An (Extra)ordinary Evening in Varanasi

“Creativity is putting your imagination to work, and it’s produced the most extraordinary results in human culture.”

~ Ken Robinson

It was an ordinary evening in Varanasi that we were boating along the river Ganges. The lights on the ghats turned on one by one as the dusk fell over the city.  The priests were waving the lamps towards the holy river Ganges to perform the evening aarti, which is a ritual performed regularly on the famous Dasaswamedh Ghat in Varanasi. The tapering flames of the lamps were clearly visible from a distance. The reflection of lights in the rippling water made the scene extraordinary. It looked like the water caught fire. 🙂

evening varanasi, varanasi, ghats, aarti, lights

I tried to capture the view with my Sony Cyber Shot W-190. But, I was standing in the middle of a moving rowing boat and made quite an effort to maintain my balance. 🙂  So, you can see, most of the images became blurry. That time I was upset and thought about deleting these images. But thank god, I didn’t! Now when I look back these ordinary images they remind me of those ‘extra’ ordinary moments in Varanasi.

varanasi ghat, varanasi, evening aarti

light reflection, varanasi, evening

light reflection in ganges, varanasi, evening aarti

lights, evening aarti, varanasi, india

Published in response to the Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge: (Extra)ordinary.
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Varanasi Boat School – An Ideal Learning Environment for Street Children

varanasi boat school, boat school in varanasi

Boat school! In India? How does it look like? How does it work? Questions thronged my mind when I first heard about the Varanasi Boat School. But when I watched this video on the website of Do Right, I started believing in it. See how smile and hope brighten their faces when asked what they are learning in this boat school. However, before we learn more about the boat school in Varanasi let’s take a look at the present scenario regarding education in India. Perhaps it will help us understand the need for more such schools across the country and how such efforts can make a difference.

Education is the guiding light in the darkness of ignorance. It improves our thought process and helps us to think independently without coming under the influence of any social taboos, beliefs and religious and political pressure. The first step to education is literacy. Technically, literacy means functional literacy; knowing 3Rs – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic (basic level).

Unfortunately, India has the largest illiterate population (287 million) on earth according to United Nation’s latest Education for All Global Monitoring Report. The number almost equals the entire population of the USA.

After the enactment of Children’s Right to Free Education Act in 2009, Indian government took up various literacy programmes under the supervision of NLMA (National Literacy Mission Authority). The subsequent 2011 census report says the national literacy rate has grown to 74% (Male – 82%, Female – 65%) while the global rate being 84%.

Another disturbing fact is that India, despite having a large percentage of young population, stands 112th on Global Child Development Index 2012 (based on Education, Health and Nutrition rate among children). The rank dropped from a previous 103rd position in 2004.

The above stats are alarming! Lack of education is, perhaps, the biggest challenge in India at present.

Lack of education -> ignorance -> unprotected sex -> overpopulation -> poverty -> malnutrition, unemployment -> increasing crime rate

It seems like a chain reaction the root cause of which is ‘illiteracy’. Many poor families are reluctant in sending their children to school. Instead they would put them into work and make them earn for the family. This is the most painful thing to see children begging for alms on the street or child labourers who have sacrificed their childhood too early.

Therefore, free education for poor children is the need of the hour.

Perhaps it is a mammoth task for the government to improve educational infrastructure so that basic education can be provided for free to every child in the lower strata of the society and ensure a better life for them. The government is working although the success rate might not be satisfactory. But should we just blame it on the government and sit back thinking it’s not my problem? Or is giving alms to street children the solution?

Can’t we, the common people do anything to make a difference for our under privileged children? Yes, we can.

More private efforts and initiatives are needed to make India a better place. Varanasi Boat School is a unique endeavour by Mr Ajeet Singh and his NGO ‘Guria’.  This innovative educational campaign has been named as – Do Right. This novel initiative is taken for a noble cause – to inspire underprivileged kids in learning and education and create an environment where learning will be fun for them.

Now you might think, “Why Varanasi and not any other place”? Well, the journey of doing right is not limited within the periphery of Varanasi. Do Right has started its journey from the Rann of Kutch. After that they have worked for the street children in Pune. Now they have reached Varanasi, the cultural heart of India with an aim to create an ideal learning environment for the city’s street children. If this learning model is successfully implemented in Varanasi it can be developed in other parts of the country in future.

Started in a small scale with small investment Varanasi Boat School has already proved that it has a lot of potential. But a magical transformation is needed to perform in its full potential. The school needs renovation and expansion with larger space and more books, toys and painting kits, which is beyond the capacity of individual effort.

How you can make a difference by doing the right

More funds are required to do the right for these children – to retain the smile that Do Right has brought on their innocent faces. You can help this campaign grow and succeed by donating any amount you want. You can also inspire your friends and acquaintances in donating for Do Right and create awareness for this noble cause by spreading the message in your social networks. Please visit www.doright.in for more details about the campaign.

If you are still not confident that a small contribution can make a difference I would like to share something with you.

make a difference, varanasi boat school, do right

Sadhu Baba at Varanasi Dasaswamedh Ghat

sadhu, sadhu baba, Varanasi Dasaswamedh ghat, saint, hermit

Varanasi is a place where you will see them anywhere and everywhere – on the Ghats, in the alleys, at the temples. Some maintain the attire in which they came on this earth, some wear saffron clothes. Some are completely absorbed in their own world, some are very conscious about the surroundings – whether passersby pay attention to them or not (I hope you understand why 🙂 ). Some draw tika on their forehead while some smear ashes on the skin. Many of them wear matted hair coiled up on their crown. Yes, they are the Sadhus (hermits) – they belong to Varanasi’s culture.

While I was taking a stroll along the Daswaswamedh Ghat in one fine morning I spotted him. He came down the stairs, spread his rug on the floor, arranged his belongings in order, then sat down and looked at me curiously. As I approached him he wore a pleasant smile.

“Kya mai ek photo le sakti hun apki?”, I requested. (Can I take a photo of yours?)

He instantly gave his approval, “han, zaroor…le lo”. (Yes, of course, go ahead)

And there he goes – our smiling Sadhu Baba.

sadhu, sadhu baba, Varanasi Dasaswamedh ghat, saint, hermit

P.S.: I took this photo with my old SONY Cyber Shot W190.

Read the full story of my Varanasi Trip here.  

Varanasi: A Visit to the Cultural Capital of India – Part III

Me at Varanasi, Ghat, photography

This is a continuation of my previous posts – Varanasi: A Visit to the Cultural Capital of India and Varanasi: A Visit to the Cultural Capital of India – Part II. Hope you enjoy reading…

The Last Day: Exploring the Ghats in Varanasi

On the next and the last day, I decided to explore the ghats on my own while my family went to Viswanath Temple for the second time. The main ghat was a 5-minute walk from the guest house. It was early morning and I roamed the ghats to ‘feel’ Varanasi for the last time. The river, the boats, the flowers in the floral shops, the sages in saffron and the people taking holy bath … all looked so different in the soft light of morning sun. I tried to capture some regular activities along the ghats.

Moon, Varanasi, Ghat, photography, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
My Photographer Avatar 🙂

Here are some for your eyes only…  🙂


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In spite of its zigzag narrow lanes, enough to give you the feel of labyrinths; dirty overcrowded ghats, polluted water, congested roads and no traffic rule at all, Varanasi has its own charm with its age-old edifices, temples and a laid back attitude towards life. It was really a wonderful trip to the holy city in late February when the weather is pleasant. I think this is the best time to visit the place if you want to avoid both the chilling winter and the scorching summer of Northern India.

Gradually our time in Benares came to an end. I chose the Travera of the guest house for extra comfort. Pickup and drop cost us a total of Rs. 1200 which could be cut down to Rs 300-400 if we took auto rickshaws. But I don’t mind that extra bucks for the comfort and convenience of my family.

N.B: If you need to dry your laundries out in the sun don’t forget to clip them tight. Otherwise, you may lose them forever… courtesy monkeys.  They have a tendency to grab anything and everything that belongs to human species… 😉 .   Take care and have a nice trip!



Varanasi: A Visit to the Cultural Capital of India – Part II

old mansion, Varanasi

This is a continuation of my previous post Varanasi: A Visit to the Cultural Capital of India

Second Day: Varanasi Sightseeing

The second day was reserved for sightseeing. In the morning we went to  Kashi Viswanath temple for ‘puja’. It was a Monday and the alleys to the temple were stuffed with people, actually devotees, from all across India.  Being a not-so-religious kind I chose to wait at a distance with all the mobile phones and cameras while my mother and aunt went inside. They don’t allow mobile phones and cameras inside. So, one way or the other I had to wait outside.

After lunch we set out for sightseeing in Varanasi. This time we didn’t take car from the hotel. We managed it with a local car rental agency and hired a Tata Sumo for the rest of the day at Rs. 800 (at the hotel desk, they asked for Rs. 2000). But I advise you should always start early for sightseeing.

Ram Nagar Fort

We started at 1:30 pm from the city and headed to Ram Nagar Fort, the palace of the ‘Maharaja’ (king) of Kashi (Benares).

Now the palace has been turned into a museum where you can see a historic collection of oriental and western artillery used in the 17th and 18th centuries; the cars and golden chariots used by the royal family; the silk robes and intricately designed silver dinnerware and decorative ceramics.

Ram Nagar Fort, Varanasi, Varanasi Sightseeing, Uttar Pradesh
Ram Nagar Fort

I liked the beautifully crafted chariot and was amazed by the size of a huge Cadillac. The ‘Rang Mahal’ (entertainment hall) has fascinating stained glass windows and doors to add more charm to its purpose, I guess.

Sarnath

From the fort we headed right to the holy shrine of ‘Sarnath’ where Lord Buddha is believed to preach his first sermon. Here, one thing I must mention that normally the sightseeing trips start with visiting temples in and around the city, then the university and then Ram Nagar fort to Sarnath which is about an hour journey from Varanasi. Since we started late we changed the itinerary starting with the distant fort and shrines and then coming back to the city.

Sarnath temple, Varanasi Sightseeing, Uttar Pradesh
Sarnath Temple

 

Sarnath Temple was looking beautiful in the golden streaks of twilight sun.

Sarnath, Buddhist Shrine, Varanasi Sightseeing, Uttar Pradesh

The temple premises were clean and quiet with the typical characteristics of a Buddhist shrine. Serenity was prevalent in the atmosphere. But what disturbed my mind was the signboard right inside the temple “Rs 25 for Photography” while “photography prohibited’ was written outside. Commercialization has turned out to be an infectious disease!

Sarnath Temple, Lord Buddha, Varanasi Sightseeing, Uttar Pradesh
Lord Buddha believed to have preached his first sermon at Sarnath

Banaras Hindu University

Our next destination was BHU, Banaras Hindu University, one of the largests in India. The university has its own aerodrome, helipad and bus service. The buses start from the main gate and ply the sprawling 10 sq km campus dropping students at their respective department buildings. Unfortunately it was already dark and I couldn’t take pictures. You’ll like the beautiful Birla Temple situated inside the campus.

Birla Temple, Banaras Hindu University, BHU, Varanasi Sightseeing, Uttar Pradesh
Birla Temple at Night, Banaras Hindu University

Durga Mandir

Back to the city, we visited temples of Gaudi (Durga Mandir), Hanuman Ji (Sankat mochan) and Annapurna.

The manager at car rental suggested for a day trip to Triveni Sangam, Allahabad which is about 3 hours drive from Varanasi. Unfortunately we were too short of time. Well… there is always a next time … :).

Continued… Part III: Exploring the Ghats

Varanasi: A Visit to the Cultural Capital of India

Morning activities on the ghats, Varanasi

‘The cultural heart of India’… or ‘the melting pot of Indian culture’ … or ‘the holy city of India’ – whatever you like to call it, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, Varanasi has its own charm to attract travelers from all across the globe. Glimpses of Benares in Satyajit Ray movies have always made me curious about the city. As I read Aldous Huxley’s ‘Benares’ …all those description of boats in the river, the ghats and Hindu rituals during solar eclipse ignited my inquisitiveness further.

Varanasi, Ganges, Ghats, Banaras, Benares, Uttar Pradesh
Incredible Benares

Recently I had the pleasure of visiting the old city of Varanasi (Banaras) and would like to share my experience there. It was a family tour with my mother, aunt and my sisters.

Getting There

On 19th February we boarded the Howrah-Mumbai Mail at 10pm. Courtesy Kolkata’s typical rallies and meetings, all the roads to Howrah were blocked and we were stranded in traffic jam for 2hrs. Thankfully, it was our destiny that we reached the station literally at the last minute when the guard was about to wave the flag and finally managed to get on board.

The train reached Mughalsarai Junction next morning right in time. We opted for pickup service (Rs 600) provided by the hotel. A white Ambassador was waiting outside to take us to the guest house. We took the GT Road (or NH2). It was a journey of about an hour from Mughalsarai station to Godowlia Crossing, in the heart of Varanasi. However, there are plenty of auto rickshaws and trekkers outside the station that are much cheaper mode of transportation.

Ghats, Ganges, Varanasi, Banaras, Benares, Uttar Pradesh
Ganges – view from our guest house in Varanasi

First Day:

As you know, the narrow alleys are one of the city’s specialties… we had to get down on the main road and walk down the alley to reach our guest house.

Sita Guest House on Chowsatti Ghat is really a good place to stay in Varanasi if you want to enjoy the view of the Ganges in the quiet and privacy of your room. Rooms are neat and clean and the price is quite reasonable with respect to its location, facilities and service compared to other hotels/guest houses located near the always crowded Dasaswamedh Ghat (known as the main Ghat of Varanasi). Sita Guest House also has a rooftop restaurant which was another reason for me to choose this place.

Ganges, Assi Ghat, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Views from the guest house window

Godowlia Crossing, the main commercial hub of the city was 10-minute walk from our hotel. After a refreshing hot and cold water bath in the guest house we set out to explore the city market. I believe the market is a place in every city or town that gives you an essence of the city at once.

One thing I must mention that if you want a good meal outside the hotel you are staying, go for Kesari Restaurant, which is a popular eatery serving a variety of cuisines starting from Punjabi to South Indian. The restaurant is situated on the left of the road towards Dasaswamedh Ghat from the crossing.

After lunch our next destination was the famous Dasaswamedh Ghat. I wasn’t surprise to find the ‘sacred’ ghat so dirty. It was an over-crowded place where it seemed the whole city population swarmed in.

Dasaswamedh Ghat, Ganges, Varanasi, Benares, Uttar Pradesh
Dasaswamedh Ghat

The best thing about Varanasi is I think the boat ride in the Ganges…

Boat ride Varanasi, Ghats, Uttar Pradesh
Boat Ride in Varanasi

Since ours was an all-women group we reserved a boat for Rs 500 for one hour private ride. The boatman said he will show us the main 17 ghats and drop us in front of our guest house. Alternatively, you can go for a ride at Rs 70 per head in a group of 15 to 20 people at a time.

As the boat floated along the ghats the boatman went on briefing the history of each ghat including the main Dasaswamedh, Rana Mahal, Assi, Harischandra, Manikarnika and more. He was a captivating story teller, I must admit. I was busy in observing various activities of the devotees and visitors along the ghats while listening to him. From Hindu family performing religious rites to visitors from foreign countries taking pictures to some other species (buffaloes actually … ;)) staring at us while grazing lazily on the bank – it was quite an assortment!

Varanasi, Ghats, Ganges, Banaras, Benares, Uttar Pradesh
Ghats in Varanasi

In the middle of our ride we stopped at Kedar Ghat only to shop banarasi saris… well…you know women! 😉 Not buying a Banarasi Silk sari while in Benares is next to impossible.

Kedar Ghat, Varanasi, Banaras, Ganges, Uttar Pradesh
Kedar Ghat, Varanasi

There are a number of sari shops and silk factories around. Many of the shop owners will claim that they will give you pure Banarasi silk saree at cheaper price…BEWARE! In the market you’ll find many ‘dalals’ (broker) coming up to you and try to convince you to buy from their establishment. Do not listen to them as you may end up with a bad deal in the end. However, we shopped till we dropped… lol… and started back towards the main ghat. The sun was nearing the horizon and the ‘aarti’ was about to begin.

Dusk, Ganges, Ghats, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Dusk falling over the Ganges, Varanasi

It’s a wonderful experience to watch dusk falling over the city and lights coming out one by one along the riverbank. We found the ‘aarti’ already started as we reached the Dasaswamedh Ghat. It was one of a kind experience to watch the ‘aarti’ from the boat. I saw clergymen clad in saffron stood up in a row and chanted hymns together while waving lighted ‘diya’s (indigenous lamp used in religious rites) towards the holy river. The ghat was flooded with the light of bright golden flames… beautiful!

Aarti, Dasaswamedh Ghat, Ganges, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Evening aarti at Dasaswamedh Ghat, Ganges, Varanasi

Slowly we passed the main ghat and headed towards Chowsatti Ghat. The boatman dropped us right in front of our guest house.

My first day in Varanasi was quite eventful.


continued… Part II: Sightseeing in Varanasi