I recently got an opportunity to visit Varanasi with UP Tourism and Lonely Planet Magazine India. On our itinerary was Subah-e-Banaras which literally means a morning in Varanasi!
I am not a morning person by any stretch of imagination. I howl and cry when I am asked to wake up and assemble in the lobby at 4.00 am. I do not wish to leave my comfortable hotel room at any cost! But 4.00 am starts are necessary to enjoy anything remotely to do with sunrise. And by the end of it, I was actually thrilled to have experienced Subah-e-Banaras. It was actually the highlight of my Varanasi experience.
The event starts with Ganga Aarti at the Assi Ghat. The winter timings are 5.40 am to 7.00 am and the summer timings are 5.00 am to 7.00 am. The early comers can make use of the chairs put near the stage. Otherwise, people sit at the stairs. The organizers are happy to assist with photography provided you don’t go and stand right in front of the stage where aarti is performed. We stayed only for the main aarti.
After the main aarti was over, we got down the stairs to the River Ganga. Kunal, our guide from Experience Varanasi had arranged for two big boats for our group. As I said before I am usually cranky in the morning but the aarti itself was an awakening experience. By the boat ride I was feeling calm and peaceful.
It feels a little surreal to start the boat ride before sunrise and slowly see the ghats come alive. Early morning boat ride on the River Ganga is a popular tourist activity.
In winter the river is home to Black Headed Gulls. There are boats selling bird feed to the tourists. Whenever a boat scatters the feed in water, the birds converge around it from all directions!
By the time the sun came out, the buildings by the ghats were casting beautiful reflections on the river! I loved the golden glow, there were reds too at a different junction.
Varanasi or Kashi is considered to be one of the ancient living cities. As the boat passes by the ghats, in a span of five minutes the scene changes from the pious taking a dip to the sound of temple bells, to the funeral pyres burning at the next ghat! Passing by life and death at such close quarters certainly brings home the ever present truth- life is just too short!
While I was still marveling at the proximity of life and beyond on the ghats of Varanasi, our boat docked back at the Assi Ghat and we walked to the Tulsidas Akhara. Akharas are the local wrestling arenas with a long tradition behind them. I was happy to meet the students, particularly Anjali, the female student of the Akhara. We witnessed a few wrestling matches.
Siyaram ji is one of the instructors of the Tulsidas Akhara. He is 65 years old and has the energy of someone half his age! He exercised with the gada like the pro that he is! Our guide had to cajole us off the venue with the promise of a local breakfast.
The morning aptly ended with the breakfast of Sabzi, Puri and Jalebi at the Sri Ram Bhandar. It was a delicious affair! I love such unpretentious food!
For me was fun to surprise the local people by talking to them in Bhojpuri, as my hometown is Gorakhpur in UP. It wasactually a pleasure to speak Bhojpuri after such a long time!
As I am not a morning person, I am usually cranky at the start of a day, more so if dares to start at 4.00 am. Four is night for me! In spite of that I thoroughly enjoyed the Subah-e-Baranas. I would highly recommend it. It is totally worth getting up in the morning to enjoy the rhythm of the ancient city!
I saw my name at placard at the Haridwar Railway Station. I smiled at the young man holding it and we walked out. I was looking for a car to take us to the hotel! We actually got into a rickshaw instead. That baffled me a but. But I soon realized why it was prudent. Hotel Alpana near Har Ki Paui in Haridwar is set among narrow lanes that lead to Har Ki Pauri! It will be a task to take a car there during the day time. It took us a few minutes to reach by cycle rickshaw! You can check out the hotel website for more details.
At Alpana Hotel I was staying at an executive room. It was large, spacious and had absolutely clean linen. The room rent is 3000 rupees plus tax. This was the most expensive room in the hotel. The other two categories go at 2600 rupees and 2000 rupees plus taxes. The rooms are centrally air-conditioned.
The bathroom was clean too. They have soap bars but no shampoo in there. But as it is a budget hotel I have no complains.
I met the young owners of the hotel. They have started managing it recently and they are already at work. The restaurant is being redesigned. They are adding a dormitory and upgrading the upholstery throughout the hotel.
If you re looking for a clean budget hotel near Har Ki Pauri, you should check out Hotel Alpana. I stayed there for two nights.
The Food at Alpana Hotel
I ate all my meals at the hotel. I tried a large variety of Indian food, kofta, kadhi daal, roti, aloo paratha, raita, rice and mushroom matar! The cook does a good job of feeding the guests. You could tell the server how much spices you wanted and they would cook the food accordingly.
There was a tea kettle in my room. For me it is essential for happiness. On many nights I like to make a cup of tea before I go to sleep. I always sleep better after it. But this is just a travel ritual, I don’t do this at home somehow.
Har Ki Pauri and Ganga Aarti
Alpana Hotel is at a walking distance from Har Ki Pauri. I went to Ganga Aarti on both the evenings. The lanes to the kund are narrow and crowded. But they are lined with shops. It is fun to walk looking at the things for sale and sampling the food delights.
If you want to photograph the Aarti you need to arrive early. On the first evening we arrived just in time and I was almost at the end of the standing crowd.
On the second evening I arrived 45 minutes before and I was at the front of the standing crowd! On both the evenings I could not get close to the aarti.
Har Ki Pauri- A Foodie’s Delight
I was tipped off about all the good food shops in the area, there is Raju Bhai ki Jalebi, Dudh Wale ki Lassi and Mathrua wale ki Mithai. I have sampled all of it and I have to say I can happily go back just for the food again!
Mansa Devi and Chandi Devi
Mansa Devi and Chandi Devi Temples are Shakti Peeths. There is a rope way that goes all the way up to the temple. There is a walking path too. I used the rope way for both the places.
Mansa Devi Rope way is once again at a walking distance from the Alpana Hotel. The hotel gave me a combined ticket for both the temples along with the transportation ticket between the two.
I visited Mansa Devi, and then took the transport to Chandi Devi Rope Way. After visiting the Chandi Devi Temple, I took the transport back to Mansa Devi. From there I walked back to the hotel!
I am not overtly religious but I have enjoyed visiting Churches, Dargahs and Monasteries in the past. So I decided to go to Haridwar in the same spirit. I was impressed by the Ganga Aarti and the food in town!
PS. My trip to Haridwar was sponsored by Hotel Alpana.
I am Mridula Dwivedi, I love to travel! I started my travel blog in 2005. I have been going places since! For more details do check out my media kit! In another life I did a Ph.D. from IIT Kanpur. I was a professor when I quit my job in 2015.
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