Varanasi (Benaras/Kasi)

The Maha-Kumbh Yatra (2013) – Varanasi – Part 2

Post-lunch we desperately needed some rest to recover from standing so much. After a couple of hours we got ready and again set off to view the Ganga Aarti on the Ganga Ghats. There are many ghats along the Ganga, and the aarti is held on a select few. The one we opted for was the Rajendra Prasad Ghat. It lies at the very end, and right next to the Prayag Ghat.

teeming crowds in the evening light

teeming crowds in the evening light

Prayag Ghat

Prayag Ghat

Along the way quite a few people approached us to hire out a boat, so that we can see the Aarti. This is by far the biggest difference from the other Ganga Aartis that we have seen before. Both the Aartis that we’ve seen at Haridwar and Rishikesh have given us lovely memories, and we looked forward to this experience.

We finally joined up a boat where we shared the deck with a few other people. The great part about it was that we had a uninterupted view of the Aarti. The bad part was that we had to cross a couple of moored boats to be able to reach this boat. That’s not really a bad thing, if you’re used to water. I wasn’t – so the idea of 2 moving floorboards, especially when they move away from each other, wasn’t my idea of a great time!

Anyway, we finally made our way to the roof seating area of the boat and settled down with our cameras to record the entire program. The program started with a welcome speech, in English, hindi, and surprisingly Telugu, as a nod to the sheer number of devotees from Andhra Pradesh.

Preparing for the Aarti

Preparing for the Aarti

In all, the Aarti was a nice experience, though I felt it was a bit dragged out. Also the feeling of elation, almost joy, that we experienced during the aarti at Haridwar and Rishikesh, was quite absent here. A couple of times I thought it was at an end, only to find it continuing! 🙂

Ganga Aarti

Ganga Aarti

Once done, we finally made our way towards our hotel. The crowds were still teeming and in fact even the queue was still going strong in spite of the fact it was past 7.30pm!

For purposes of security in the teeming crowds, we’d left our phones in the room itself. So when we got back, we found that our driver had been trying to reach us. As the next day was Mahasivarathri, there would be a huge procession starting at 4.30am, featuring elephants and horses, and amazing grandeur. This would cover a 3-4km radius around the temple. The downside of this news was that all vehicles will be moved to beyond 5km radius after 10pm. Further, for this celebration, people would flood the city from Allahabad, it being the last day os the Maha-Kumbh as well. So the chances of us getting stuck in the city suddenly shot up.

The best option for us was to leave the city immediately. The original plan was to leave the next morning, and reach Lucknow airport by 2ish, and catch our flight back. But this now changed to going to Lucknow right away.

So after a quick dinner at a dosa place right outside the hotel, and a nice cup of hot milk, we made our way back to the hotel. Immediately packing our bags, we made our way outside. With the help of the really helpful staff of the hotel, we were able to get back to the Innova just about the same way we came: a cycle rickshaw with MIL and the luggage, and us walking along. It was finally 10pm when we left Varanasi.

 

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The Maha-Kumbh (2013) Yatra – Varanasi – Part 1

We reached Varanasi about 4 hours after we left Allahabad. The only problem was the traffic the moment we entered the city.
I guess we entered the city limits at around 7pm, and got to Godowlia (the area where we were to stay) only at around 9pm. It didn’t help matters that the area had been shut down to large vehicles due to preparations for Mahasivarathri.

So the only option left to us was to park at the closest point possible, and take a cycle rickshaw over to the hotel. This gave another problem: we didnt know where the hotel was, and there were too many hotels around for the rickshaw guy to know!!! The final result was that we got MIL to sit in the rickshaw with the luggage, while Hubby, FIL and I walked alongside. The rickshaw driver was also asked to walk, rather than ride the cycle.

Finally we spied the hotel in the distance. Hotel Athithi Satkar was definitely one of the better hotels we’d seen in some time. Though, because of the sheer demand for rooms, they struggled with our booking, but they were still accommodating. We hadn’t made any payment in advance for our rooms. We had enquired about it, but the hotel had assured us that our rooms were booked, no advance required. The advantage of this hotel is that it was about a kilometer away from the temple and the Ganga ghats.

Hotel Atithi Satkar

Hotel Atithi Satkar

At the final minute, they however changed that to a 3-bed room, and put in an extra bed for the fourth person. The idea was that they could use the 2 double-rooms to accommodate 2 more couple, while as we were one family, we could adjust within one itself. We weren’t very happy about it, but for lack of choice, we agreed. When we saw our room however, we were impressed! It was spacious, clean and also had an a/c at that price range. The placement of the fourth bed didn’t take away anything from the spaciousness of the room.. much. The biggest advantage however was the cost. In all, the 3-bed room with extra bed cost us lesser than 2 double-bed rooms would have cost us!

The next question was that of dinner. There was an in-house restaurant, but we weren’t too keen on room service. So we all trooped outside to check out the offerings nearby.  Due to the sheen number of people who visit from the Southern states, a small place outside made dosas and idlis. Further up, there we some sweet shops that served hot mild, thick cream (malai), lassi and other milk based sweets. Next to it was a shop that was serving hot samosas and jalebis straight from the hot pan outside the shop.

Pouring the hot milk into earthen cups

Pouring the hot milk into earthen cups

samosas and cutlets waiting to be fried

samosas and cutlets waiting to be fried

After a lovely light dinner of samosas and milk layered with thick cream, we called it a night.

The next morning we started a little slow at about 7am. We wanted to have darshan of Lord Vishwanath and Goddess Visalakshi before we ate anything. We were happily walking down the road, but almost 50 mts for the hotel, we found a set of barricades on the left of the road, and a queue of people already standing there. When we enquired, we found that this was the line for the darshan. We quickly joined in, and began to wait.

The line progressed right upto the point where the road splits up to the various ghats, and then it finally turned around and made its way halfway back, and then turned into another road. I’m not really sure what was the distance we covered, but it certainly took us 7 hours to get to the entrance. WHile policemen kept patrolling intermittently, they still couldn’t prevent all interlopers from trying to join the line in between. Mostly the others in the line managed to push the interlopers away, but not always were successful.

the lines blurred by the scores of people going to the Ghats

the lines blurred by the scores of people going to the Ghats

Another lovely thing we noticed along the way were volunteers who offered cool water to the people in the queue to help them beat the heat. At some points large jugs were set on a stand for people to drink from. As noon approached, people kept walking up and down the line  with jugs in hand asking the devotees to have water.

At Gate 4, where we reached the entrance of the temple, we found another line coming in from the opposite direction that was then joined into the one we were in. Passing through the stringent security set up at the entrance, we entered the premises to find a large mosque. It had been built by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb during an attempt to destroy the temple. The temple itself was however, renovated by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore in 1780.

The queue for darshan again got slipt into 2 lines and we were lucky to join this one. When I say lucky, it is because this particular line led straight to the idol of Goddess Annapurna Devi, while people in the other line did not get a chance for this darshan.

The Goddess is an embodiment of nourishment. The name is derived from “anna’ meaning food and “purna” meaning full in Sanskrit. The story of Goddess Annapurna Devi beings with a philosophical discussion between Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. Shiva talks about everything being maya or illusion. He goes on to state that even food among material possessions can be considered as maya. This angers Parvati, who disappears to prove that without food, nothing is possible. This leads to the world becoming barren without any seasons, and the start of a sever drought. The goddess, unable to bear the suffering of the people, came to Kasi where she began to distribute food. Shiva then comes with his bowl for alms, and accepts that without food, the aatma or soul cannot achieve moksha or salvation. The Goddess becomes happy, and feeds Shiva herself. She has since been a part of this city, and millions of people attest to the fact that no one goes hungry in this city!

After having darshan of the Goddess, we moved towards Lord Vishwanath. Here it became a struggle to find our footing on the slippery marble floor, but we manage to keep each other upright. At the moment of darshan, we were able to offer flowers together as a family. But in the rush we forgot to offer water as an abhishekam to the Lord.

After visiting all the other smaller temples in the complex, among which were temples to Ganesh and Vishnu among others, we made our way outside through a side gate towards the temple of Goddess Visalakshi, an incarnation of the Mother Goddess. The temple was located a little distance away, and could be reached through small, winding lanes. However, there were not many people who knew or worshipped the Goddess much in Kasi. This was quite surprising given that this was a Shakthi Peetha, one of the 51 spread across the Indian subcontinent.

On completing our darshan of the Goddess we slowly made our way out to the main road, and slowly made our way to the cross-roads near our hotel. here we stopped and had a refreshing lunch at a small vegetarian restaurant. It was already 3pm, and we had spent the last 8hours out in the sun.

A bit about Sakthi Peethas:

The history of the Sakthi Peethas can be found in Hindu mythology. Goddess Sati was the daughter of Daksha Prajapati, one of the sons of Lord Bramha (part of the holy Triumverate of Bramha, Vishnu and Shiva), and one of the founders of mankind. She fell in love with Shiva, and wanted to marry him. However, Daksha was unhappy with Shiva as a son-in-law as he was considered a roaming ascetic with no material possessions and keeping the company of ghosts and ghouls. However, unable to deny his daughter, he gave Sati in marriage to Shiva. As time passed, Daksha organized a massive yagna or sacrifice to which he invited all and sundry, gods, sages and people alike. But he did not invite his daughter and son-in-law. Sati, however, hearing about it, insisted on attending the yagna. Shiva tried to dissuade her, but finally relents and lets her go. Sati believed that, as a daughter of the house, he father would not deny her the right to attend and would also accord her the respects she deserved. However, on reaching the venue, Sati found herself being insulted and Shiva being relived and mocked. Unable to bear any more insults, she immolated herself on the sacrificial pyre. Shiva, unable to bear his grief and anger, cut off Daksha’s head. He later replaced the head with that os a goat and restored him to life on the best of Daksha’s wife. He then picked-up the immolated body of Sati and roamed through the universe dancing the Tandav or Dance of Destruction. Unable to bear the destruction being caused by Shiva, Lord Vishnu used his sudarshan chakra and cut up the body of Sati, bringing the tandav to an end. The places where the body parts of Sati fell are revered as Sakthi Peethas.

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Categories: Allahabad, Lucknow, Rajasthan, NCR & UP, Varanasi (Benaras/Kasi) | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Maha-Kumbh (2013) Yatra – Allahabad

The Maha-Kumbh Yatra – Allahabad

The day started with us checking out of the hotel from Lucknow to leave for Allahabad at 5.30am. The driver told us that the trip may take up to 7hrs as the roads were in bad condition. So we decided on an early start to ensure we made it to Allahabad with enough time to look around the Mela and the city as well.

The route the driver opted was via Rae Bareli. We enjoyed the view of a sunrise filtered through fog over mustard fields.

Sunrise over the fields

Sunrise over the fields

At Rae Bareli we stopped for a cup of chai. MIL and I commiserated with each other over the lack of coffee ;). We bought some snacks, but refrained from eating till we had a dip in the Holy Triveni Sangam. We bought sweets filled with dry fruits to have after taking a dip in the Sangam.

fresh sweets at Rae Bareli

fresh sweets at Rae Bareli

Prayag, or Allahabad, is revered in Hinduism as the Triveni Sangam flows through this area. The Triveni Sangam, or confluence of 3 rivers, consists of the Rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswathi. The Ganga, which flows down from the Himalayas, already has a significant presence in Hinduism. It joins with Yamuna, which is darker and more greenish in color, and the Saraswathi which is believed to be Antharvahini or underground. The Ganga is fast and clear, and sometimes it is clear when the 2 rivers joins.

This fact coupled with Prayag being the venue of the Kumbh Mela, makes it of great religious significance.

This year the city has been host to the Maha-Kumbh Mela. This particualr occurance happens only once in 144 yreas. That makes it even more special. This has also made the Mela this year as the “biggest gathering of people in human history”. For this generation of Hindus, this is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The festival began on the auspicious day of Makar Sankranti, and ends on Mahasivarathri, making this also the longest Kumbh Mela lasting 55days.

The maximum numbers at the Mela are during the days of Shahi Snan, or Royal Bath. These are of particular religious significance. The days are:

Bathing Dates Occasion
14th January 2013 Makar Sankarnti
27th January 2013 Paush Purnima
6th February 2013 Ekadashi Snan
10th February 2013 Mauni Amavasya Snan
15th February 2013 Basant Panchami Snan
17th February 2013 Rath Saptami Snan
18th February 2013 Bhisma Ashtami Snan
25th February 2013 Maghi Purnima Snan
10th March 2013 Shivaratri Snan

The number of people visiting the Mela suring these days are significantly higher. Infact on 10th Feb on the occassion of Mauni Amavasya, approx 3 crore people visited the Maha Kumbh Mela to have a dip in the River Ganga.

We reached Allahabad by 10am, which was a couple of hours faster than expected. It also helped that the Mela was winding down (the last 3 days), and most of the barricades and tents were already dismantled. This was of great importance, and the sangam is actually about 15km away from where the first city barricades were erected. So we thanked the gods on entering the city, that we didn’t need to actually stop so far away and struggle to cross the distance. The city also held memories for the In-laws and Hubby as he’d lived here for a few years.

Crossing the Ganga to enter the city

Crossing the Ganga to enter the city

Sweets sold along the sreet at the Mela

Sweets sold along the sreet at the Mela

The driver took us straight to the boat-club. This was located on the Yamuna River. We didn’t really understand the significance of the location immediately. The point was that since we stopped here, we missed the huge crowds on the Ganga side, and were actually able to go upto the Sangam.

Items sold at the boat club for devotees to take to the Sangam

Items sold at the boat club for devotees to take to the Sangam

Bridge over the Yamuna

Bridge over the Yamuna

Allahabad Fort

Allahabad Fort

Migratory Seagulls

Migratory Seagulls

Gulls in front of the Fort

Gulls in front of the Fort

A bit of bargaining later, we found ourselves on a small covered boat to the sangam. The boat-boy pointed out various spots along the river.  He also pointed out the rivers and their differences. However, the rivers were constantly disturbed with the bathing of so many people, boats plying around, and so a clear view of the sangam was not possible.

As we got closer we could see the crowds on the banks of the Ganga. It was a great sight. The sheer number of people that we could see from the boat was over-helming. The boats too seemed to stretch from one side of the rive to the other. It hadn’t seemed so many many boats when leaving from the Yamuna banks. But the view here at the Samgam talks a different story.

The Banks of the Ganga

The Banks of the Ganga

The Sangam

The Sangam

Banks of the Ganga

Banks of the Ganga

At the sangam, with a bit of manouvering, he managed to get us closed to the platforms erected on the river. The Ganga is only 4ft deep, while the Yamuna is much deeper! So one has to be sure which side to land!!! 😉 Anyway, With help of the boat-boy, we stepped over a couple of the other boats docked at the platform and managed to find out footing on the platform. We were then directed to a Brahmin sitting nearby who insisted that we have to have the sankalp read.

Sankalp is the preamble of a puja which is read before any puja is performed or even mantras are read. The sankalp has your introduction viz name and gothra, day and auspicious moment of puja, the purpose of it, all said in detail. The sankalp can be read by a Brahmin on your behalf, and he would normally be given a dakshina at the end. However, that was the only place we were is little put off: the guy started demanding we pay him a certain amount of money in the middle of the sankalp, and started bargaining about the same. Sure, this would be the only time during which he can make his money, but still…

At the end of the sankalp, we were handed 3 coconuts per couple that we were to leave as couples while standing in the river. With a bit of deep breaths, we got into the water. The water was a bit cold, but not so much to induce shivers. After praying to the Gods, we left the coconuts and took the required 3 dips in the river. Now, here I was stuck. Not a fan of getting my head wet, and lesser of cold water, it was a struggle to overcome my natural response and actually submerge my head in the water. Did manage it with Hubby’s help though.

What followed next was another stunt, where we had to change clothes on the boat, so we tied saris, and chunnis around and the men stood guard on one side, while we ladies quickly changed clothes. the men changed clothes thereafter, and we dried out most of the clothes along the sides of the boat on the long ride back.

By this time it was already 1.30pm. So we found a small veg restaurant that served us a nice lunch.

Apart from religious significance, Allahabad had a role in Indian freedom struggle and is the place of Motilal Nehru. Lot of meetings / decisions related to freedom movement were taken in this city (Nehru, Gandhi and others).

Post-lunch, we made our way to Anand Bhavan, the ancestral house of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India. It has been made into a museum, and a Planetarium has been built within the campus. This is also the place where Indira Priyadarshini wed Feroze Gandhi. After an hour of walking around the place, we made our way to the vehicle.

IMG_7577

Memorial Stone at Anand Bhavan

Memorial Stone at Anand Bhavan

Anand Bhavan

Anand Bhavan

We then drove around the city to where Hubby lived, and after showing me the place, we slowly drove out of the city. It was here we actually got a look at the venue of the actual Mela. Most of the tents had been dismantled, but the frames were still around. The entire area was huge! The sheer size of the venue was mind-boggling.

The entire dry river-bed, which is about a mile wide, has been converted into the mela. We could see kilometers of pontoon bridges being dismanteled, and shells of the Akhadas in some places; most of the tents had already been stripped down. But the sheels alone told the story. It was still over-whelming to even imagine the number of people who had walked and occupied the place for almost 2 whole months.

IMG_7624 IMG_7622 IMG_7612

Once out of the city, we stopped for a refreshing cup of tea, and then made our way to Kasi.

Categories: Allahabad, Lucknow, Rajasthan, NCR & UP, Varanasi (Benaras/Kasi) | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments