Friday, October 2, 2020

Spiritual Tour of Prayag-Kashi-Gaya

Tourism in India has mostly been associated with spirituality. Most of my travels with family as a kid were to temples and it always followed the same pattern. The day starts with no-onion-no-garlic-no-rice based breakfast followed by some religious activity. After the prasadam for lunch we would visit a museum or park or zoo or a water body so that we kids did not complain. The day ended with street food or dinner at a hotel where we could order the dishes which were not available in our village. Those were the days when I would just tag along without getting involved in planning the trip! Well, this trip in March 2020 was something similar for me (Yes, 2 weeks before the infamous lockdown). The main agenda was visiting temples and performing some rituals along with exploring our religious heritage. Then of course my side project of savoring some of those mouth watering street foods.

Let me start with giving some background on this trip. My uncles had decided to immerse my grandmother’s asthi (ashes/remains after cremation) in the Ganga and also perform the Kshetra Shraddha at the holy cities of Prayag (Allahabad), Kashi (Varanasi) and Gaya. While this was being planned, I expressed my interest to join them. The trip was entirely planned by our family priest who accompanied us and took care of all the arrangements. So in this blog I will hold off on explaining what and why of the rituals and focus on our itinerary and some tips in case you plan to visit them on your own.

Ganga Arathi in Varanasi

Day-0

The rituals need to start in Prayag followed by Kashi and end in Gaya. Considering that there are more flight options to Varanasi, we decided to land in Varanasi and make it our base for the 4 day trip. My family took the flight to Varanasi from Mangalore and I joined them in a connecting flight at Hyderabad. On landing, we took the cab to Allahabad to reach just before dinner.


Day-1

We woke up early and visited the temples on the Prayagraj spiritual circuit. 

One of the temples in Prayag

After our satvik breakfast we started the rituals at the Allahabad Kashi Matt. The VeNi Daan (donation of braided hair) is something that is unique to this place. The husband braids his wife’s hair and then cuts a small portion of it as an offering to pray for a long healthy life together. We then performed the Ksetra Shraddha and headed to the Triveni Sangam. At the Sangam the holy rivers of Ganga and Yamuna merge and you will be able to observe the distinct colours of the rivers. River Saraswathi is believed to join the sangam as it emerges from the river bed. You will need to rent a boat where you sit with your life jackets as they take you to a platform created at the Sangam. 

Boats to go to Triveni Sangam
Ducks to escort you to the sangam

Here you complete your rituals and take 3 dips to wash all your sins (thus preparing yourself to perform lesser sins in future). I was surprised by the cleanliness of the river and the river banks. If you do not wish to perform these activities then you could just take a boat trip in the river. Some of the notable temples to visit here are the VeNi Madhav Temple, Ram Janaki Temple, Adi Shankara Vimana Mandapam and the Bade Hanumanji Temple. There was also the Allahabad fort on the banks of the river but we did not have time to visit. Note that the temples are closed in the afternoon so plan your visits accordingly. There were a lot of shops selling bread pakoda, samosa and other local fried dishes which you can savor while you are there.

Allahabad Fort

After lunch we started back to Varanasi and visited Vindhyachal, the temple of Vindhyavasini, who had incarnated to kill the demon Mahishasura (as per Markandeya Purana and Wikipedia). It is always crowded here so I would advise non believers to avoid it. Here we also had the local samosa-kachori chole chaat, matka chai and milk sweets. This is also near the infamous Mirzapur. When we visited, there were police deployed due to some incident that happened the previous day. I am not sure what Mirzapur is famous for but I do know there is a show about this place. Anyways, you get fresh, cheap and delicious  doodh peda straight from the farmer's house by the highway as you approach Varanasi. We wrapped up our day in Varanasi.

Samosa Kachori and other snacks
This is how Doodh Peda's are kept for sale.

Day-2

This day we went to the bank of river Ganga (or locally known as Ghats) and took a dip first thing in the morning. We then performed the Ksetra Shraddha at the Kashi Mutt which is where the Kashi Mutt Samsthan of the GSB Community was started. That was pretty much the main agenda for the morning. Varanasi is on the banks of river Ganga and there are more than 80 ghats each having its own significance (You can read more about it in Wikipedia). There are hundreds of temples in Varanasi with the Kashi Vishwanath Temple being the most famous one. All the temples are best accessed through the river so you will find numerous boat packages that take you to a number of places per your interest. We started from the Brahma Ghat which was near our Mutt and got a ride through all the ghats of Varanasi. 

Ganga at Brahma Ghat

The beautiful art on the ghat walls and the clean river will make you want to swim or raft in the river. (Or just sit on the boat trying to achieve inner peace)

Art on the walls
Various temples by the river/ghats

We stopped our boat by the Manikarnika ghat and started the walking tour from Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Other temple’s that we visited were Vishalakshi Temple, Annapoorneshwari temple and Kalabhairava Sankata Mochan temple. These are also good places to buy the Rudrakshi chains and other religious ornaments. The thing to note about walking around the city is that there are really narrow pathways where it is easy to get lost. We could see the numerous small temples all around the city! You will almost find cows blocking your way or showing you the way to the nearest temple. There is a new temple corridor being built to make it easier to navigate around the city because of which there was a lot of construction happening during our visit. 

Construction everywhere!

The day ended with watching the amazing Ganga Arathi as we sat on our boats. You can purchase lamps and leave it afloat in the river. You absolutely cannot miss the Ganga Arathi experience



Day-3

The 3 city ritual ends in Gaya so we had booked a cab for our round trip to Gaya. Varanasi to Gaya is around 5hrs by road. You have trains available too but considering comfort, it is better to go by cab. We did a miscalculation of timing and had booked the 2am bhasma abhishekam darshan at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. This is a special pooja where the ashes from the manikarnika ghat are brought to the temple and after multiple types of abhishekam you get to touch the Shiva linga before they do the decorations. We finished the pooja and left to arrive at Gaya at around 11:30am. Here the rituals happen in 2 stages. One near the Vishnupad temple and other near the huge banyan tree where you do the Ksetra Shraddha. 

If you are not here for the rituals then you would be visiting for Bodh Gaya which is the place where Gautham Buddha attained enlightenment. There are multiple monasteries and temples dedicated to Buddha here. The main temple is the one with the Bodhi Tree and this place does not allow mobiles inside. You could take your DSLR’s inside the temple complex though. The other temples are built/sponsored by various nations where Buddhism is followed (Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Japan etc). There is an electric rickshaw stand where you can park your vehicle and for around Rs 100/- per person you get to visit all temples in a guided tour. The entire tour will take around 4-6 hours. All places close by 6pm so it is better to start the tour early. There was some event happening here because of which various religious leaders and groups from across the world had assembled. This was during the 1st week of March when cases were increasing in those countries and quite a few people were in masks. It was quite a scary bit for me who was reading about COVID a lot on social media. 

Statue of Buddha

Thai Buddha Temple

Bodh Gaya
The first Buddha temple you will see on your way

We headed back from there at 7pm and stopped by a Dhaba to have the proper Roti-Dal dinner of Bihar! The Varanasi - Gaya highway is part of the Delhi to Kolkata highway so it had a lot of traffic post 8pm. We reached Varanasi well past midnight making it our sleepless 24 hour ordeal. I will suggest a recommended itinerary at the end of this blog.

Day-4

This was a backup or rest day for us. Due to the hectic day-3 and early mornings the other two days, it was a good late start to the day. In the morning we visited Kashi Dham which is a religious museum detailing the history of Hinduism through art. The manager here will summarize the various mythological stories that you would have read or heard. I would highly recommend visiting this place if you have time. We also got a brief history about Kashi Mutt and its association to the history of Varanasi from the temple priest. The mutt has 3 temples and the samadhi's (shrines) of 3 of our Guru's in them. For the afternoon we visited Sarnath (around 25kms from the city) where Gautama Buddha first started his teachings. You will find the ruins of the stupa and what was once a glorious monastery. You should also visit the Sarnath Archeological Museum which houses the Ashokan Pillar and the proud Ashokan lion capital (The National Emblem of India). 

Saranath
Stupa and remains of the Monastery

From here we visited the Banaras Hindu University Campus that houses a majestic temple at its heart. We visited the Hanuman and Durga temple in the city and had some of the amazing street food to end the day. I am not a fan of betel leaf but tried the Banarasi Paan. There is no harm in trying new things :)

BHU Campus



You can also shop for sarees here but you need to be very careful as they give you polyester/cotton sarees in the name of silk. The silk sarees where our guide took us to were very expensive and being from the south, Kanchipuram might have better sarees at a cheaper price than in Varanasi (in case you were wondering I am no saree expert and this was told by my aunt.)

Day-5

I woke up early to see the sun rise over river Ganga before heading to the airport to return home. 


In summary, this trip was a total spiritual experience for me. On a personal note, I felt blessed to be able to perform the rituals for the well being of my family. I got to learn more about the roots of Hinduism, Buddhism and also got to see our national emblem up close. The Ganga Arathi I witnessed in Haridwar in 2015 was amazing but the one in Varanasi topped it for me. Also having visited the Buddhist places in Ladakh and abroad, it was finally good to visit the birthplace of Buddhism :) Looking at how 2020 has turned out so far, I am truly glad to have made this trip as I am not sure when I will hit the road or the skies again.

Suggested Itinerary (Assuming you are visiting to do the rituals)

Day 0 - Land in Varanasi and book a round trip cab to Allahabad. Stay in Allahabad. 

Day 1 - Perform rituals and visit places in the city. Leave to Varanasi to reach by Night

Day 2 - Perform rituals and head to Gaya post lunch to stay the night at Gaya

Day 3 - Finish rituals early in the morning and visit Bodh Gaya. Stay the night or head back to Varanasi in the evening. Staying one night in Gaya is advisable.

Day 4 & 5 - Give yourself 2 days to experience Varanasi. Explore by foot and also by boat. You could stay longer too. I cannot give any additional recommendations as I have not explored it much myself. Maybe my next visit will be longer and I will give more details that time :)

Note:

  • If you are visiting on your own to perform some of these rituals then you should know that priests in all these locations perform the rituals in their own way. So it is better to get information from your family priest or temples that you visit as they would have contacts at all these places. 
  • There are a lot of sadhus and priests in all these cities asking for alms so if you can afford it then it will not hurt to carry a bunch of coins or a small bundle of 5’s and 10’s.
  • In Varanasi, the hotels are accessible by road but the mutt’s and temple accommodations are on banks of the river. So you either will have to walk a kilometer with your luggage (coolie with carts available) or take a boat and still walk a little to reach them.
  • Most temples do not allow bags and mobile phones. You could keep it in the locker at the shops near the temples by purchasing something from that shop.

We stayed at the Kashi Mutt in Allahabad for 1 night and remaining nights in the Varanasi Kashi Mutt. 

Credits: 

  • My uncles and aunts who invited me to tag along on this trip and our family priest for arranging our transport and stay. 
  • The cab drivers on the trip told me all about UP, Bihar and its people and politics, most of which I cannot write in this blog but will gladly tell over a cup of coffee :)


You might also be interested to read: Haridwar-RishikeshTemples in Goa, Sringeri-Hornadu, Talacauvery 

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