I last visited Varanasi in 1990, in my first year of college. It was the holidays, and I needed to get out of the city, and explore another place, another country. It was also the first time I was doing a solo trip.
While I am not a solo traveller, this was a journey I enjoyed from start to finish, if you will ignore the various mishaps that transpired along the way. Which is how I found myself in Varanasi.
The border guard at the Nepal-India border had taken some 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 money to buy a ticket anywhere, I decided to risk travelling to Varanasi without a ticket, and 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 for events of that time. And though there was a dawn to dusk curfew then, I finally managed to reach their home within BHU. And boy, was I glad to see them.
Besides feeding 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.
On one of those evenings, when curfew was relaxed till later in the night, I got my opportunity to go see the city, and specifically, sail on the Ganges. I loved it. There was something magically soothing about that moment.
Last year, I visited the city again. And while it felt a lot dustier and more crowded, I wanted to sail on the river, again. I wanted to see if I could experience what I felt those many years ago.
I took a ride that evening, making sure that there was enough time to make it for the Ganga Aarti. This time, there was 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 was in the city. 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.
I ended that evening at Dashashwamedh Ghat, experiencing a Ganga Aarti celebration. Whether you are spiritual or an agnostic, you need to witness this ritual, performed each evening on the banks of the river.