Typically, whenever I hear about people visiting a religiously significant city, it is always for a pilgrimage. Why, of course, these destinations are considered holy, attracting devotees for ages. What I can’t seem to figure that a holy city can also have other characteristics, which perhaps get overshadowed by its religious fervor. I decided to discover it myself on my next solo. Early this year, after the Makar Sankranti madness was over, I planned a trip to the two iconic cities of Uttar Pradesh- Varanasi and Allahabad.
I landed at Allahabad on a late winter morning. The city was chilly, even in February, with the morning mist still hovering over the Ganges. As I drove through the city, I tried to understand what lied beneath its surface. Because a historical city as Allahabad has much more than to its character than the religious and spiritual vibes. Beyond the temples, ashrams, and banks of the Ganges, the largest city of Uttar Pradesh, is a mystical mix of history, spirituality, and culture, sprinkled with basic elements of modern, urban India.
Being there, I had to visit the historic Triveni Sangam, where the Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati rivers meet, though the Saraswati is more mythical than real, since there is no physical existence of the river. However, it was worth the drive. Thankfully, it was way after Sankaranti, so there was no crowd, except for the random pilgrims, taking a dip at the holy confluence. I stopped to admire the color play of waters, distinctively divided as greenish and bluish. The mellow winter sun had just started to peek through the veil of fog, or smog, it was difficult to differentiate. I continued on my city tour. After all, that was the whole purpose of my trip; to see, hear, smell, and absorb the energy of Allahabad.
As I mentioned before, the city of Allahabad has always occupied a special place in India’s cultural and political history. The Allahabad Fort, Ashoka Pillar, and the Khuro Bagh, are some living examples that has managed to preserve the city’s history from the Mughal era. It’s otherwise, overwhelmingly religious energy balances itself with its cultural heritage, which I discovered at the Allahabad Museum.
I can’t remember what drove me, but I ended up back at the Triveni Sangam once again, right around sunset. Perhaps it was the sunset, which I love to capture on my DSLR, whenever and wherever I can. Or perhaps it was the idea of watching the mighty riverine duo in the dusk light. By the time I reached, the entire neighborhood had assumed a different form. The water sparkled in the glow of the evening sun and lamps. And slowly as the ball of fire slid behind the horizon, it painted the rivers in a single, burnt-orange hue.
Next morning, as per my plan, I headed towards Varanasi. From one holy town to another, it felt like a divine journey. I had managed to book a cab for the entire trip, so it was easier to travel. Travelling from Allahabad to Varansi by road takes only three hours and it is best to reach Varanasi much before evening.
Unarguably the oldest Hindu pilgrimage destination of the country, Varanasi, always has been, and still is, to some extent, a fascinating mix of religion, history, and art. And I don’t mean artistic temples or shrines, but artists who have evolved from this city and many aspiring ones who come here to find creative inspiration. And only those who seek the other side of this holy town, can find it. As the hippie I am, I instantly realized why the free souls of the world find their respite here. The eclectic vibes of Varanasi, makes one feel at home. Beyond the temples, shrines and holy sites, I made my way into the interiors of the religious capital. Of course, as we drove through the city, my sincere cabbie pointed out the popular sites like Dashashwamed Ghat, Manikarnika Ghat, and the oldest ghat of Varanasi and the Assi Ghat. That’s a perk of booking a dependable and licensed Allahabad to Varanasi cab.
The more I saw, the more the city intrigued me. The mysterious quarters and dark alleys, with musty smell, dotted with seekers and searchers, engaged in a trip of bhang or puffing the world’s worry away on their joints, might sound decadent but had a subtle warmth about it.
I knew there were evening prayers and rituals at the embankments, but first-hand views were beyond expectations. The chants and the chimes from the temples echoed, while priests and pilgrims gathered at the riverbanks for the sunset aarti. A thousand oil lamps lit up the embankments, casting a warm glow on the still Ganges. I managed to find a quiet corner, away from the mainstream crowd, a few feet from a sadhu engrossed in his meditative state, puffing away on a clay bong. I heard him humming a familiar tune. He seemed content, a feeling which is seldom found in this chaotic world. I let my gaze fix on the still river, also content, despite its daunting journey from the Himalayas and gathering baggage all along. And somewhere between the contentment of quietness and the chaotic pilgrims, I found respite, without any divine intervention. Perhaps, that’s how soul searching feels like.