Subah E Benaras is an emotion, a soulful immersive experience that allows you to feel the timelessness of this eternal city. It is a divine inward journey that awakens the soul within you. I am reminded of Mark Twain, the legendary American writer who said this about Varanasi a couple of centuries ago ” Benaras is older than history, older than tradition itself, ” And the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world located on the banks of the River Ganges is a little microcosm of the entire universe itself. The Subah e Banaras experiences are more than just activities, they embody the very spirit of the ancient city.
The city has a magnetic effect on me. I have been to Banaras a few times and every time I feel both humbled and overwhelmed. I am drawn to the river and the ghats and temples and monuments and find myself imbibing the energy and spirit of the city in the wee hours of the morning. Personally I feel that the true essence of Varanasi or Benaras or Kashi as it’s called in the Vedas comes alive in the wee hours of the morning, before dawn. There are certain experiences that form a part of the Subah E Banaras experiences or Morning in Benaras and it must be on every traveller’s itinerary – be it a soul-searching journey or a bucket list travel.
Ganga Arati at Assi Ghat
Every Ghat on the River Ganga in Varanasi has a divine aura, but there is a spiritual vibe in Assi Ghat, that is inexplicable. According to a legend, the southernmost ghat was created by none other than Goddess Durga Ma herself. It is believed that she killed the demons – Shamba and Nishamba and flung her sword far away. The sword created a tributary of Ganga called Assi. In fact, the name Varanasi is an amalgamation of two tributaries – Varuna and Assi of the mother Ganges river.
Historically however Assi Ghat was created in the early 20th century when one of the kings of the Sursand Princely States of Bihar, bought the land from Kashi Naresh and decided to buy the ghat. There are many temples here – the Lakshmi Narayan temple, the Jagannath temple, and the Assi Sangameshwar temple which is also mentioned in the Puranas. Assi Ghat is where the Subah e Banaras experiences begin.
The divine Arati starts at Assi Ghat in the wee hours of the morning around 5 am. The brilliant orange and yellow flames burn bright amidst the darkness, creating a vibrant atmosphere. Chants echo across the river as the bells ring. For me just being here is mesmerising. Although the evening Arati at the Dashashwamedh Ghat is a spectacle to behold, I personally feel that the Assi Ghat Arati in the morning is both surreal and special.
The Arati that starts well before dawn is a salutation to Surya, the Sun God, while paying obeisance to the river deity as well. As I watch mesmerized+ the Pandas or priests in saffron encircled by a halo of smoke and fire performing the Arati to the rhythm of chants and mantras, I realize that I am on the hallowed ground.
Music, Chants, Yoga
As the first rays of the sun caress the river and the breeze forms ripples and waves, I can hear Vedic chants as various pujas and yagnas are performed. Strains of music echo across the ghat as mini classical music concerts are performed. These melodious performances form a part of the Subah e Banaras experiences.
There is a session of Kirtans, which is devotional music accompanied by a medley of musical instruments like harmonium and tabla.
This is followed by Yoga and ends with pranayama and meditation. Along with the morning ablutions, there is a potpourri of astrologers and yogis and sadhus, and saints. Participating in the Subah e Benaras program is a unique and authentic way to experience the spiritual culture of Varanasi.
The ghats of Varanasi are also teeming with astrologers who offer their services. You can get your palm read or even do numerology. However, some astrologers can also prepare your astrological chart and you can consult them as well, but use your own discretion. There is no dearth of sants and saints here as well. But only some are friendly while others can be a bit quirky as well.
Sunrise Cruise on the Ghats of Varanasi
There is nothing more surreal than a beautiful sunrise cruise on the Ghats of Varanasi. It feels magical as I get into one of the barges and lose myself in the lap of the Ganges listening to the music reverberating from the Ghats. The sunrise cruise is an integral part of the Subah e Banaras experience as I see the town slowly stir and come alive.
There are many types of boats, but do choose the Bajra boat, where you can listen to traditional live concerts as you float around. Musicians sing for you traditional hymns or you can listen to strains of sitar and the rhythm of the tabla as the seagulls come calling. I have sailed on the local smaller boats, but this is my first experience cruising on the traditional Bajra, listening to the divine music stirring me awake from within.
Sipping kulhad chai, watching the migratory seagulls chase my boat as the mist envelopes everything in sight – every moment feels so divine. The sky slowly changes color, as the sun rises like a little ball of pink adding the sacred vibe.
The mist unveils as I can see the historic Ghats of Varanasi and lose myself in the activities. There are rituals being performed while some are finishing their morning salutations and ablutions in the Ganga.
As the boat floats, you can see temples and monuments cruise past and you can soak yourself in the history and cultural landscape of Varanasi. Every Ghat tells a story – from the legendary Dashashwamedha Ghat to the Manikarnika Ghat, from Tulsi Ghat to Jain Ghat, and to know more about the 84 Ghats, you can read my earlier blog on Ghats of Varanasi. But it is the majestic river that adds to the mysticism of the Subah e Banaras experiences.
Ganga Gate and Kashi Vishwanath Corridor
This is the pristine divine moment I have been waiting for – what I had missed in my prior visits to Varanasi. The Ganga Gate and the Kashi Vishwanath Temple Corridor. You can now enter the Kashi Vishwanath temple from the river through the Ganga Gate located next to the Manikarnika Ghat, where the cremations happen. The Gate leads to the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor where Adi Shankaracharya’s sculpture stands right at the entrance.
Hidden and lost temples, which have been restored stand in this corridor as you go towards the shrine to get your darshan. I spent some time visiting these temples and exploring the neighbourhood where they once stood. There is a divine aura everywhere.
While the Ganga Gate is the main gate, there are other gates as well from the lanes and gullies near the market. You can opt to do the darshan in the morning based on the crowds or you can plan it for another time of the day based on the time you have on hand.
The Akharas of Varanasi
In Sanskrit, the term “akhara” literally means “place of wrestling” and there are many wrestling arenas in Varanasi. Some of them are however monasteries or religious orders associated with Naga Sadhus, while a few practise yoga and discipline. However, you can visit one of the Akharas, mainly the Tulsidas Akhara located at Tulsi Ghat, next to Assi Ghat. Wrestling has been a historic tradition in Varanasi and it has been associated with physical and spiritual discipline. You can see both male and female students here as well practising or even in duels.
Local Traditional Breakfast
Your experience of Subah e Benaras is not complete if you don’t try the local breakfast of Kachauri stuffed with lentils and spices. There are also many different versions of it like choti and badi kachauri served with spicy curry and chutney. Fresh hot jalebis complement the spicy breakfast as you finish with khullad chai. Some eateries also serve puris as well with channa masala and aloo sabzi.
There are many authentic and traditional eateries in Varanasi like Shri Ram Bhandar, Kashi Chaat Bhandar, Bhola Chaat Bhandar, Om Shree Ram Chaat Bhandar. As the name suggests, these are also great places to have local Benarasi chaats as well. The food in Banaras is as divine as the city itself.
Have you seen the Assi Ghat Arati or been on a Bajra boat in Varanasi? A ritualistic bath in the Ganga, watching the Arati, meeting saints and astrologers, listening to music, getting lost in the ghats, and having a darshan of Mahadev – Don’t miss the Subah e Banaras experiences on your next trip to Kashi. It is one of the most ethereal and surreal experiences and defines the very spirit of the city.