Varanasi was on my mother and wife’s must-visit list for 20 & 5 years respectively and I am glad that I could take them both to this holy city and fulfill their wishes. I and Abhay were the bonus travellers but nonetheless we all had loads of family style fun filled with lots of good food, never ending conversations, long walks, history lessons and River Ganges Views!
We had a really hectic India Trip; I went for a smashing 8-days’ 2100 kms Ride and Bandita had travelled from Mumbai-Gujarat-Jaipur-Gurgaon before the Varanasi Trip so this was going to be a much needed relaxing & rejuvenating trip for us before we flew back to Kuwait. All we wanted was to just sit, talk, chill in peace and this is what we did for the 3 days we were there!
I had planned a Varanasi trip in our India trip in November 2012 but cancelled the flight tickets a week before leaving as we were dead tired and didn’t have any energy to go to Varanasi but this time we were determined to finally make this visit possible. Even though I am not the “temple” kinds but I was pretty excited to visit Varanasi, because of the great food stories I had heard about this city plus to see what the fuss was all about and yeah watch that World Famous Ganga Aarti!
I got some real awesome information about what to eat from Meghana Sanka through the Eatlo FB Page (Big thanks to her), prepared a long list and was ready to attack & devour with all my vigor! The food in Varanasi was way beyond my expectations; it was so incredibly awesome that my stomach was almost about to burst and as you all know this happens a lot with me! I stayed true to my word; I had meals both minutes after landing and minutes before flying off!
I booked Hotel Alka thanks to the reviews on Trip Advisor and we had a wonderful 3-days stay at this property. It has possibly the most perfect location amongst all Varanasi Hotels; the huge balcony & open area provides brilliant views of the River Ganges, the food served is always fresh & damn delicious, all the main Ghats & the Kashi Vishwanath Temple are at a walking distance and the Tariff is absolutely reasonable to boot. We couldn’t have asked for more. I definitely recommend this Hotel to everybody who is planning a Varanasi trip. I had booked the Alka Heritage View Room which had a private Balcony plus I paid for Airport pick-up & drop as well. The Hotel Website for your reference – www.hotelalkavns.com/
And now the Trip Details…
Day 1 ||| Monday 9th March ||| Gurgaon – Varanasi
We had a hassle & incident free Indigo Flight which flew to Varanasi from Delhi at 9:00 AM and after a short flying time of 75 minutes we landed safe & sound at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport. The hotel driver was there waiting for us and the first agenda item for us was plain & simple – breakfast! After some 15 minutes of driving he stopped at a Highway Dhaba named Aman Restoorant (yes that is the way it was spelled). We ordered Tea and Paranthas to open the Varanasi Food Account for us! The Cook slowly but surely made some delicious paranthas & we ordered another round!
After being well-fed, we started the 25-odd kms bumpy drive towards our Hotel while enjoying the hustle & bustle of the highway and the city roads. We parked our car and then were asked to walk some 10 minutes to our hotel as the by lanes near the Ghats are not wide enough for the cars to reach there. It was a fun walk indeed with all the activity & noise greeting us! “Would we get the peace & solitude for which we came here?” This definitely made us worry but a big surprise was in store for us! Abhay was definitely enjoying all the action looking at every new corner with complete shock & utter excitement!
We reached the Hotel, finished the paperwork, checked into our room and were treated to a majestic view of the River Ganges in its absolute glory! There were no other travellers in the big courtyard which was adjacent to our room & we enjoyed the quiet moments!
And then the next agenda item…FOOD! We ordered food from the Hotel restaurant – Dal Fry, Mixed Vegetables, Zeera Rice and Tawa Roti, all of which was very delicious, light and it tasted like as if I was having home-cooked food! After the early morning flight & the not-too-light-and-not-too-heavy lunch we definitely needed to sleep to get us ready to enjoy Varanasi! I slept for 2 hours and then could not stop myself in venturing out to go for a street walk.
And then it began…my introduction to the Food delights of this mystic city. My first stop was a Tea Joint and enjoyed 2 cups of hot & really sweet Chai! Fully hydrated I walked towards a very small & non-descript sweets shop where an old man was frying Gujiyas which looked absolutely magnificent and I am sure you can understand why I couldn’t resist myself looking at the photograph below! I had 4 of them and packed another 4 for Mummy & Bandita.
I started my slow walk again and my next stop was a roadside Thela selling some gorgeous looking Chaat and Golgappas. I started with some golgappas followed by the Star Attraction of Varanasi – the Tamatar ki Chaat! I had heard a lot about this special concoction which is only sold in this city and my-oh-my what flavours it had! Unbelievable is the word. It was an utmost pleasure seeing the methodical preparation of this concoction which even had Gulab Jamun ki Chaashni! I followed this with Aloo Tikki ki Chaat and took a short break! Got both the Chaats packed and then walked back to the Hotel. Believe me these walks help hungry people like me immensely! It helps to digest all the food in my tummy, give it a much-needed break and most importantly I can look for more food options for my next walk!
Soon Mummy and Bandita were going all ga-ga about the stuff I had got them packed; Abhay also had his first share of the famous Chaats of Varanasi! He is definitely getting trained pretty well! I had another cup of tea and lounged soaking in the Ganga view from the top.
The Hotel manager “Munna Bhaiya” had a special “Jugaad” to get special Darshan at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, all one had to do was to be there at the Hotel reception at 7:10 PM and then walk with him to the temple. He has been following this same regimen for the last 16 years since he moved to Varanasi! He visits the temple every evening to pay the almighty his respects & seek blessings. Bandita and Mummy were planned to go with him and we two bonus travellers went to the most popular Ghat of Varanasi – The Dashashwamedh Ghat to watch the biggest spectacle of this city, the Ganga Aarti which starts sharp at 6 PM and lasts for an hour.
This was going to be exclusive Baap-Beta time for 2 hours! The Ghats were full of people anxiously waiting for this special Aarti; on the stairs and there were a large number of boats with people perched on them on the shore too! There was a lot of noise building up but the surprising part was that there was no chaos! The beauty of India as they say; so many people in a relatively small area but still no commotion.
I got bored after some 15-odd minutes of the Aarti as it was quite monotonous and repetitive for me so we went to the steps and started playing with the Water; I was busy observing the surge of humanity around me while Abhay was quite enamored with 2 dogs who were merrily playing close to us! To each his own! And then the best moment of the evening! 3 policemen came with a sniffer dog of the German Shepherd breed and finally Abhay touched a dog; he had tried his best touching one but all of them prior to this were street dogs and we were not really comfortable with him getting close to a street dog which might have been infected so this time was his time! I asked the policeman accompanying the dog for his permission and then Abhay touched the dog and the happiness on his face was simply incredible!
After these happy moments we went back to our hotel where Mummy & Bandita had also reached after the Darshan and then sat down in the courtyard to enjoy a perfectly still moonlit light to just sit back and chill! We ordered dinner and called it a day at 11 PM in the night.
The first day in Varanasi went as per our plans; we got to enjoy lip-smacking food, I watched the Aarti which I always wanted to watch, Mummy & Bandita did the much-awaited darshan and we enjoyed our relaxing time as well! Another fun day was waiting for us!
Day 2||| Tuesday 10th March ||| A relaxed day in Varanasi
I never knew that the Buddhist Pilgrimage site of Sarnath was so close to Varanasi; got to know this when chatting up with Munna Bhaiya the previous night. The moment I got to know this, I booked a car tour to explore another landmark site and more importantly to finally see the original Ashoka Pillar from which India’s National Emblem has been adapted.
Sarnath is the place where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma after attaining Enlightenment and is mentioned by the Buddha as one of the four places of pilgrimage which his devout followers should visit, if they wanted to visit a place for that reason in addition to Lumbini, his birthplace in Nepal, Bodh Gaya (in Bihar), the place of his Enlightenment and Kusinara: (now Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, India) where he died.
Our day didn’t start on a very good note though; we waited for almost 45 minutes for our breakfast while the hotel staff gathered themselves and kept delaying our meal. After the long wait we decided to head towards the Kachori Gali where we were sure we would be treated to some fresh food but we had no idea what mighty delicious treats were in store for us just 100 metres from our Hotel! The moment we took the first turn we saw 2 small roadside “thelas” serving some delicious looking breakfast! The first guy was selling “Ghugni-Kachodi” which looked so awesome & smelled divine and the other guy was selling Idli-Dosa-Sambhar! And we looked no further….we were the first orders of that day for both these guys and they were so delighted serving us!
The big surprise was finding South Indian street side food in Varanasi so I asked that guy who told me that he catered to the thousands of Pilgrims from South India who throng Varanasi through the year! He had found a perfect business opportunity which he was cashing on! Soon his shop was mobbed by many such pilgrims asking for breakfast in their broken Hindi. We also found 2 other such Thelas in the nearby by lanes.
We walked a bit further to have another round of street side tea and then got back to the Hotel to get ready for the Sarnath Drive. The road (if I can call it a road) towards Sarnath is in shambles & it is a shame that to reach one has to be tormented by innumerable potholes! Thankfully the moment you enter the town area, the roads suddenly get better because they have been financed by Foreign countries including Thailand and Japan!
Our first stop was Chaukhandi Stupa which is thought originally to have been built as a terraced temple during the Gupta period between the 4th and 6th Century to mark the site where Lord Buddha and his first disciples met traveling from Bodh Gaya to Sarnath. Later Govardhan, the son of a Raja, modified the stupa to its present shape by building the octagonal tower to commemorate the visit of Humayun, the powerful Mughal ruler. So it has linkages to both Buddhism and the Mughals! The area is well preserved by ASI, has a huge garden plus a lot of restoration work is going on. Our Hotel Driver served as a Guide during this visit and he was vehemently opposed to us hiring a guide as he considered all of them cheats but I definitely thought otherwise and the moment we reached the next site I hired a Guide – a chap named Mukesh with whom we had a wonderful time!
We stopped next at Thai Buddha Vihar which has a 80 feet tall Lord Buddha Statue – the tallest standing statue of Lord Buddha in India. It took 14 years to construct this sandstone statue & is a result of joint efforts of India and Thailand plus its construction started as a gesture to protest the destruction of Buddhist statues in many parts of the world. It was a tranquil site indeed with a beautiful garden adding to the beauty of this place.
Next up was The Mulagandhakuti Vihara temple, built by the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Society. This Mulagandhakuti Vihara Buddha temple was built in 1931 and houses Buddha’s relics found in Taxila. The relics are displayed every year on Karthik Purnima.
Sadly we couldn’t go and see the holy Bodhivriksha from close quarters as it was supposed to open at 4 Pm but we didn’t have that much time to wait. The Bodhi tree is the most sacred tree for Buddhists as Lord Buddha attained enlightenment sitting under this tree only. The Bodhi Tree of Sarnath was planted from a branch taken from the Sri Maha Bodhi tree of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.
All this time our Guide gave us insider stories and lots of “guidish” type of information which I always enjoy. We have had lots of fun with Guides in the past especially during BoP Rides! He then took us to a “Banarasi Saaree” Workshop and a shop selling memorabilia. I saw the Handloom used to make a saaree with a designer working on it which was a special sight for me as I had never seen such a machine & had just heard about it; I kept admiring & gazing at the machine before Bandita moved me away as had enough and just wanted to rest in the car! I also bought a “definitely not Sandalwood” replica of the Ashoka Pillar which is now part of my collection here in Kuwait.
The guard bid us goodbye and then I went to the Sarnath Archaeological Museum just across the road for the most special part of Sarnath! One of the original Ashoka Pillars with our National Emblem! It was such an awesome feeling finally looking at one of the most important relics of our history! Sadly photography is not permitted inside the Sarnath museum, which was a big disappointment!
After the History lessons it was time for some much-needed Hydration & Food Therapy. I drank 4 glasses of “ganne ka Juice” which has always been one of my favourite non-alcoholic drinks! And then I had sadak-chaap Veg Chow Mein followed by a round of Litti Chokha which my mother also immensely enjoyed!
We were really exhausted so decided to head towards the hotel to take an afternoon siesta to get charged up again. On the way our driver requested us to take a look at another special part of Varanasi and we were so glad we went there! He took us inside the Sampurnanand Sanskrit University Campus which looked more like a European Cathedral than a Sanskrit Academic establishment! The entire campus was so damn beautiful and it was a big lesson for me as I never knew there was a Sanskrit University in India that too at such a grand scale! This university was proposed by Jonathan Duncan, resident of the East India Company in 1791 and the first 5-6 principals were British too! The first Indian principal was Sir Ganganath Jha!
We went straight to the Hotel, freshened up and crashed towards a much-needed deep slumber. I woke up at 3:30 PM and no points for guessing where I went next! Yes. Towards the Chaat Thela to get another dose of heaven…you see how I could resist! I got them packed once again for a treat back in the hotel too! I also got some sweets packed from a 125-years old shop named Shree Rajbandhu which has an incredible collection of sweets and it was very tough to pick which ones to buy!
In the evening it was my turn to go to Kashi Vishwanath Temple thanks to the stern instructions from my brother who wanted me to go there along with Abhay so that he gets the blessings and as you know I can refuse anybody but not my Brother so off we went with Munna Bhaiya to seek Shiv Ji’s blessings for Abhay and our family!
But before that trip we went for another not-to-be-missed Varanasi Experience – the Boat Ride on River Ganges! We took a one-hour long ride and our boatman was a very old man who has been riding a boat on Ganga Ji for the last 54 years & still going strong! He took us to the Cremation Ghat where we counted close to 20 dead bodies being burnt and a same number of them waiting in line. This is the only Ghat where cremations take place 24X7 and 365 days a year.
We dropped Mummy & Bandita at the The Dashashwamedh Ghat for them to watch the Aarti at 6 PM and we went towards our Hotel.
Before bidding us goodbye the old man blessed Abhay with these most amazing words “jab tak Ganga-Jamuna mein paani rahe, tab tak teri zindagaani rahe”…which translates to “May Abhay have a long life till the rivers Ganga and Yamuna has water flowing in them”. I am sure it would be tough for anybody else to top such a blessing ever!
Abhay had a ball on the Ghats moving around with absolute gay abandon! Everybody was astonished looking such a young kid moving around the crazily crowded Ghats with such ease! And we didn’t decide to stop him either; it was his gala time which we didn’t want to interrupt!
We all got together after our own expeditions and sat on the stairs right opposite our Hotel overlooking the River Ganges and looked back at the 2 special days gone by! Tomorrow was to be the last day of this trip.
And then we had the only bad experience of this trip; I wanted to have dinner at some other place than our Hotel restaurant so I took everybody to the Ganga Fuji Restaurant which had excellent reviews on Trip Advisor plus it was at a walking distance so we decided to go there. We didn’t get positive vibes the moment entered the restaurant as there was no other guest plus no staff either! I thought to go to some other place but still decided to take a risk and that risk didn’t pay off! We ordered Stuffed Paranthas, Fried Rice and Chowmein; all of them were disasters with no taste, none whatsoever! And the Restaurant was filled with pasted A4 sheets of superb feedbacks from all over the world! We spotted almost every country being represented ranging from Cuba, South Korea, Poland to Brazil! We wondered if they were fake! I really felt guilty for giving such a bad experience to Mummy and Bandita!
So to redeem myself I took Mummy to a roadside Halwaai to treat her to some Hot Milk which is curdled and curdled till it turns into a mighty delicious concoction filled with lots of fat, malaai and sugar – this is another North Indian speciality and my mother’s biggest possible sinful cravings! She told the shop owner to give her a small kulhad and his reply was nothing short of legendary “Arrey Madam, chhota kulhad to school ke bacchon ke liye hai, aap bada kulhad hi lo”! My mother slowly but surely finished the entire kulhad all the while thinking how much sugar and fat she has consumed but then the after-taste took over her senses and there was no guilt remaining!
We had a Paan session to finish our dinner experience & then headed towards the hotel where we sat down under a moonlit sky with lots of conversations and Abhay fooling around on the table.
We had an absolutely awesome sleep after such a long day and waited for the next day to begin on a Kachodi high!
Day 3||| Wednesday 11th March ||| Varanasi – Gurgaon
The last day in Varanasi started with a bang for us! I woke up early to witness the Sunrise with the River Ganges view and it was an absolutely rewarding experience to see the colours of the sky and river changing so rapidly with the rising Sun!
We went to the same 2 shops for Breakfast; normally repeating the same joint for 2 consecutive days isn’t the best case scenario but the kachodis and sambhar were beckoning us and we couldn’t refuse! We had our tummies filled once again with delicious food and then had another round of tea!
We then went for a shopping walk to buy some gifts for our friends and family back home to the manic streets where things were in a perpetual motion zone; everybody was moving and there was so much noise! We experienced & the real joy of India, the one which we miss in Kuwait thanks to the settled & peaceful lives we enjoy here!
And then Mummy wanted her final Varanasi wish to be true! She wanted to have Bedmi and Aloo ki Sabzi – the quintessential UP Breakfast but was feeling a bit embarrassed in having it; the moment we passed that shop the aroma of the hot bedims being fished out of the Kadhai hit us, I saw a glimmer in Mummy’s eyes and I knew what I had to do next! I orderd a plate and then we enjoyed with utmost glee!
We got back to our hotel, packed our stuff, went for another afternoon siesta and then got ready to get to the Airport to board our flight for Delhi.
But I wanted one final hoorah before bidding the bylanes of Varanasi a goodbye…just before we were about to get to the Hotel vehicle I saw a shop selling fresh Rasmalai which were laced with Kesar and obviously I could not refuse my mind-body & soul which was demanding to have this treat; I heartily obliged and gorged away 2 of them and they were simply amazing. Bandita once again was shocked to see me indulging so shamelessly in such a sweet poison! But then how could I refuse such an offer even when it was unsolicited!
We boarded our flight at 5:45 PM and reached Delhi on time where Papa had come to pick us up and the moment Abhay saw him his excitement went up to the topmost level and he started jumping up & down! No wonder “Baba” as Nandini & Samyukta call him is their favourite! And Abhay is no different either. He is going to have a whale of a time with him.
This was a real awesome trip for us and for totally different reasons for all four of us! And this made it even more special. I was happy because I visited a new city and finally ticked off Varanasi off my list. Hope I can get there again in the future just for the sheer joy of enjoying lip smacking food and the hustle-bustle of one of holiest towns for Indians!
Everything about this trip was fun and I hope after reading this Travelogue some of you would be inspired to plan a trip to this city. Please don’t hesitate to contact me in case you need any assistance in planning your trip…
So till the time we meet again…
Cheers to life…
Till then ride safe and have safe sex…
Hasta la Victoria Siempre…