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Divine Intervention
 
 
VARANASI

Life as editor of a luxury publication takes you to some spectacular places. In my career, I've visited some of the world's luxurious destinations and the most out-of-the-way places. I saw no reason to stop at Varanasi. 'Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend—and looks twice as old as all of them put together'. Mark Twain's words on Varanasi ring true. Sacred to Hindus as one of Hinduism's seven holy cities, if the description 'living history' truly applies anywhere in the world it applies here. Varanasi offers layers of spirituality at its ancient temples, monasteries and ghats. But religious significance isn't its sole attraction. There are universities, memorials and handloom stores to visit and a thriving food culture to indulge in. The city's multi-dimensional facet offers an irresistible and unique destination for travellers.

 

It was my first visit to Varanasi… and nothing could have prepared me for the loud, crowded, chaotic city! Varanasi is not for the faint-hearted! Here, intimate rituals of death take place publicly at the burning ghats, and it can be a bit overwhelming, a reason I didn't visit that part of the region… but let's go back to arrivals first. Alighting from the flight, I headed out with luggage and laptop, where a car from Taj Ganges awaited. It was a one-hour drive into the city where luxury hotels were all lined in one neighbourhood. The check-in was fast and I was taken up to the room within minutes. Here I was disappointed as I didn't expect two small beds in a single room but the staff said they didn't have a room with a standard bed… luckily I didn’t turn over in my sleep and fall down! Surprising, not expected from a Taj property. After a quick change into my favourite tangerine silk kurta, I met designer Chhaya Mehrotra at rustic-theme restaurant 'Baati Choka', where we feasted on baati baked on coals, daal, rice, sabzi and pumpkin halwa, and ended lunch with phirni served in a khullar. I recommend 'Baati Choka' with its village-theme wall art, interiors and furniture — it's not on the tourist trail yet!

 

Heading out into the scorching sun, she took me to several weavers' looms where I learnt that the production of a sari on handloom undergoes several stages — the silk yarn is reeled, bleached and dyed, then prepared for warp and weft. The length of yarn is reeled on a warp cylinder. Yarn for the weft is reeled on a small cylindrical object. It is used in the shuttle to design butas. I was impressed to see the machinations of 'phenkua' and 'kadhua': the technique of throwing the shuttle from end-to-end between the threads of the warp, and weaving in the threads one by one. The frame of the loom clack- clacked, shuttling back and forth in the rhythm of a repetitive process. The weavers explain that it can be manned by one or two people, depending on the nature of the work, producing a few metres daily. What is heart-rending is the weavers' plight — working in ill-ventilated looms in serpentine lanes, working for generations in these conditions to create stunning masterpieces which they proudly declared as 'Banaras Ki Shaan'. It certainly is… but what a difference infrastructure changes could make in their lives… The life of weavers is characterised by abject poverty, malnutrition and health hazards. A quiet focus in the face of hardship; a stillness that can rip into a surge. Yet they appeared used to it as a way of life; the ambience was a cacophony of the sound of the looms, their laughter and animated conversation. I spent two hours just watching them do what they have been doing since childhood… until it was time to meet award-winning master weaver Saleem Bhai at Taj Estate. He proudly told me, 'the real art of weaving lies in hand looms. I learnt the art from my father when I was a kid and put in more hours than required to make the finished product a masterpiece. I learnt from trial and error—and exploring designs that could be made on hand looms. The more difficult the buta, the more challenging it was to craft it to perfection! After a decade, it felt gratifying to have been honoured at Lakme Fashion Week where my body of work was appreciated by renowned designers. There is hope for the future. Modi Ji promised our artisans would be provided training in modern design, marketing strategies and all the skills required for them to become competitive and responsive to the requirements of a modern consumer' he smiled and showed me the most beautiful saris painstakingly woven with real gold threads. I was awed. The last thought I left the looms with was — at a time when 'Make in India' is a global campaign, spare a thought for the hands behind the lesser-known 'Woven in India'.

 

A heat migraine sets in, adding its throbbing to the insane traffic. That did not stop me eating my way through the city, with lassi, pakodas and the famed paan! Heading back to the hotel, I showered and changed into a formal evening dress, and headed out to the buzzing pub at Hotel Suryaa to meet my closest friend. After all, we would be ringing in my birthday at midnight! The three-dimensional wall art depicting local scenery caught—and held our attention! After a dinner of kebabs, daal and butter naan, we headed over to Princep Bar at Taj Ganges. I loved its old world heritage charm with a beautifully carved bar and plush seating… and club house music! It was Saturday night after all! Ringing in my birthday, I bid adieu to my friend who was staying at the adjacent hotel and headed up to my room where the management had placed a delicious pineapple cake surrounded with rose petals… I was floored! The next morning, I was up early; nope I did not have kachori and jalebi for breakfast!! I met my friend for pizza at Dominoes before we headed to the mandirs!

 

A birthday — that too in a spiritual city — is intensely personal which is why I had wrapped up all work on the previous day and bid the designer and weavers adieu. Brushing aside rumours from a local that there would be queues and chaos, we proceeded with faith; we truly feel God is there for all who seek. The first stop was Kashi Vishwanath Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, the presiding deity of the city. Such is its significance that the temple is mentioned in the Puranas. The priest explained that the original temple was destroyed by the army of Qutb-ud-din Aibak in 1194 CE. Since, the temple has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. We walked down a path leading to the mandir, took off our shoes and left bag and phones in lockers. Even though the lane teemed with visitors and police, the air was electric with anticipation, and it was a peaceful walk towards the temple in which is enshrined the Jyotirlinga of Shiva. Though the interiors is not elaborate, it has a pious peaceful atmosphere that's ideal for worship. I knew in my heart my prayers were heard. Our next stop was Sankat Mochan Temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman. Sankat Mochan is another name of Lord Hanuman which means ''the remover of troubles'' and millions of devotees offer prayers in the deep belief that they would get relief from problems they are facing. Here, I had a wonderful darshan, as I sent up a prayer and felt blessed when the priest gave me holy water.

 

Blissful, my friend and I headed out for shopping as beautiful Banarasi saris woven with real silver and gold lured us and spent the rest of the evening at our favourite pubs in Hotel Suryaa and Taj Ganges. Next afternoon, we caught our respective flights back to the Capital, back to the grind. Reflecting on the weekend in Varanasi, it was a culturally enriching and spiritually gratifying trip. Breaking away from routine — even through a trip as short as a weekend — pulled me out of my comfort zone long enough and far enough to view life in perspective. Till the next time… adieu!

— JASMEEN DUGAL

 
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