VARANASI, INDIA, November 2, 2021 (BBC by Amrita Sarkar): Inhabited since at least 1800 BC, Varanasi is well known for being among the oldest living cities on Earth, and one of the holiest for the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Hindus. Every day, as the sound of ringing temple bells echo overhead, tens of thousands of devotees descend the city’s 88 stone ghat steps and dip themselves into the Ganges river to wash away their sins. Bereaved relatives flock to Varanasi’s two cremation grounds where funeral pyres burn around the clock, believing that Shiva Himself whispers the Tarak mantra (chant of liberation) into the ears of all those cremated here, granting them instant moksha or salvation.

However, my reasons for traveling to Varanasi were quite different. I didn’t come to confront death or cleanse my soul; I came to experience the city’s unique vegetarian food. Traditionally, many Varanasi restaurants have served meat to cater to Western tourists and non-vegetarian Hindu pilgrims, and local sattvic cuisine was primarily eaten at home. But in 2019, the Hindu-nationalist BJP government banned the sale and consumption of meat within a 250m radius of all Varanasi temples and heritage sites. This encouraged restaurants to start featuring local vegetarian and sattvic recipes that have been passed down for generations within Varanasi homes but were previously unavailable to visitors.

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