Believe and Embrace

The City of Varanasi, also known as Banaras or Kashi, is on the banks of Ganges in the Uttar Pradesh state of North India. As delineated in Hindu scriptures, this is the city that is closest to heart of Shiva (the Father of the Universe) and Parvati/Aadya (the Mother of the Universe).  It is also the city that is believed to be the birth place for Buddhism, as Buddha gave his first sermon there around 528 BC and was built with continuous improvements by prominent Mughal and Hindu rulers over centuries, without ever losing its distinct pure energy.

Archaeological evidence in the vicinity of Varanasi suggest that urban settlement of the area began in  2000 B.C., placing Varanasi among the World’s oldest continually inhabited cities.  Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation, and it is interesting to note that approximately 300 bodies are cremated on the banks of Ganges every day, thus making it a principal centre for pilgrimage for Hindus. Another salient element about this amazing old religiously significant city is how it has evolved into a popular destination for fashion lovers across the world, especially those seeking to buy rich Banarsi silk and royal muslin clothes.

In this post I will share why this city is close to my heart and what it taught me when I visited in Dec 2016.

I had been dreaming about going to Varanasi for the last 6 years, and every time I saw a picture of this breath-taking city, my desire grew progressively stronger.  This culminated until November 2016, when I just decided to book tickets for my mom and I to Varanasi, even before booking time off work, or buying tickets to India (December is the busiest and most expensive time to fly to India).

However, as if there was a guiding hand, by early December, everything fell in place; time off work was approved, and I was also able to coordinate a business meeting while I was planning to be in India, which helped cover a gap of vacation days needed.  Next, was the booking of the tickets to India at a good price, receiving travel VISAs and putting the money together for the trip.  Off we went!

When I arrived in Banaras, and got to our hotel, appropriately named: Welcome Heritage Jukaso Ganges, they provided a guide affectionately named Tullu, who knew the city very well, having lived there for over five decades.   He was honest, polite and willing to take us to some of the most amazing hidden gems within the city.  A beautiful image to describe this experience, was how everything came together exactly how the pieces of a jig saw puzzle comes together to form a beautiful image.

Every time I heard about someone’s trip to Varanasi or saw pictures from the city, I gave thanks to the universe for bringing me in harmony with that moment. I took it as a sign of moving closer to realizing my dream of visiting the city that drew me. Not only was I blessed by physically making it to this beautiful city, rich in history and faith, I was able to fill myself with a renewed sense of purpose and belief that my mind is a centre of divine operation. For it is me that is able to attract all the good I desire in my life, which I am working towards. Honing my attention towards the good in all, however always conscious that such a devotion requires constant vigilance, but a building block that this principle truly works.

I have always loved food, and exploring trying different cuisines. That being said, three things that I just did not like about Indian cuisine were Indian sweet chai/ tea (yes, you read it right), Indian cream based sweets and Malai (an Indian cooking ingredient, which is essentially a thick layer of fat/cream that appears when fatty milk is heated for about an hour). Being an Indian, these are staples that one grows up on. I disliked Malai so much that I fed it to my plants for almost a decade, throwing it in flower pots that were on my terrace every time my mom asked me to drink a glass of milk with this thick wrinkly layer of cream floating on top of the milk. It was no wonder that we had a very healthy garden (sorry mom ☺).

Malaio is made from churning Malai made from full fat cow’s milk with saffron, sugar and nuts.  It is sold only from 7am until 10am at specific street corners.  Tullu ji told me that my trip will be incomplete if I don’t eat this local delicacy, and before I could even reply to this suggestion, he decided to take us to a street vendor known for the freshest, thickest and sweetest malaio in the city. He handed us a clay pot filled with it and eagerly awaited for our reaction, just like a child waits for their parents’ appreciation when they draw their first painting. Hesitatingly I took a spoon full of it while telling my mind I can do it, as if to say to myself “ how bad can it be and why are there are no plants nearby for me to feed them”.  Amidst these thoughts suddenly my eyes went to notice a white snowy, almost dreamy, frothy mountain of cream, my nose got a whiff of aromatic saffron, and my hands felt the rustic texture of the clay pot that this local delicacy was being served in.  Sure enough, the taste buds of my mouth exploded with a perfect balance of flavours and textures that were sweet, crunchy, creamy and oh so yummy.  I guess I didn’t have to utter a word to Tullu ji, as he looked at me grinning from ear to ear, and quietly handing me another clay pot of malaio.

By no means am I a food critic, as much as I would like to travel to different parts of world tasting all kinds of vegetarian food while getting paid for it. What I am trying to share from this experience is a simple act of letting go of past inhibitions and opening myself to a new experience. This one simple act then led to a series of other such acts, ranging from having sweet chai at various points of the day, eating other sweets made of cream and sugar, exploring different routes to the same temple, appreciating the chaos of the city while remaining calm and letting all my senses savour all that came its way without any predetermined notions or judgements.  What it also did was bring supreme harmony and the purest of laughter, for shared experiences between my mom and I, forging us as amazing travel companions.

Banaras truly is a city that touches you in a thousand ways; spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally. Its narrow alleyways reminded me of different options we face before making a decision in our everyday life; some take longer, some are difficult, some are easy and some are full of surprises.  However, they all eventually take us to our end destination. As Shiva once said, getting lost is actually finding oneself.  Right from watching beautiful sunrises and sunsets on Ganges, to the sound of chanting of mantras, to temple bells and car horns, to visiting some of the oldest temples in the world, to witnessing an unsaid agreement of respect between humans and animals as they took the same road towards their destination every day, to savouring some of the most amazing dishes I have ever tasted and to ultimately accepting how thousands express their beliefs in their own unique style,  I found parts of me that I didn’t know existed. The city truly touched my heart and taught me some amazing lessons. It taught me to keep believing in myself and my dreams, and it taught me to keep moving forward while savouring every day and every experience.

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