Though the spirituality of Banaras, one of the oldest cities of the world, makes it one of the most revered destinations, its food is equally tempting and soul-satisfying
A trip to Banaras can truly be a soul-searching one. It is also the kind that good memories are made of. Walking through the maze of bylanes I have found rare glimpses into the world that has slipped into the browning moth-eaten pages of history. In Banaras those pages from history come to throbbing life once your gaze probes beyond the fine layer of dust.
Banaras is older than any written history they say; and you can see how the layers of the culture have built upon the sandstone stairs by the Ganges. There is a reason why people from around the world keep scuttling towards Banaras and want to camp there forever. Don’t be surprised if you see a foreigner clad in a saree, bangles and red vermillion. I know one who teaches in a local primary school run by a world-renowned anthropologist.
Banaras or Varanasi is the holiest of the 7 sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism
You make great discoveries when you walk along the streets. You might get a glimpse of a four centuries old temple in a discreet corner of a street and once you probe further you will see how the staircase leads to an underground garbhagriha of the temple. I have always wondered the presence of those underground temples and how their devotees keep the traditions alive. It is not only the Kashi Vishwanath and Sankatmochan temple in Banaras but the thousands of little known temples the locals have faith in.
Apart from the numerous temples that dot the city with a heady fragrance of marigold and Tulsi, you would find small little alcoves by the old gnarled trees of peepul or banyan, with a vermillion smeared statue of some god or goddess often measuring no more than a pocket book. The trees get a saintly appearance and seem to have embraced Gods whole-heartedly. I have always seen these trees as the guardians of the narrow lanes, a co-existence that hides many storiesi n each of its branches and leaves. You just need to unfurl them gently.
If you are going to Banaras I suggest you do a street food trail for sure. Of course keep your eyes open for all the other things the city has to offer but no journey is worth without the local culinary experience and some chitchat with the ones who cook the food. People who cook and serve the food always have interesting stories to tell, ask questions and you may stumble upon something that you never imagined. One of the jalebi sellers once told me that milk and hot jalebi breakfast treats the worst kind of migraine if taken regularly first thing in the morning. I have never put this theory to test but isn’t it a tempting idea?
- The best way to travel to Banaras is by train. There are several trains from each part of the country leading to Varanasi Cantt. railway station which is the main rail station apart from Manduadih and Kashi stations in Banaras.
- Interestingly the rail traffic to and fro Banaras is so high that the Varanasi Cantt generates the highest revenue for the Indian Railway
Some food for the soul
Piping hot kachoris, refreshing paans or delectable sweets, Banaras is heaven for food lovers
Winter months are best-suited to visit Banaras and I suggest you taste the malaiyyo, a very delicate whipped milk fat dessert that feels like a cloud on your palate. The best place to eat the authentic malaiyyo is this hole-in-the-wall shop opposite the Gopal Mandir inside Thatheri bazaar lane. You will find many malaiyyo sellers in the street and most of them are good but no one quite compares to what the Gopal mandir shop serves. You have to go to this place in morning hours, between from 7 am to 11 am. On your way back, you can stop at The Ram Bhandar for the signature kachori subzi and jalebi breakfast. Being in Banaras asks for trying some paan as well. Ask for the Magahi beeda and the best place for Banarasi paan is Keshav Paan Bhandar at Lanka crossing, across the Ravidas gate.
You must try chiwda matar, the Banaras version of poha which is so flavourful and rich you might feel like settling down in the city for this. Banarasi chiwda matar is a sweet, hot and spicy preparation that not only has a hint of tartness but also a certain earthy flavour that comes from garam masala, ginger and coriander leaves. Studded with cashewnuts and raisins, this is one of the best version of poha
In summer months and even during winters you must try the Banarasi lassi and thandai. The best places for lassi is Ramnagar fort next to former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s ancestral home in Ramnagar, Pehelwan Lassi at Lanka adjacent to Ravidas Gate, Blue Lassi Shop in Manikarnika lane and several small shops in Chowk area and in the old city along the ghats. Best thandai will be found in licensed shops around Godoliya roundabout; Baba Thandai is one of the best.
Another must try in Banaras is the tamatari or tamatar ki chaat and the best places to gorge on that are: Banarasi Chaat Bhandar at Sankatmochan turning, Deena chaat Bhandar at Luxa Road, Kashi Chaat Bhandar at Godolia and Keshri Chaat Bhandar at Neechibagh. Each place offers such a wonderful variety of chaats and mithais that it feels nothing short of a chaat pilgrim.
You must visit the Pizzeria at Assi Ghat. The wood-fired oven pizzas, the handmade ravioli and the apple pie is to die for. There is a Japanese restaurant located at Shivala tiraha run by a Japanese couple where you get decent Japanese food made using mostly local ingredients. You will also find a Lebanese restaurant in Assi Ghat area which is worth exploring. The English Bread bakery on Assi road has good breads.
Written by : Sangeeta Khanna