Varanasi – Ancient, Alluring, and Magnetic
The ancient city of Varanasi which lies on the banks of the River Ganges–revered as being a sacred river– was, according to Hindu mythology, founded by Lord Shiva.
A never-ending stream of pilgrims flocks to Varanasi annually to partake in the rituals that pay homage to the river goddess, Ganga, and to purify themselves in her holy waters. Many come to die here. Their bodies are wrapped in white cloth and cremated in the leaping orange flames of wooden pyres beside the river; their ashes are scattered into its murky waters.
The narrow alleys of the Old City overflow with sounds, smells and non-stop activity. Ancient structures cling to life. Layers of sandstone, brick, and paint, create a patchwork of textures. Pedestrians, tiny stalls, cows, bulls, dogs, and shoppers cram the alleys. Dodging fresh patties of cow dung while avoiding being butted by the horns of a cow, or knocked down by a motorbike, requires a skilled game of hopscotch. Yet this organized chaos is exhilarating. It’s so rich in color and so intensely alive. A deep aura of spirituality permeates Varanasi.
We hired a private guide for a day, which made all the difference to our enjoyment of this holy city which is one of the most ancient cities in the world. Without Shasha as our guide, we would never have uncovered the hidden gems, nor would we have had an appreciation and understanding of the panoply of sights that fill the tangle of crowded narrow lanes.
The majority of religious ceremonies in Varanasi take place on the Ghats that line the eight kilometer riverfront. Ghats are wide stone steps built on the water’s edge that face east towards the rising sun. While some Ghats are the primary location for religious ceremonies; others are used for cremations; some for doing laundry; and others are more frequently used for bathing and meditation. Life along the Ghats is a vibrant, technicolor, living painting.
Each day huge ceremonies take place at sunrise and sunset. We were so fortunate to be visiting at the time of the full yellow moon before the festival of Diwali, which symbolizes the victory of light and knowledge over darkness and ignorance.
We attended the nightly sunset celebration on a wooden boat wedged between hundreds of other boats packed with worshipers. From Dashashwamedh Ghat came the sound of a symphony of drums, cymbals, gongs, chanting, and the haunting echo of conch shells. Orange flames of fire danced in ornamental copper braziers; thousands of little arrangements of flowers, with burning votive candles at their centers, were set adrift in the river. A beautiful offering to the goddess of the Ganges.
Perhaps even more moving was the sunrise ceremony. We departed our hotel with our boat driver at 4:30 a.m. The sky was ink black. The Ghats were quiet and deserted, save for a few people who had spent the hot night sleeping outdoors and others who sat immersed in meditation or who engaged in their predawn yoga routines.
This time we had front row seats on land directly in front of the ceremony. It was a beautiful and deeply moving ceremony set against the backdrop of the sky which turned from ink black, to navy blue, to pale blue, as the first rays of the sun peeked shyly above the horizon blessing a new day.
We were fortunate to be staying at the Brijrama Palace. An exquisite 19th Century palace converted into a boutique hotel which sits right on the Ghats. Our views were spectacular, the service royal. A blissful place to retreat to after sweltering hot days of exploring Varanasi and the complete antithesis to the riot of smells, sounds, and non-stop action of the Old City.