Varanasi, Banaras or Kashi is said to be the oldest living city on the Earth. Undoubtedly, the city is a very popular destination of foreign tourists as well as domestic tourists and pilgrims. Therefore, when a foreign tourist decides to visit India and prepares itinerary, the holy city is certainly included.
One of the attractions of the old city is its ‘rub-shoulder lanes’
Very few cities in the world have such narrow serpentine lanes where sun-light touches the surface for only few minutes. There exist not only one or two such lanes and bye lanes forming labyrinth, one can walk in these lanes from one end of the city to the other end without coming out on the motor able road.
In these lanes you meet famous scholars and craftsmen, artists and artisans, priests and pandas, agents and pageants, aristocrats and commoners, criminals and cleaners and of course a pakka (real) banarasi, par excellence with his unique lifestyle and philosophy of ‘masti’(enjoy joy), who knows to drink the life to the lees. You find famous shrines and temples of almost all the religious sects of India. In these lanes almost, transactions of millions are being done of Banarasi sarees and silk products, carpets, metal wares, toys and what not.
If you are in search of Banarasi taste, in these lanes you will get famous kachauris, sweets, malai, chuda matar, kulfi, and world famous ‘Thandai’. Apart from these things final touch will be with banarasi paan (Beetle leaf) and believe me, each shop in the lane (alley) has its own flavor and style.
For your olfactory pleasure, these lanes provide you with fragrant flowers and garlands. Garlands around your neck will provide soothing fragrance for several hours. You find ‘Itra’ (oily scents) shops in certain lanes, which avail you, Itra of gulab, khas, chameli, juhi. For your ears, these lanes provide you soul stirring Banarasi music –Shahnai, Sitar, Tabala, Sarangi.
Yes, meet a semi naked carefree Banarasi with a loin cloth (G-string) around his waist .Well, do not get scared .He follows tradition, he is dressed. Cloth around his waist is gamacha-a multipurpose piece of cloth .You can use it as a towel, tie it as turban or use as carry bag, off course, you can cover you back or use it as duster. Affectionately, gamacha is called flag of Banaras.
Off course, a coin has two sides. Some lanes are dark ,narrow, foul smelling and overcrowded , full of men, animals and vehicles and difficult to negotiate. Apart from holy cows, you meet the famous bulls of Varanasi, the mount of Lord Shiva-Nandi. You may witness unique bull-fighting in the crowded lanes, resulting a stampede and even one enjoys it.
One has rightly said that you can not avoid widows, bulls, stairs and ascetics in Kashi. Banaras still preserves its uniqueness. As you walk through these lanes, you will come across umpteen processions-a procession of Ganga bathers, a procession of Ganga-worshippers (pujaiya-of ladies led by Shahnai), devotees procession of various sects, marriage processions, Ramleela processions (Nakkataiya – Bharat Milap), political processions, ‘Holi’ processions and last not the least the funeral processions .Mostly these processions are led by bands, drums, shahnai, dance and songs. It gives you an idea how much is there to see in these lanes.
Off course, you can not have a car-ride in these lanes but you can pass through these lanes on motorbikes or scooters, which cause utmost inconvenience to pedestrians. These lanes are also places of headless gossips and street corner political meets.
You may call me a pessimist but you have to suffer to understand the romance of Banarasi Lanes. You may be walking unprotected through a lane , suddenly a window on the third story opens, two beautiful hands come out holding a basket containing garbage , then with a jerk the basket is emptied. Do not worry. Do not try to accuse her.
People have right to throw anything in these lanes. Banarasi are fond of paan chewing and spitting. You find wonderful pan-peak paintings on the walls and floors.
During the course of time many things have happened in these lanes, in fact history of Banaras is written in these lanes. Banaras is called Mini India. All the seven cities (Saptapuri) and four abodes (Dhams) exist in this city. If you walk through these lanes, you will understand how an area represents states of India-complete with language, dialect, dress, customs, deities and food habit. There are shrines of ‘every god’ in these lanes- Yaksha, Brahma, Beer, Peer, Samadhis, Sthals and Majars. No one can claim that he has seen all the lanes. They are off course labyrinthine and serpentine .You may get lost in these lanes if you do not know the secret of these lanes.
To add to the importance of this eternal city, it was proclaimed that one gets the total salvation after death here in Mahashmasan, permanent abode of Lord Shiva. Symbolically, the lanes became the paths passing through which one washes away the sins before reaching the mother, the holy Ganga, to seek peace with the eternal.