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Name: Joydeep Saha
Camera : Nikkon D50
Location : Kumortuli
Date : 12-9-2009
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The True Spirit of Varanasi

Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together….,” wrote Mark Twain of Varanasi, reflecting on the unbroken continuity of the ancient spiritual character of a city better known as Kashi. Not only is this hallowed city at the very core of religious tradition, it is also a living testimony of the composite culture that has defined Indic ethos for centuries.

Better known as the city of Shiva, who resides in his Vishveshwara and Avimukteshwara forms (Lord of all and the One who never forsakes), Varanasi draws pilgrims from all over. It is home to the very first sermon given by Gautama Buddha (Sarnath) and has witnessed the evolving of great philosophical formulations of Patanjali, Shankara and Ramunuja. It has also been the nerve-centre of great movements initiated by Ramananda and Kabir with their vision of a classless and casteless society. Varanasi embodies the true universality of spirit.

The name Kashi sums up the mythical and spiritual dimensions of the city best. Etymologically speaking, Kashi is derived from the Sanskrit “kash” --- to shine --- and this City of Light is metaphorically alluded to by tradition, as that which lights up the inner desire to be a free and liberated soul.  The Kashi-Rahasya , part of the Brahmavaivarta Purana , and the “Five Verses on Kashi” , attributed to Shankara , extend this metaphor to internalise Kashi as Brahmn itself , the city which best reflects the Self.

One of the most overpowering images of Kashi, with its burning ghats, is death. The simple and inevitable act of consigning a dead body to flames subsumes within itself one of the most profound philosophies of Kashi – that death in Kashi is liberation, “kashya maranam muktih”. It is believed that Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa went into an ecstatic trance while watching a cremation at the Manikarnika Ghat , and had a vision of Shiva breathing the famous Taraka mantra into the ears of the dead and releasing them from this endless cycle of births. Taraka Mantra or the ferry-boat mantra is believed to carry one over the sea of samskara to liberation. Not only does faith erase any fear of dying at Kashi, the fallibility of a senses-driven life is underscored at each step in Kashi.

The other overpowering image of Kashi is its great musical tradition which echoes these philosophical truths even more. There is a certain timelessness about the music, which transcends individual beliefs and faiths and unites all in celebration of the Kashi way of life, free from fear of the unknown. It is this legacy of the Ganga-Yamuna tehzeeb which enables Kashi to overcome the vicissitudes of modern life as well, beckoning all to a universal cosmic vision beyond the merely transient. It is perhaps time to reflect on and learn from the spirit of Kashi “ever-luminous”, as it were.

Tourist Police (2506670; UP Tourism office, Varanasi Junction train station; 6am-7pm) The tourism office is the base for the tourist police who wear sky-blue uniforms.

Medical services
Heritage Hospital (2368888) At the main entrance of Benares Hindu University, this is a modern private hospital with a 24-hour pharmacy. Also has an International Travellers Clinic (5631153).

Getting There:

Varanasi’s small but chaotic bus station (2203476) is a few hundred metres east of Varanasi Junction train station. Frequent express buses run to Allahabad (non-AC/AC Rs 60/107, three hours), Faizabad (Rs 105, seven hours), Gorakhpur (Rs 121, seven hours) and Lucknow (Rs 160, 8½ hours). Two buses run daily to Khajuraho (Rs 248, 12 hours) departing at 4.30am, while one AC bus goes to Bodhgaya (Rs 252, seven hours).
Buses to Sarnath (Rs 10, 40 minutes) leave from outside the Varanasi Junction train station, as do share jeeps (Rs 20) to Mughal Serai train station.
Luggage theft has been reported on trains to and from Varanasi so take extra care. There have also been some reports of drugged food and drink, so it’s best to politely decline any offers from strangers.
Varanasi Junction train station (132), also known as Varanasi Cantonment (Cantt) train station, is the main station. Foreign tourist quota tickets must be purchased at the Foreign Tourist Assistance Bureau (8am-8pm Mon-Sat, 8am-2pm Sun) near the UP Tourism information office in Varanasi Junction train station.
Many of the faster trains between Delhi and Kolkata stop at Mughal Serai train station (255703), 12km southeast of Varanasi. You can make reservations at Varanasi Junction train station for trains leaving from Mughal Serai. Share jeeps (Rs 20, 40 minutes) are the best way to travel between the two stations, but buses and taxis are also available.

From Varanasi’s Babatpur airport, Indian Airlines (2502529; 10am-5pm Mon-Sat), with its office located off the Mall, has dir­ect daily flights to Delhi (US$112), Mumbai (US$184), Khajuraho (US$82) and Kathmandu (US$110). Jet Airways (2506444; Krishnayatan Bldg, Kennedy Rd, Cantonment; 9am-5pm Mon-Fri, 9am-2pm Sat) flies to Delhi and Khajuraho for similar fares.
Air Sahara (2507872; Mint House, Cantonment; 9am-5pm Mon-Fri, 9am-2pm Sat) flies daily to Delhi and Mumbai, often at discount web fares.

Source: The Speaking Tree & The Lonely Planet

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