SEEING BENARES IS DIFFERENT FROM EITHER HEARING OR READING ABOUT IT! *

Varanasi in 36 hours

We still prefer referring to Varanasi as Kashi. The word ‘Kashi’ conjures up images of ancient India. After all, didn’t Mark Twain say, Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”?

Ganga Aarti, Dashashwamedh Ghat
The iconic Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat

We made our way to Varanasi on a January long weekend. We had to cancel our original train booking as it was running late. (Winter can be a little risky time to travel in north India, as flights & trains get disrupted due to fog.) We flew to Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport located in Babatpur, 26 KMS from Varanasi.

The First 12 Hours

The highway from Babatpur to Varanasi was under construction then; so, it took us a while to get to our destination. But the construction has been completed in November 2018.

New Vishwanath Mandir, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India
Colors of Benares New Vishwanath Mandir

Our first evening in Varanasi was reserved for a boat ride on the River Ganges. It had been a childhood dream for us to take a boat on the Ganges & watch the Ghats. As the Sun set, we made our way from the Assi Ghat to the Dashashwamedh Ghat. The gentle swaying of the boat was accompanied by the boatman’s stories. The Ghats twinkled as we floated alongside. Our hearts could not possibly be fuller.

At sunset every day, the Dashashwamedh Ghat is lit up. Priests line up for a magnificent spectacle wherein the Mother River is worshiped. We felt blessed to be watching the iconic Ganga Aarti. The aarti time makes the Ghats (& the river in front) crowded; so, ensure you get here well in time. It was a heady feeling to be a part of faith at this scale. Watching the aarti from the boat was a surreal experience too!

From the Dashashwamedh Ghat, we moved inland through the maze of lanes that are famous for small temples, eateries, shops & what not. We did not have a set agenda but as our tummies were rumbling, we stopped at Bana Lassi. We tried a Plain Lassi & a Banana Lassi. Both were lip smacking good. The cafe had a bohemian touch with floor seating & painted walls – Bob Marley featured too. The place appeals to foreign tourists. Indian youngsters would feel at home here. We could imagine curling up with a book & trying out all their lassi flavors!

lassi, bana lassi, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Our lassis at Bana Lassi

We roamed the Varanasi streets. The abundance of color on the roadside shops dazzled us. Look out for handicraft centers having figurines of gods & goddesses. You will be struck with the variety in color, material & size!

It was time to call it a night after some more yummy in our tummy. Varanasi is known to have one of the tastiest street foods. To validate this, we headed to Kashi Chaat Bhandaar. This place is so good that even a non – street food lover like us returned to eat more. A small, easy – to – miss shop with a handful of tables for seating. Most customers prefer to stand outside, on the road, to gobble up the goodies. The Golgappa, Gulab Jamun, Kulfi Falooda, Potato Tikki Chaat, & Samosa Chaat knocked us off. We may return to Varanasi just for this!

It was a cold January night. Chai would help us sleep better. (Well, there doesn’t really have to be a reason to have tea.) At the Assi Ghat, a kiosk called ‘Taste of Banaras‘ offered us delicious kulhad chai.

Happiness, kulhad chai, cold night, taste of benares, assi ghat, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Happiness is… A kulhad chai on a cold night!

The Next 24 Hours

We had traveled over the Makar Sankranti long weekend. It’s considered auspicious to take a dip in the holy river, but, with the chill, we just bowed our heads. However, we did enjoy watching the kite flying.

We hit the road soon after. The best way to get around Varanasi is on foot or take a rickshaw. Our first stop was the Tulsi Manas Mandir. This is a newer temple. It is built on the site where the Ramayana was written. The gardens around the temple were clean & well-maintained.

tulsi manas mandir, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Tulsi Manas Mandir. That blue!

The Sankat Mochan Mandir is dedicated to the monkey god, Lord Hanuman. As if on cue, there were a lot of monkeys roaming around. While they mind their own business, it’s a good idea not to engage with them. The temple itself is divine. It has a calming effect. It is, probably, the second popular temple in Varanasi, after the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir. There are lockers made outside the temple where it is mandatory to deposit all your belongings, including cellphones.

The Banaras Hindu University has beauty & history at one place! BHU, of course, is legendary. It was a pilgrimage of sorts to come here. The campus took our breath away with its cleanliness, greenery, & wide roads. This is one of the oldest universities in India, & you can almost feel the history when you stand in the campus.

What we liked about the new Vishwanath Mandir was that it was orderly & did not have the same chaos that other temples do. There were proper queues formed & the darshan was managed by officers. The temple is in the middle of the BHU campus & its own precincts are huge. This is a new temple & maintained quite well. Have a cold coffee with ice cream at its entrance.

new Vishwanath Mandir, shikhar, banaras hindu university, bhu, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
The Sun plays with the new Vishwanath Mandir shikhar.

The Nepali Mandir was on our must-see list. The temple is built as a replica of the Pashupatinath Mandir. It was a hidden gem as even many locals did not know about it! It was, thus, a little difficult to find. (P.S. It is on Lalita Ghat.) But once here, we fell in love with the woodwork.

The Nepali Mandir was constructed by one of the erstwhile Nepali kings. The temple is different from all the other temples in its architectural style, materials used etc. The terrace is a good place to view the river. (There’s an entrance fee for foreigners.)

It is a lifelong dream of many Hindus to visit the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir. Glad we got a chance! The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, one of the principal deities in Hinduism. The Kashi Vishwanath Mandir is in a narrow gully with a heavy police presence.

Many ‘priests’ will approach you for a hassle-free ‘darshan‘. You can opt for them if you want to cut the queue & do not mind parting with some money. Better to fix the amount with them beforehand. Our ‘priest’ made us buy a few offerings, got a locker for us to deposit our stuff & to remove our shoes. He, indeed, took us through some other gate where the line was shorter.

Once inside, he took us to the various parts of the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, made us worship & told us the significance of the temple. Beware: these priests have tie ups with the priests inside. So, they will make you complete a worship & ask you to donate large sums of money. It is OK to say no or give only what you want to give.

It was good to be able to visit the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, but it would have been better if there was more discipline inside. Once out after the darshan, you can feast on ‘malaiyo‘ – a thick, creamy variant of curd, available in the gullies connecting the temple to the street. Yum! After all, every puja must be followed by pet – puja.

Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, malaiyo, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
No photos of the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir but chandan courtesy visit to the temple. Gorging on ‘malaiyo’…

(Disclaimer: The area around the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir has been cleaned of encroachments & been beautified.)

We ended our evening at the Assi Ghat. Cultural events keep happening here. The Ganga Aarti takes place at the Assi Ghat too. But as it is not as famous as the one on the Dashashwamedh Ghat, it is less crowded. We got front row seats to view this engrossing event. Morning after morning, evening after evening, it is only faith that makes this possible.

We had heard since childhood that the Banaras Ghats were not fit to step on. However, we did not encounter any such filth. All the Ghats have steps leading to the river. While hawkers & mendicants still throng these steps, there is no stinking dirt as such.

Banaras Ghats, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
The Banaras Ghats have a life of their own!

We loved Varanasi. Delightfully vibrant! Spiritual & all-encompassing!! We understand now why people choose to spend their last days here. Kashi stole our hearts & left us wanting for more. To (mis) quote Arnold Schwarzenegger, “We’ll be back”.

Accommodation

We wanted to stay near the Ghats but had a difficult time finding a suitable accommodation. Thank goodness we chanced upon Hotel Banaras Haveli! It is located at a walking distance from the Assi Ghat. We could spot the Ghat & the River Ganges from our room.

River Ganges, hotel rooftop, hotel banaras haveli, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
View of the River Ganges from the hotel rooftop

The room was comfortable with all required amenities available. Breakfast was served on the rooftop restaurant which was a great way to start the day on a winter morning. The hotel reception guys also arranged a boat for us for the evening boat ride. They also provided the airport pick & drop. All in all, a good choice!

With the Ghat being next door, & with rooms offering a view of the Ganges, we do recommend this hotel.

* Quote from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna

Statue, Madan Mohan Malviya, Banaras Hindu University, BHU, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Statue of the Late Madan Mohan Malviya at the Banaras Hindu University

My Balcony in the Mountains

How we want our life to be – being able to hit the road every alternate weekend. And it has happened in the past; so why not cross our fingers for the future too? Soon after we returned from Kishangarh, we prepared to head to Nathuakhan, a small borough near Nainital in Uttarakhand, India.

Barely two weeks had passed. We had not even unpacked. (We brought ‘living out of a suitcase’ to life.) But it was sheer luck that we were getting long weekends in such quick succession. We wanted to make the best of it.

Going through yet another backdated issue of Outlook Traveler, the name of Bob’s Place sprung up. We Googled it. It fell completely in line with our idea of a holiday. A cottage in a small village, views of the Himalayas, away from crowds, home-cooked food, and no compulsion to do anything. So we got going.

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Sloped Roofs, Bricked Masonry, Well-Built Cottages

We had been to Kumaon quite a few times in the last one year. We knew which turn to take, which road to avoid, where to stop for bio breaks etc. We left on time but could not ditch the Ghaziabad – Hapur traffic.

We cursed our way to the highway which was a mix of gliding & bumping over potholes. Oh the things we do for travel! During our previous trip, we found out about a road via Camry that traversed villages but was at least pothole-free. We gave it a shot.

It was definitely better. It was still relatively unknown. There was less traffic. The roads had managed to stay in good condition. To take this route, first-timers will most definitely have to ask around.

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Not Nipping It In The Bud! Announcing The Arrival Of Spring…

Once we entered Uttarakhand, Rudrapur onwards, the roads were in good condition. Soon, we had a narrow road, flanked by trees on both sides, giving a natural shade. It was on these roads that we could finally put our guard down.

We noticed pink guavas by the roadside and bought a few. I had never eaten a pink guava. I was thrilled. Then I was disappointed; because the pink guavas were tasteless. They would taste fine with salt I guessed.

We alternated between the radio, CD and phone. We could not sit in a car without listening to music. We read the slogans and couplets written behind trucks and admired the profound wisdom our countrymen could share with us.

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The Tiny Dining Room Lit Up In Yellow – Very, Very Inviting

We found WelcomHeritage Bob’s Place on GPS and followed it till the point where we felt compelled to ask. We were told we had come to an alternate route. We could return about 20 kms and then take the correct route or we could continue on the alternate route.

The alternate route was ‘full of stones’ for 4 kms, and could scrape the bottom of the car, but we were assured we could manage. So we carried on. And it turned out to be an adventure of a trip.

The first few kms were fine. We thought we had been scared unnecessarily. Then, it hit us. For a good 4 kms, there was no road. ‘Full of stones’ was a generous description. It was a dust path covered by rocks and pebbles.

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Cobbled Steps, Shrubs & Vines – Isn’t It Right Out Of An English Classic?

It was maneuverable as we were going downhill. The rocks did not scrape the bottom but they did cut our tires. For the 4 kms, we were silent, taking long breaths, and praying for this to end quickly. Mercifully, it was 4 kms, neither more nor less.

After this stretch, the road returned. What we advise – once you reach Bhowali, ask around for the route to be taken for Nathuakhan. Do not follow the GPS blindly. On hilly terrains, GPS proved to be inaccurate for the second time for us.

The good old GPS-the rickshaw guy, the vegetable vendor, the traffic police personnel – still worked, irrespective of the surroundings! Remember you would need to cross Ramgarh to get to Nathuakhan. If you have not crossed Ramgarh, you are on the wrong road buddy!

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According To The Locals, Summer Had Arrived. Flowers Had Started Wilting!

After our mini adventure, we reached Nathuakhan. Bob’s Place was just a little ahead of the village ‘chowk’. It was on the road that led to Almora, Ranikhet, Kausani and Binsar, and had large red iron gates to welcome you.

A courteous staff member welcomed us and offered us a selection of rooms. Visiting places off-season gives us the benefit of being the only guests, and the luxury of choosing any room we desire.

Bob’s Place had standalone cottages erected in a multi-level manner. The highest ones commanded a view of snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas. The lower ones had sit-out areas but the view got diminished by the foliage.

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Who Wouldn’t Like To Have A Breakfast With Such A View?

We chose one of the higher rooms. It had a balcony which gave us breathtaking views and was especially delightful during sunrises and sunsets. The wooden cottage had a fireplace, a blanket and a heater-we knew we were in good hands.

Oh! I did not mention the cold that greeted us. By March-end, most of north India starts burning. We, thus, did not expect it to be cold at the end of March but there was a definite need for light woolens. We were glad we carried the same.

Cold weather adds a tremendous amount of beauty to any place. When you are not sweating and protecting your eyes from the sun, you can enjoy your surroundings much more. When you are not looking for water every five minutes, you can soak in the calm and quiet better. Ah! Winters, come back soon!

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Did I see a face in that window? Naah! It’s just us here. Wait! What? 😀

This holiday was more for us to relax. So all we did in these two days was eat, sleep, read, write, listen to music and watch the sky change colors.

The food was prepared at the cottage and did not taste any different from what we eat at home. The ‘poha’ we had for breakfast was quite different though, and wonderfully so. It was made with ‘khada garam masala’. People who have eaten the Indian-style meat can imagine how good this tastes. The ‘masala chai’ was free-flowing too. Special mention of the chicken fry we got as our finale dinner. Do ask for it when you head to Bob’s Place.

For those who like their poison on-the-go, Nathuakhan has a country liquor store with few English brands available. So, if you have superior tastes or are fussy, I suggest you carry your alcohol.

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Being The Only Guest Meant We Could Trespass Freely…

On our first night here, we were shivering. The fireplace in the room looked inviting. Soon after it was lit, we were sweating. We had covered ourselves with a quilt. The fire was proving too hot to handle!

On top of that, we were apprehensive that we were breathing carbon monoxide. We might not survive to see the morning. If that did not happen, then something in the room would catch fire. It being made of wood, we would be roasted alive.

We laid awake for long staring at the fire, then threw open the door to let the CO out. The fire died soon after. We finally slept…

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We Found Ourselves Not So Alone…

Just before dawn, we crept to the door hoping to find a leopard/ panther sprawled on the balcony. We did find something; something from the feline family itself. A fat golden cat! It was lounging on the sofa to ward off the cold. We wish we get to see a leopard/ panther up close and personal soon.

The mountains got our creative juices flowing. We sat in the balcony, took a long look at the Himalayas, sighed at the sky that turned from orange to pink to purple to black, and got started on our post about Kishangarh.

We were both hooked onto our Bose SoundLink Mini. That tiny thing is as good as a home theater system. It is perfect for travel. The SoundLink fits into the palm of a hand. Once fully charged, it can play for almost two days. And the sound quality is fantastic – clarity & volume both. The SoundLink gets connected via both Bluetooth and USB. It has surely been a worthy purchase!

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The Changing Colors Never Fail To Amaze Us

Our favorites were songs from Queen and Highway. We curled up on the couch and listened to Sooha SA and Kinaare…

There were a number of walking trails nearby. The staff offered to guide us but we were not in a mood to move our limbs. We tried throwing darts on the dartboard. It looked like a simple thing but after three throws, none of which even hit the board, our arms hurt. We have respect for this seemingly simple sport.

The staff was plentiful, courteous and ready to help with pretty much anything. We had a dedicated guy who we found out was from Madhubani. He had worked at Bob’s Place for almost eight years then. He liked it here. The weather was good 🙂 All of us who live in the plains would never think twice about saying yes to the hills. He was soft-spoken and told us quite a bit about the surrounding regions.

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A Little Bit of This & That

Holidays always end sooner than anticipated. And it was time for us to head back. But so we did with our mind, body and soul rejuvenated. We think we can recommend an itinerary for five days, four nights for Kumaon:

Delhi- Dhanachuli- Nathuakhan- Delhi

Day 1: Depart from Delhi early and arrive at Dhanachuli by tea time. Spend the night at Te Aroha exploring the premises, specially the library, playing the piano and sipping ‘something’ on the balcony

Day 2: Have a day excursion/ trek to Mukteshwar. On a clear day, a lot of peaks are visible. If you are the religious kinds, say a quick prayer at the Shiva temple; it is one of the ‘Shakti peeths’.

Day 3: Checkout late and head to Nathuakhan. Check in at Bob’s Place. Get the fireplace going in the lounge and browse the innumerable books kept there

Day 4: After breakfast, head to Almora and/ or Ranikhet and spend the day soaking in the beauty of the British-established hill stations. Or go for one of the hill walks. Back to Bob’s for a chicken fry dinner

Day 5: Checkout and head back to Delhi

Recommended time to visit: Pretty much all through the year. It snows during winter, so be prepared to get trapped and enjoy more days of vacation!

Recommended eats: Poha & Chicken Fry at Bob’s Place

Recommended buys: Shawls, herbs and pine needle decorations from Kilmora; Fruit spreads from Himjoli; Rhododendron juice

Soon back with a Garhwali taste. Till then, sip the rhododendron you folks!

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