the earliest existing temples of India; it provides exceptional records for the events associated with the life of Buddha; it is built entirely in brick." 
The Government of Bihar is responsible for its protection, management and monitoring. The lacuna in security and monitoring was cruelly exposed about a month ago when terrorists place some crude bombs inside the temple, injuring a few people, but luckily doing little harm to the temple.

Monks at Mahabodhi Temple
Every year, almost a million Buddhist pilgrims, mainly from Asian countries, flock to Bodhgaya to be inspired, dissipate negative karma and earn merit by visiting the holy site where the Buddha became the Buddha ("Enlightened One"). The temple area is beautiful and exudes calmness even when there are thousands of visitors.
Great Buddha Statue Bodh Gaya
This being the beginning of the pilgrimage season, we could observe monks in colorful robes meditating, round the clock, studying dharma texts, making offerings to the many statues and stupas on the site, and finally completing the pilgrimage by circumnavigating (walking around) the sacred Mahabodhi Temple.

In November 1989, the Great Buddha Statue, was unveiled and consecrated by the His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama, who blessed the 25-meter statue. It is the first great Buddha ever built in the history of India and was constructed by the Daijokyo sect of Buddhism from Japan. The Statue is now a symbol of Bodhgaya, next to Mahabohdi Temple

Apart from the Mahabodhi temple, almost all Buddhist countries are represented by their temples, and each built according to that countries architectural style. 
Thai Temple Bodh Gaya
Some temples or monasteries are from Thailand, Tibet, Burma, Japan, China, Bhutan, Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, Sri Lanka and Nepal etc. 
A Temple Altar

The Archaeological Museum, the Mohanta's Monastery and Tibetan Mahayana Monastery, too, are worth visiting if you have the time.
The Bhuddha's Image

We visited the main highlights of the holy town of Gaya, which is venerated both by Hindus as well as Buddhists. 
Vishnupad Temple Gaya
Hindus mainly visit Gaya for the Vishnupad Temple which is located along the Falgu River, its notable for a footprint, claimed to be that of Lord Vishnu, which is incised into a block of basalt. According to legend the footprint marks the act of Lord Vishnu in subduing the demon Gayasur by placing his foot on Gayasur's chest. 
'Pind Daan' Ancestor Worship - Vishnupad Gaya

The temple is also famous for the ritual of 'Pind Daan', that is worshiping and offering prayers and food to the soul of one's ancestors, with many devout men shaving off and offering their hair. Throughout the year groups of Hindus are seen participating in the 'Pind Daan' ceremony, along the Falgu River.

The Ghats on Falgu River - Gaya
The other notable temples of Gaya are the 11th century, black basalt Prapitaamaheshwara temple, the 15th century Mangalagowri temple dedicated to the Mother Goddess. Buddhists visit Gaya because it was here, at Brahmayoni hill, that The Buddha preached the Fire Sermon to a thousand former fire-worshipping ascetics, who were enlightened and converted to Buddhism. The 18th century Jama Masjid in Gaya is the largest mosque in Bihar.

As Gaya is not connected by Air but very well connected by train, we took the late night Rajdhani Express, an extremely comfortable train, back to Delhi. 

Temples Galore - too much of a Good Thing?
The author ended the journey with ambivalent feelings. 
On the one hand, not being a particularly religious person, one had had a surfeit of temples, pilgrimages and pilgrims. 
Pilgrims -Bodh Gaya
On the other, the sheer scale and piety of the Mahakumbh at Allahabad, the eternal spiritualism of Varanasi and the serenity of Bodh Gaya did leave an impression and in all probability one hopefully emerged as a better person. 
One thing is certain, however, that the memories and scenes of the journey shall linger for long in the recesses of one's mind.
As it stands, one can hear the High Himalayas calling out to me. Hang Gliding at 9800 feet at Bir and Billing should be the perfect antidote!..... But thats another story......
Pilgrims Seeking Enlightment Under The Mahabodhi Tree - Bodh Gaya