If New Delhi is the political hub, Mumbai the commercial hub, Kolkata the cultural hub and Chennai the intellectual hub of India, Varanasi is undoubtedly the spiritual capital of India. It is the cauldron of Indian spiritual ethos and one of the oldest existing cities in the world. The entire city is steeped in spirituality and mythology and a visit to Varanasi is considered to be the ultimate in terms of pilgrimage.

My tryst with Varanasi dates back to the late ’90s when confronted with a mid-career crisis, I was vacillating whether to continue with my career as a Travel professional or give up my career and retire into some secluded Tea Garden estate in Assam, cut off from mainland India.

It was a period of upheaval and finding no other alternative, I then proceeded to Varanasi with my mom to find some solace. Ten years down the line, with a truly blessed life, I once again made a trip to the holy city to offer ‘Puja’ at the much-venerated Vishalakshmi temple, which is where Goddess Sati’s earrings fell. I planned my itinerary in such a manner to be there in Varanasi during the festival of Ram Navami, which is celebrated with great pomp and grandeur in the month of March-April.

I boarded the Gaya Express that departed from Howrah station at around 7 P.M. As the train began to gain momentum, memories of my previous trip to Varanasi, ten long years back, began to stir up my imagination. Images of the famed ghats, the burning of the dead, the daily rituals along the Ganges River, the ancient temples dotting the Varanasi landscape, the sweet shops, and the greedy Brahmin ‘Pujaris’ (priests) all began to flash in my mind’s eye.

I was carrying with me Isabella Tree’s book entitled “Varanasi, city of light” and began to flip through the pages. Somewhere in the book, she mentions:

One of the most patently polluted places on earth should be a place where people come to be purified. But the more astonishing thing about Varanasi, the holiest of holy places for Hindus, their stairway to heaven, is that it should be so delightfully free-spirited, so unbigoted. Isabella’s passage moved me very much.

It must be mentioned that the holy city of Varanasi invites tens and thousands of pilgrims and seekers of salvation who descend here every day. Yes, every day! My fellow co-passenger; Aftab Siddique who was a Mohammedan and a native of Varanasi, was intently observing the cover page of Isabella Tree’s book “Varanasi, the city of light,” but didn’t make any comments.

After a few brief moments of silence, I broke the ice and introduced myself. When he got to know that I was also travelling to Varanasi, he inquired in chaste Hindi whether there was any special reason for visiting the holy city, any ‘Pinda Dan’s’ (offering prayers to dead relatives) or anything of that sort. I informed him politely that I wanted to be a witness to the festival of Ram Navami, to which Aftab couldn’t stop offering his humble hospitality. He wanted me to be a guest at his residence.

Initially, I didn’t show much interest in Aftab’s offer but all the same, thanked him for his generosity. But the true Varanasi Walla that he was, he wondered why I refused his hospitality. He inquired once again thus: "Sir, I am a Mohammedan and you are a Hindu. Is this one possible reason why you have your reservations?"

Aftab’s comments made me feel very miserable inside. Sweeping aside all his preconceived notions, I said I am definitely going to be his guest and stay the entire week and celebrate Ram Navami with his family. It was only then that I saw Aftab smiling.

At last, he had his man! Frenetic calls from his mobile followed as he left instructions with his wife that a ‘Babu’ from Kolkata would be a guest for a week and so all the necessary arrangements are made accordingly. This is what I call “the eternal spirit of Varanasi”.

Here in Varanasi, humanity is more important than petty religious bigotry. The peaceful co-existence of people belonging to diverse faiths in Varanasi was summed up nicely by Aftab himself as we took our dig at the dinner: "Kashi Jahan Banti Hai Yeh Saree, Hindu Uska Tana Hai, Muslim Uska Bana Hai" which meant: Kashi is the place where the Benarasi saree is manufactured. Hindus are its warps and Muslims its wefts. How nice a summation of Hindu-Muslim unity!

This unity of religions in Varanasi is not the kind which is inspired by some Bollywood flicks. It has got much to do with the integration that has existed here for centuries together, so much so that it is perfectly normal to see Muslims celebrating Holi and Hindus joining in the Id festivities. One of Varanasi’s most outstanding temples – the Sankat Mochan Temple is open to all faiths, which in itself speaks volumes about Varanasi’s liberalism.

At around 11 A.M. we reached Varanasi and even as the train gradually came to a halt at platform No-2, hordes of “Pandas” (so-called Hindu Priests) descended on the various compartments to get hold of the innocent pilgrims and offer them a place to stay in the various Ashrams and Dharamsalas that dot the Varanasi landscape. The scene was chaotic and will come as a shock to the first-time visitor. I remained calm and composed and Aftab the native escorted me out of the compartment and we boarded a rickety cycle rickshaw all the way to Aftab’s modest house, which was close to the Dasaswamedh Ghat, one of the most popular ghats on the Ganges riverfront.

Aftab’s house was strategically positioned, 500 meters from the ghat and one could have a clear view of the riverfront. After freshening up, we sat down for lunch, cross-legged. It was a vegetarian fare as Aftab’s family converted to vegetarian mode several centuries ago. Lunch consisted of Chapattis, boiled rice, Matter Paneer, Daal and an assortment of seasonal vegetable curries. For desserts, we had the quintessential “Khir Barfee”, which is popularly referred to as the “Puja Wali Barfee” in the local parlance.

After a sumptuous lunch, I ventured to the Dasaswamedh Ghat to find some relief. This Ghat has a lot of legends attached to it. If local Varanasi folklore is anything to go by, I was told that as many as ten horses were sacrificed in this famous Ghat by Lord Brahma to facilitate the return of Lord Shiva, after his period of exile. This Ghat is not only one of the oldest in Varanasi but I found it to be amongst the cleanest and most well-maintained Ghats of Varanasi.

As the red molten ball dipped into the far horizon and darkness descended on the city of Varanasi, the Dasaswamedh Ghat began to unfurl its ethereal charm. A group of ash-smeared Naga Sadhus were performing religious rites and curious on-lookers, mostly tourists were witnessing the exotic rituals.

But the best was yet to come. Around 6.30 P.M. the whole of Varanasi went into worshipping mode and the tooling of the temple bells heralded the evening Aarati on the banks of the Ganges riverfront. The women of the house, visitors and all those salvation seekers lined up the Dasaswmedh Ghat and began lighting up their butter lamps and releasing them on the tranquil Ganges River. Within half an hour, the entire scene at the Dasaswamedh Ghat took on a truly divine character. Imagine the surreal sight of thousands of flickering butter lamps slowly wending their way into the river. It was the ecstasy of the highest order.

A few Firangis, (Western tourists) most probably backpackers armed with their Nikons and Cannons began their frenetic clicking much to the delight of the naughty young ones. Once they were done with their quota of photo shots, it was time to indulge in some Marijuana induced bliss followed by a trance session of “Bhajans & Kirtans”. It was a full moon day and with the evening’s ritual Aarati over, the blissful sound of soul-stirring hymns reverberated through the holy city. It was as if the gods had descended from heaven and were having a date with planet earth.

The primary reason why I came to Varanasi was to witness the way the city celebrates the festival of Ram Navami. Meanwhile, according to my Mom’s wish, I had completed my primary task of offering Puja at the holy Vishlakshmi temple and kept myself free from all distractions to be able to enjoy the festivities.

I went one step ahead by rounding off my shopping spree as well. Aftab accompanied me and took me to some of the most trusted shops in the neighbourhood of the city center. We visited shops like upica. Tantuja Emporium as well as the Handloom House. On the advice of my local host : Aftab, I purchased an exquisite Benarasi Saree that cost around Rs.3500/-. Not only sarees, one of Varanasi’s most famous products is the ubiquitous “Langda Aam”, a rare variety of mangoes known for its sweetness and aroma. I bought a whole basket consisting of 5 kg. of the finest variety of Varanasi mango.

I could already see people gearing up for the all-important Ram Navami festival. The morning started with the magical scene of people bathing in the ghats, including the Dasaswamedh Ghat where I took the holy dip. Significantly, the festival of Ram Navami Day commences with an invocation to the Sun God “Surya” since the Sun is believed to be the progenitor of Lord Rama's dynasty, which is referred to as the Surya dynasty. Many people choose to fast on the auspicious day of Ram Navami. They are not permitted to eat anything that has Turmeric as an ingredient. Most people depend on fresh fruits and curds.

Lord Rama has been worshipped since the Pre-Christian era. The concept of fasting on Ram Navami even finds mention in the Kalika Purana. The “Vrata” or fasting during Ram Navami is considered to be one of the most sacred fastings of the Hindus. Hindus of Varanasi as also elsewhere believe that fasting during the festival of Ram Navami not only brings worldly happiness but also salvation.

The temples came alive with melodious Bhajans in praise of Lord Rama, his faithful brother Lakshman and his holy consort Sita. Every house in Varanasi is swept clean and colourful pictures of Lord Rama, Lakshman, Sita as well as Hanuman are put on a specially prepared dais. The pictures are adorned with flowers and the sweet fragrance of incense lends a touch of exotica. Two exclusive “Thaalis” are kept aside for the puja ceremony.

After completing the rituals in Aftab’s house, I proceeded to the neighbourhood Ram temple, which was overcrowded with devotees. Celebrations in the temples began with the ceremony of prayer to the Sun God early in the morning. In the afternoon, a special prayer is offered at the prescribed hour at which Lord Rama is believed to have been born.

In the neighbourhood of the Dasaswamedha Ghat, I was witness to a group of devotees reciting ‘Ramacharitamanas’ for the purpose of purification of the important “Gayatri Mantra”, which is the harbinger of peace and happiness chanted for a mindboggling 24,000 times, followed by an exclusive “Yagnya” (fire) ceremony.

In order to heighten my spiritual experience of Varanasi during Ram Navami, Aftab chalked out an impeccable plan. In the late afternoon, he took me to the “Burning Ghats” where the bodies of the dead are cremated. We sat on a canopy along the Ganges River munching the locally available snacks.

On one side, the sheer spectacle of men, women and children totally immersed in the Ram Navami celebrations that almost reached its crescendo was something that was out-of-the-world stuff, while the mournful sight of dead corpses being burnt at the Burning Ghats on the other end with grief-stricken family members wailing in their sorrowful plight was literally bizarre. The perception of physical life that is ephemeral at best and the irrefutable bereavement of passing away from planet earth offers the visitor to Varanasi is an opportunity to contemplate the mysteries of life beyond death.

The ash-smeared sadhus can be found in plenty in Varanasi. They lend a touch of exotica no doubt and philandering with them will lead you to a life that is every bit nomadic. With the Ram Navami festivities coming to an end, my curiosity led me to a narrow claustrophobic alleyway near the Dasaswmedh Ghat where a few “Bhang-drenched” Sadhus sat crosslegged singing devotional songs.

As I looked at them in utter amazement, one ash-smeared Sadhu invited me to join in the celebrations and offered me the signature drink of Varanasi: the “Bhang Lassi”. It is basically yoghurt mixed with Marijuana leaves and is considered to be very potent with its transcendental properties.

Even after 10 minutes, there was no hint of any buzz and I continued to be in the company of the sadhus, listening to their devotional songs. In another half an hour, I knew something hit me. I bowed and as I was about to get up and return to my residence, one of the Sadhus asked for some money. I gave a wad of Rs.10/- notes to the Sadhu and departed. By the time I reached Aftab’s residence my legs became numb and there was a buzz in my head.

The next morning, it was time to bid goodbye to Varanasi and I proceeded to the Dasaswamedh Ghat one last time before my departure to Calcutta to wash away my bad karma of the previous night.

Not without reasons have so many of the world’s elite come to visit the holy city of Varanasi. Ian McDonald for instance in his celebrated science fiction novel “River of Gods” imaginatively depicted his vision of futuristic India by blending India’s mythological traditions with that of robots and artificial intelligence. It must be said that the author drew inspiration for his innovative novel from his visits to the holy city of Varanasi. Varanasi was brought into the forefront of the world’s media by India’s only Oscar-winning Director; the great Satyajit Ray, who shot extensively in Varanasi for the “Apu Trilogy”.

Varanasi is an enigma. So be it!