You see, we happened to go to Kashi. With our impossibly packed schedules, its a miracle that we could steal a trip. Perhaps thats why they say, its Kashi that has you in her plans, and not vice versa, for you to be able to make a visit. And we are glad she did!
Why did we go to Kashi? Well, firstly, everyone should! It's one of the oldest cities in the world, and one can still see some old bits. It's also one of the 12 Jyotirlinga's, and a special one at that - more on that later. If you are not a Hindu, thats fine, it's a highly spiritual place, irrespective. If you want to grow, Kashi teaches you like no place else does. For us, it was a short and a focussed trip - we wanted to catch a few temples, and most importantly, the banks of the Ganga. Everything else is meant for a later time.
There are only infinity minus one temples in Kashi. So you have to choose a few based on your goals and desires. And stick to your plan to avoid being distracted and risk not completing it.
Our recommendations: Stay on the ghat, preferably at a place with a direct view of the Ganga, most temples within a couple of hundred metres of respective ghat. Roam along the ghats, it's the most relaxing place in Varanasi. Deliberately soak in the slow pace and the cheer. That way you will find your peace. Shop in the small shops in the alleys for lower prices for the same stuff you get on the main roads.
Lookup a few highly rated food places on Google Maps or through YouTube videos, to have a better understanding of the quality of the food served, and choose to eat there. And thats exactly what we did. We loved one such: Ram Bhandar, with its Badi Kachori Sabji, and Kheer Mohan - both very unique and mouth watering. 'Malaiyyo' is milk cream obtained via churning - delicious but seasonal (winters only).
If you want a dippy in the Ganga, while everywhere is equally holy, take the boat to the other shore for cleaner waters - you'll like it more in the mornings.
You will also find that good 'lassi' and 'jalebi-rabadi' are generally available.
We witnessed the Ganga 'aarti' twice, once from the ghat, and then from the 84 ghat boat ride another evening.
A ghat is a well constructed approach to the river. There is a Varana ghat outside of Kashi towards the east, and from it, there is a string of 84 ghats to the Assi ghat in the west. Hence the other name of the city, Varanasi. Well, the boatmen don't take you to Varana ghat unless you really insist, and we didn't. They take you as far as the double-decker bridge in the east.
All historical figures who have contributed to the country notably, have ghats in their name - Adi Shankaracharya, Chatrapati Shivaji, the Peshwas, Ahilyabai Holkar amongst others. There are so many signs of history there, one can get lost pursuing each of the rabbit holes. There is a new ghat being built - the Namo ghat, well deserved - I would say. From the boat, you can get a great view of the ghats in the daylight, as well as when the lights start turning on. And a very uplifting sight of the numerous ghee lamps offered to the river at twilight, that float carelessly, merrily even.
Depending on your exposure to life and death so far, you may or may not be alarmed by the burning pyres on the Manikarnika Ghat. You may even be startled with a revelation that the natural selection you learned about in school is just a different name for luck. But you will find that Kashi is quite nonchalant about it.
If you look at the map, the Ganga, meandering in a north easterly direction, turns north and even a little north-west just as she enters Kashi, before she turns eventually to the east again. Thus she forms a crecent moon of sorts, a concave receptacle to the spiritual energy of the east. You may think Shiva lives in Kashi, indeed, you may have heard so. But you will find that it's Kashi that lives in Shiva's heart. The calm yet energizing vibe of the Ganga is what makes Kashi a special Jyotirlinga. After your visit, you will leave Kashi, but a bit of Kashi will stay with you. And you will recognise her every time you feel both joy and peace.
And lest you conclude that Vishnu and the other gods in the pantheon can't be found in Kashi, here is a perspective. The (really) old way of thought in this land considers Shiva and Vishnu as each other's devotees. They chant each other's names and can't do without each other in the job of running the world. They are two facets of the same energy and if you suspect one of them is around, rest assured the other is hiding behind the other so you can't see him clearly. (So goes the thought). And by extension, the rest of them! Given this, if you are a devotee of one, you must automagically be a devotee of the others! Whoa now, take your time, let that sink in. Feel free to discard it if you must, it's just someone else's truth anyway. ;)
Back to the ghats of Kashi. Heaven on earth, eh? Are there no problems? Hardly so. There's the haze, probably due to the burning on the ghats. Plus a lot of dust - do wear a mask and save yourself from a sore throat. No space for anything on the roads, and no roads near the ghats! Just alleys. Top that! If you think nothing can, how about this, even on the non-roads, when you walk, you compete with stray dogs and seemingly stray cows! Elderly folks will find it tough to climb up and down the ghats and declare places in the nearby alleys unreachable. (They are inaccessible by car.) They can ask around and use the wheelchair services available for a small charge. When walking, Google Maps can be very helpful but can also be confusing and in the worst case, misleading. Local comission agents posing as local guides will increase your costs, so make sure you do your research and pre-book online. And you need to haggle hard for almost everything apart from food. You will find many of different kinds soliciting alms, but they are generally not annoying, so you can be selectively magnanimous and still keep your peace. On a bad day, one or many of these will trouble you. However, do not despair at all, Kashi is the one place where your love for Shiva will prevail over your past karma. So there is high chance you will thrive. If you think it's unclean, know that it used to be worse and also that it's getting better every day.
Especially on your way back to the airport, if you are flying out, that is, do keep a high margin of error and start early. BTW, the airport has the latest traveller friendly technology of the country - DigiYatra!
Without exception, every local person in Kashi is helpful, and comes across as gracious. The lord's grace has rubbed on.
Shiva is all knowing and so the folks in Kashi are wise. And they can debate with you like nowhere else. You will learn it first hand when the cab driver gets into a religio-spiritual debate with you. It's very much in keeping with the tradition of 'shaastraartha' in this land, you see. We did too.
It started benignly. We happened to pick up a traveller in a hurry to reach the airport. He seemed grateful. But our cab driver was not expecting this. He seemed puzzled by our generosity, and he really wanted to know why. Apparently it is a rare gesture, by visitors. And so the discussion started, peripherally at first, with the current affairs, or rather, politics, followed by philosophy and such. And then on to our act of the 'lift'. I had to come clean.
"You see", I offered, "Vishnu runs this world. And karma is his tool. Everyone in this world is here only to do their karma and this world runs on it. If you observe carefully, wherever folks are doing their duty/function/action/karma well, those systems and places run smoothly, and wherever folks are a wanting, either being tardy or malicious, those systems and places are full of problems. Whoever contributes well, they reap the benefits. Otherwise one is just meddling in Vishu's affairs, foolishly so anyways, as it is Vishnu who ultimately triumphs, always. And if one is smart, not only does one address his own karma well, one also seeks more opportunities to help Vishnu do his thing. In this case for example, if our traveller missed his flight, his task-at-hand would suffer, so would that of everyone connected to his task. And so would Vishnu's endeavour, by a little, howsoever. And hence this is an opportunity to help Vishnu and earn some extra brownie points." Our cab driver was quick to jump, "But didn't he say in his Krishna avatar to not expect the fruit of action?" I concurred, "Of course, difficult as it is, if you are able to do it without attachment to the benefits, thats even better, you will be loved by existence itself."
Our traveller didn't flinch, but the cab driver was all admiration. Such an exchange was also a first ever, for me, and Kashi had made it possible. YMMV.
And so we flew out, promising ourselves that we will be back for some more of Shiva's grace.