I first visited Varanasi in 1990. I was in college, and it was the holidays. I needed to get out of the city, and explore another place, another country.
It was the first time I was doing a solo trip. And while I am not a solo traveller, this was a journey I enjoyed from start to finish, if you discount the various mishaps that transpired along the way.
And with a series of mishaps was how I found myself in Varanasi, after having spent a few weeks travelling in Nepal. The border guard at the Nepal-India border had taken the dollars that I was carrying, leaving me with just about enough to pay for the bus ride from the border to Gorakhpur railway station. With no more money to buy a ticket to anywhere, I decided to risk travelling to Varanasi by rail, ticketless, in the hope of meeting up with childhood friends. I only had their address scribbled in my diary.
This was also the time when the country was on tenterhooks due to events of that time. And though there was a dawn to dusk curfew then, I finally managed to reach their home within BHU (Banaras Hindu University). And boy, was I glad to see them.
Besides feeding me and making sure there was a spot for me to sleep, they also introduced me to kullad chai, which we sipped outside the gates of BHU every time curfew was lifted.
One evening curfew was relaxed till later in the night. This gave me the awaited opportunity to go see the city, and specifically, sail on the Ganges. I loved it. There was something magically soothing about that experience.
Last year, I visited the city again. And while it felt a lot dustier and more crowded, I again wanted to sail on the river. I wanted to see if I could experience what I felt those many years ago.
Making sure that there was enough time to make it for the Ganga Aarti. I rented a boat that evening. This time, I had a guide with me who pointed out each of the ghats along the way, explaining their history and significance.
Sailing on the river, gazing at the shores on either side took me back to the first time I had visited. It was like nothing had changed, and yet everything was different. Between quick looks around and smiles at other passengers on passing boats, my mind was lost in its own thoughts and memories from those many years ago.
Hopefully, I’ll not have to wait another 28 odd years to relive these memories again.