Banaras: Where Food and Faith come together.

The boat ride on the Ganges.

A boat ride on the Ganges.

Think of vivid watercolours fading in and out of each other in different forms and shapes – holy men with painted faces and a headful of braided hair, women in rainbow-coloured sarees and men in white dhotis and kurtas. Think of water – the surface appearance of which is smooth glass – catching the sunlight with a shimmer here and a glitter there, only disturbed by floating yellow marigolds and extinguished diyas; hordes of people lining the ghats, sinking into the shimmering water as if being eaten whole, to wash away their sins and the day’s collective grime, eyes closed in deep devotion. Floral notes from incense sticks mingle with the fragrance of fried foods, steaming kulhad chai and a faint, distant smell of burning, tying the scene together neatly.

That’s Banaras for you – one of the oldest living cities in the world.

I have never, ever, ever seen goats wearing sweaters and tees before, but it's a pretty common sight in UP. I'm guessing it has something to do with winter.

I have never, ever, ever seen goats wearing sweaters and tees before, but it’s a pretty common sight in UP. I’m guessing it has something to do with winter.

One part of Banaras’s story is on its ghats, where people of all religions gather for the evening aarthi or to absolve their misdemeanours and evil. The other is in its streets – the city thrives in its vast network of narrow lanes lined with shops on both sides and bustling thoroughfare in the middle.

Waiting for freebies at a roadside stall.

Waiting for freebies at a roadside stall.

There are stories everywhere you look – the erstwhile royal palaces by the ghats that are now home to regular families with regular lives; ancestral homes that double up as storehouses for the locally-made Banarasi fabrics; and temples that make wishes come true. In fact, there’s a story behind the city’s better-known name too – two rivers, Varuna and Assi, come together at this point, so the city that evolved by its banks got christened ‘Varanasi’. When the Mughal rulers came, they brought the name ‘Banaras’ with them.

Banarasi weaves sunbathing.

Banarasi weaves sunbathing.

Watching the evening aarthi is an experience in itself, but to witness it from a boat on the Ganga is an enchanting experience. The boatsmen drive a hard deal, finally carrying you to a vantage point from where the aarthi can best be experienced. Bit by bit, more boats come closer to each other and people begin to rock restlessly as other boats block their view. When the prayers start and the (good-looking) (Forgive me, God) pundits begin with their bells and prayers, the sounds drift out into the dark night over the gentle lapping of the waves and silence even the most noisy feet jumping across boats like monkeys.

Part of the aarthi involves lifting these Brass heavyweights and rotating them.

Part of the evening aarthi involves lifting these Brass heavyweights and rotating them. (Oh, and that’s one of the pundits.)

The aarthi goes on for a good 45 minutes, after which the people gathered purchase diyas, bind their hopes and dreams and wishes to the burning flame and let them drift off into the vast darkness of the Ganga. And while the prayers go on on one side of the ghat, pyres glow in the darkness on the other as families watch their loved ones turn to ashes.

Watching the aarthi from the river.

Watching the evening aarthi from the river, at the Dasashwamedh Ghat.

A boat ride on the Ganga will reveal that the burning ghats are not too far away. “Kehte hain, yahan ki chita kabhi nahi bujhti”, a local told us, referring to the number of cremations that happen on a daily basis. Although seeing a dead body float by was one of my greatest aversions to visiting Banaras, I didn’t spot a single one – not even at the burning ghats. Death is a profitable business here.

6:30 a.m in the morning, the waters are covered in dense fog. Sometimes, when the fog dissipates in parts, one can watch seagulls travelling with the boats, as the oarsman throws fish food into the water.

6:30 a.m in the morning, the waters are covered in dense fog. Sometimes, when the fog dissipates in parts, one can watch seagulls travelling with the boats, as the oarsmen throws fish food into the water.

History doesn’t just live in Banaras – you can see traces of it in the places around the city too. A trip to Sarnath will acquaint one with the birthplace of Buddha. Sarnath is a quiet town – except for the bustle of tourists, mostly from other Asian countries – but quite unremarkable otherwise, considering it’s home to one of the biggest religious forces in the world. Ramnagar Fort, on the other hand, is a quaint, pretty place with an impressive collection of vintage cars, clocks, and pictures. Unfortunately, little care is taken to maintain the fort and its historic treasures – layers of dust rest on most things. The architecture’s a mix of a couple of styles, of which old-world Kolkata is the most evident. Somehow, this mélange of styles also comes together to create a distinct flavour in the cuisine of Banaras.

At the Ramnagar Fort, pausing to take a picture. The architecture brings Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas to mind.

At the Ramnagar Fort, pausing to take a picture. The architecture brings Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas to mind.

Chaats are a must-try in Banaras. The Tamaatar chaat, unique to the city (at least as far as I know), is made of a thick and spicy tomato gravy topped with tiny fried Bengal-gram bits, coriander, masalas, a tablespoon of Ghee and sugar syrup. It’s like the Fourth of July fireworks in your mouth, with layer after layer of flavours bursting forth. Food as a rule is rich and lip-smackingly good in Banaras, and is best washed-down with a Kulhad chai from one of the road-side stalls.

The cooks using huge ladles to get the piping hot samosas and kachoris from the wok and let the residual oil drip.

The cooks using huge ladles to get the piping hot samosas and kachoris from the wok, and then resting the ladle on the sides to let the excess oil/ghee drain out. The fire is stoked by table fans – saves on manual labour.

In the three days I spent in Banaras – well, two-and-a-half actually because our train was delayed by 10 hours – my senses were on overdrive: there’s so much to taste and experience and absorb, so much to learn about culture and history. And if this is how much I have learned in such a short time, I can’t wait to go back and see how much more I can get to know over a week.

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That’s the city by the ghats of Varuna and Asi.

Getting there: There are direct flights to Banaras from most metros. The alternative is to take a train/bus from Delhi. The train journey is picturesque, but please avoid the Gharib Rath – it is ridiculously late at all times.

Go if: You want to soak in history, wash away your sins, want to experience culture, love stories, love colours, and love food.

The colours of Jaipur.

Ever since I can remember, the mere mention of Rajasthan has brought a look of wide-eyed wonder to my face. The royal (and ghostly) palaces, the filigree windows, the food, desert safari, Pushkar – there wasn’t a single element that didn’t fascinate me. Having lusted after it for years, I finally managed to spend two days in Jaipur. It worked wonderfully well as an appetizer, making my wandering feet thirst for a longer, more detailed exploration of the city and its cousins in the near future.

I love Jaipur for its vibrancy, bustle (especially since we went just a few days before Diwali), food, architecture and salesmen. But what I love most are its colours – of streets, people, places, clothes, just about everything. If I could paint the world with it, I would; but I’ll restrict that to this blog for now.

The 7:30 a.m Green

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The train ride from Delhi to Jaipur is a lovely one because the landscape changes from concrete-buildings to sun-kissed fields to patches of barren land and mountains with fort walls visible in the distance.

Hues of hardwork

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The designs true to Jaipur are available in every store, and sometimes within easy grasp on the roads as well.

Thick, sweet White

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Lakshmi Mishtan Bhandar, or LMB as it is more widely known in Jaipur, is a must-visit for foodies. My desire to order everything on the menu was quelled by my limitation of possessing just one stomach. Fortunately, it was big enough to ingest the most amazing Lassi I have ever had, Dahi Bhalla, Raj Kachori, Dal Bhati Churma, Paneer Pakora, Kadi Chawal, Samosa Kachori and Khandvi. (I think I’ve forgotten some of the other things we ordered.) I did have plenty of help from three other friends, of course.

Ageing Browns and Reds

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Johari Bazaar is dotted by street vendors selling fruit and torans and decorative items of all kinds. And since we had gone pre-Diwali, there were even more people.

Ripe Red

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One of the many wares sold on the roadside.

Lilac spread

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These little meringue-like sweet treats, what we call Bataashe (Singular Bataasha), are sold by kilos to people who use it as prasad.

Palatial Pink

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The Hawa Mahal is a straight walk down from Johari Bazaar and right on the main road. That it was on the road killed the romance of the palace for me, but the facade is still quite beautiful.

Moroccan Whites and Golds

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To me, this shop seemed like a slice of the Moroccan markets I’ve seen on TV magically that magically appeared in Johari Bazaar. Cut-glass, coloured glass, mosaic, brass filigreed and patterned-glass lamps were everywhere. I went from one to the other, eyes glittering with the reflected light from within the lamps.

Daylight Orange

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Almost every building in Jaipur is true to the design elements of the region. This one caught my eye because of the concrete meshes that double up as windows.

Dusk Blue

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As we waited outside the gates of the City Museum, we saw it transform from a structure of shadows and green and blue lights into a welcoming, festive place lit with a number of diyas.

Blurry Black and Brown

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Chokhi Dhani is a massive dining property, a sort of private co-op effort where food is served the traditional way alongside performances by local artists. The food was delicious, but we couldn’t do justice to it because we had hogged our hearts out at LMB. That said, I helped myself to multiple Kesar Pista Kulfis – they were the best I have had to date.

Dangling Copper

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Wares on display en route Amber Fort, which we didn’t end up seeing because we spent the day donating all our savings to the cause of shopping at Rajasthan Small Scale Cottage Industries. It’s a clever setup – with everything under one roof, they whisk you away from the clothes section to the jewellery and shoes and art sections one by one, smooth-talking you into exploring each and every part shop. Not a penny’s regret, but we comfortably ran up a bill of over a lakh between the four of us. My advice to you? Don’t make the mistake I did. Spend your days scouring the shops of Johari and Bapu Bazaar – you get great stuff for half the price. We didn’t have enough time for it, so cottage industries was best for us.

Royal Cream

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A view of Amber Fort from outside. We never got around to exploring it because we were busy donating all our savings.

Savoury Silver

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Endless trays of fried goodness beckoned from behind grumpy store owners as we drove past them, faces stuck to the windows, salivating profusely. We didn’t stop, though, because we were broke from having donated all our savings. (See a pattern emerging yet?)

Watery Yellow

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Jal Mahal awaiting the start of Diwali celebrations, standing as still as the water it lives in, with cormorants resting on its domes as they take a break from hunting for fish.

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And that’s how my two days in Jaipur went. I was like a horse with blinders, all my attention focused on shopping for friends, family and myself. That seems to have worked in my favour, though, because not having visited any of the architectural marvels this time gives me a good reason to go back there soon.

Getting there: Jaipur is accessible by road, train and air from Delhi. It’s accessible from most other places by air. If you’re going from Delhi, I would recommend taking a train – either overnight or early morning.

Go if: You love shopping, food, architecture, want to soak in the richness of culture and love a good sales pitch (the shopkeepers and their staff are very, very effective with their selling skills, I assure you).

Being a tourist in Delhi, Amritsar and Agra.

Light falling on graves, Fatehpur Sikri.

Three years ago, I decided to venture out of the warmth and comfort of South India and take a chance with a holiday in the North. My week-long holiday across Delhi, Amritsar and Agra in December of 2009 was an icebreaker on many levels (no puns intended). Before the holiday, I didn’t think it was possible to have fun at temperatures as low as one degree or witness millions of years of history crammed into one city.

I also didn’t comprehend the oft-mentioned distinction between ‘South’ Indians and ‘North’ Indians prior to the trip. I now thoroughly understand the divide. No matter how much I loved North India, I hated the people. I’m not too far off the mark when I say that most of them are uncouth, abrasive, uncivil and carry heavy chips on their shoulders about God-only-knows-what. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.

Delhi, Amritsar and Agra have been cooked in a cauldron of roiling empires, cultural trends, political upheavals and British colonialism, as a result of which the cities are steeped in history and good food. If you can ignore the people (a little hard to do, but worth a shot), you’ll enjoy what Delhi has to offer for the traveller. The capital is the cradle of Mughal Empire, food and architecture. Amritsar is a cold (weather-wise) city with laid-back people and lots of yummy Rasta food. And Agra is a regal place that maintains all its elegance despite the hordes of people coming to see the wonders it has to offer. At least here, the people were nice and approachable.

So what do you need to do to transform into a typical tourist in the three cities? Simple: visit these places.

Waiting for the Red Fort to swallow them whole.

Red Fort, Delhi

Massive, red and still partially occupied by the Indian Army. A remarkable structure that puts you in the shoes of Jack looking up at the beanstalk – that’s how one feels when they see it. You have to crane your neck to take the entire architecture in. The fort is partially occupied by the Indian Army, so access is restricted to the Rang Mahal and a few other structures. Still, the place is huge. Walking around the Red Fort takes almost all day, so there are a couple of restaurants inside that serve food and chai paani.

The eternal home for Humayun and his family.

Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi

The architectural ancestor of the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum is massive. The structure’s all red with intricate Mogul motifs running along it in white. We hit the place just as the sun was setting, so there was a certain happy-sad dusk light over it. As the sun vanishes, though, you begin to feel a chill creep down your spine because the place is quiet, isolated and more obviously, home to dead bodies that are hundreds of years old.

Crowding for food at Karim’s.

Karim’s, Delhi

You must have one meal here. At least one. Karim’s is famous for its food and a haven for non-vegetarians. Finger-licking mutton curry, bheja fry and crisp Naans. Be sure to carry a swimsuit, though, because you can dive right into the oil that floats above the curries they serve.

Up, up and away.

Qutb Minar, Delhi

All that noise and popularity that the Qutb Minar has amassed over centuries? I can assure you that it’s absolutely justified. Despite being hit by lightning thrice and suffering damage, it still stands tall as the highest minar, with passages from the Qur’an carved on it. The minar itself is just one aspect of the property, surrounded by palaces, mosques, marketplaces and of course, the Ashoka Pillar.

Two together: the Ashoka Pillar on the premises of Qutb Minar.

It was my favourite among all the ruins. Despite the havoc wreaked by the weather and the emperors who came along every now and then, the place still manages to help the mind’s eye fill in the gaps to remodel a semblance of it in its original form. Also remarkable was the fact that while the Qutb property is essentially Islamic, there are hints of Hindu temple architecture mixed in. We saw pillars that had Ganesha and dancing women – the kind that decorate the walls of Khajuraho – and temple bells carved in stone.

My guess is that the Mughal emperors brought them to their palaces and made them part of the architecture to remind them of their exploits and victories. Other, less cynical people like to believe it was a symbolic gesture towards religious co-existence/harmony. Ah, well.

The surfaces of India Gate hold the names of soldiers who lost their lives in battle during Independence. Makes you not take freedom for granted.

India Gate, Delhi

Commercial, crowded, marginally Indian. The place was full of Chinese tourists taking many, many pictures in front of India Gate. There’s something about the inscription right on top that gives you the heebie-jeebies and roots you to the spot. When your eye finally manages to discover the names of the soldiers who lost their lives inscribed on the facade, you experience the chills all over again.

At the Golden Temple, people go about their work quietly. Some sit by the water, some move toward the langar, and some listen to the Sikh musicians play, lulling one into a sense of peace.

The Golden Temple, Amritsar

Every place of religion has an aura of peace within it, and the Golden Temple’s no different. A flotilla of gold in the middle of a placid lake brimming with gigantic fish, people start lining up for darshan as early as 3 in the morning. Apparently, the Sikhs have to volunteer at the Golden Temple once in their life, so everybody inside the four walls of the place (which stretch for miles together) – from those who serve the langar to the ones who stand guard at the Sikh Museum – are people with alternate jobs fulfilling their religious duties.

I would’ve loved to see the place lit up in the night, but it was freezing at night and I was just not ready to put myself through the torture.

Sunset over Pakistan, as seen from India.

Change of Guards, Wagah Border

While the rest of the two nations are a stage for unbridled hostility, the Wagah Border that divides India and Pakistan is pretty peaceful. But then, us being Indians, we have to milk it for what it’s worth. Hence, a well-dressed man with a mike and a booming voice to inspire the crowds to scream bloodcurdling Vande Maatarams, wave the Indian flag in a frenzy and hurl battle cries across the gates; who then goes on to calmly walk around to pockets of non-committals like us and say, “Don’t you want your money’s worth from this spectacle? Let me hear you scream now and add some masala to the occasion.”

Bah.

My suggestion is to ignore him because the experience of standing at the border is quite emotional by itself. I was close to tears initially, and then when the whole thing went too far, I lost all sense of patriotism – the same soldiers walk up multiple times to the gate, have a face-off with the Pakistani soldiers and come back to loud cheering from the crowd. In all fairness to the Indian masala, the tears returned when the Indian and Pakistani flags crossed over and paused there for a few seconds before completing their journey down the poles and into the storeroom for safekeeping.

The dargah inside Fatehpur Sikri is made out of marble. People tie threads to the windows, so that their mannats come true.

Fatehpur Sikri, Agra

Akbar’s mark on time and by God, what an indelible mark it is.

From the Buland Darwaza, a massive structure of 107-odd feet inlaid with delicate Moghul motifs and now home to tons of honeycombs, to the brick wall behind which Anarkali was buried alive; from the beautiful palaces for Akbar’s three wives – Hindu, Muslim and Christian respectively – to the life-size Pacheesi game on the floor of the palace fort; from the Diwan-e-khaas where Akbar hosted gatherings with his ministers from atop a flat surface of a pillar elaborately carved in Jewish, Moghul and Temple designs, to the carvings of Persian birds and animals – beheaded because Aurangzeb said so; from the first known Meena Bazaar to Akbar’s sleeping chambers with an elevated bed and three separate entrances for three separate wives. There’s so much to see and absorb at Fatehpur Sikri. Turns out that the Diwan-e-khaas was where Akbar founded the Deen-e-Ilahi. Seems to me that he was one of the smarter kings we had – he combined all three religions into one, almost as if he had a sense of the communal turmoil of the future.

A view of the Taj Mahal from the entrance.

The Taj Mahal, Agra

Shah Jahan must have really loved his wife to have built a mausoleum so massive, so magnificent and timeless. Expansive lawns with frothy fountains lead you to the actual structure. The marble’s fast losing its smoothness because of the corrosive substances in the environment, and restorations are happening at a large scale. Flash photography wasn’t allowed inside the mausoleum, but there were people still clicking away.

That’s pretty much what we saw our holiday. In the middle of all this, we managed to experience a bit of night life in Delhi, freeze our tushes off, eat authentic desi food, catch our trains on (or just in) time, shop, meet friends and sleep.

My overall verdict on the holiday? North India is a beautiful place full of secrets. North Indians, not so much.

Adjoining ruins at Humayun’s tomb, where people sometimes go to catch a stunning view.

Getting there: Delhi is well-connected from most places by flights. From there, Agra is a few hours away and Amritsar about six to seven hours. Trains and buses can take you there from Delhi. Make sure you spend at least four days in Delhi, because that’s how much there is to see.

Go if: You love history, shopping, culture and food.

Pictures: All pictures here were shot using my friend’s Canon EOS 400D. This was in the days that i didn’t own a Digi-SLR of my own.