Dates: Dec 15-17, 2016
Route: Flight from Delhi to/from Varanasi.
Varanasi.... We had both heard many stories about this place growing up, but somehow never made it there before now. Also known as Benares, it is a city on the banks of the river Ganges in the state of Uttar Pradesh in north India. The Ganges itself has a deep spiritual meaning and associated traditions to Hindus and is worshiped as the goddess Ganga in Hinduism. This, coupled with the fact that Varanasi is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainsim, meant that we would be in for a treat in terms of sights, sounds, and experiences. Some believe Varanasi has been inhabited for over 5,000 years which would make it one of the world's holiest cities. People come from all over to pray, mediate, find solace, give up their earthly attachments, bathe in the Ganges, attend to the dead, or in some cases, even die. It is believed that being cremated here and having one's ashes laid in the river Ganges, end the cycle of birth, death, and re-birth. It is a place of beautiful chaos where one is confronted with the reality of our mortal existence and it's inevitable end.
We took a late afternoon flight from Delhi and the hour-long drive to our hotel meant we arrived after sunset. We stayed at the excellent Ramada Plaza which was a little outside the main area but along the riverfront. After a quick change of clothes, we set off with our cameras as we were told we might make it to see part of the evening prayers. As the auto rickshaw sped through town, our child-like excitement made us giddy as exploring new places brings with it a sensation unlike any other.
Ghats are riverfront steps leading to the banks of the Ganges and Varanasi has 88 of them, each unique in it's own way. You can read more about them here. Most of the ghats are used for bathing or prayer ceremonies but some are used exclusively as cremation sites. You can read a lot more about them . We were dropped off at the edge of a crowded road and told to follow it to the end where we would find Dasaswamedh Ghat, the main ghat due to the prayers being held here. The prayer ceremony, Ganga Aarti, is an event held everyday to give thanks to the river (goddess) Ganges and it is one that is open, in public, and very engaging. At the edge of the ghat, 7 young Hindu priests in vermilion sarongs perform a 45-minute prayer ceremony that is surreal to witness, no matter one's religion or beliefs. It begins with Vedhic hymns and as the holy chants reverberate in the air, a corn shell is blown. Next is burning of incense sticks while simultaneously ringing prayer bells, also known as the aarti. This culminates in a crescendo at the end which brings one back to reality. After the end of the ceremony, hundreds of people offer lamps and flower arrangements by floating them into the river. This is done with the belief that a lamp or flower arrangement offered to the Ganges will fulfill one's prayers. We were so taken by the entire experience that we came back the next night and saw the entire ceremony from a boat moored just off the ghat. It was getting late so we found a small restaurant in one of the many alleys just behind the ghats. After a bit of night photography, we returned to the hotel for some sleep.
We woke up early the next morning as we were eager to make use of the many photo opportunities that the night before had just hinted at. After a fantastic breakfast at the hotel, we set off to see the ghats by going back to Dasaswamedh Ghat. The streets were even more crowded than the night before, but the chaos made us feel right at home. Varanasi is full of tourists, so foreigners don't get many stares as in some rural parts of India. As we walked into the same area where the ceremony had been held the night before, the visual input was staggering. Nothing could have prepared us for the sheer amount of things going on all around us; women in colorful saris selling flowers, sadhus (holy men, sage) praying, hundreds of boats all jostling for space, cows, dogs, birds, people in every color imaginable, the smell of wood smoke mixed with incense, children begging, individuals in deep meditation... all of it mixed and re-mixed in a mind blowing assault on all of our senses. We stood there for a bit just taking it all in before our photography desires took over and broke us out of our trance. We spent the rest of the day walking south from Dasaswamedh Ghat and leisurely exploring each ghat along the way. Some were nothing more than steps leading down from ancient buildings while others housed intricate buildings or temples. The sheer number of things on offer for photo and video are just staggering and words here cannot do them justice. Thankfully you can experience them via our video above and photos below. Eventually, towards midafternoon, we arrived at Harishchandra Ghat, one of the two dedicated to the cremation ritual. It is here we saw our first dead body atop a funeral pyre and it is a sobering moment. There was nothing fancy nor were there anybody around; simply a pile of burning wood on the riverfront with body covered in religious garments and adornments on top. As I stared into the flickering flames, my mind began to reflect upon my own mortality and the fragility of life. As usual, offering thanks to the divine for this privileged life, I moved on. And I took no photographs as it just did not feel right to do so. Evening found us in a communal rooftop restaurant where we had delicious local food with a nice Italian couple who shared the table. Around midnight, we headed back to the hotel reflecting on all we had seen.
The next day began with a leisurely breakfast outside by the river followed by a short walk along the boardwalk which was nice for walking or jogging but otherwise rather unremarkable. We then set off to Dasaswamedh Ghat to explore the north ghats and also visit the famous temple the city was known for. The place was exactly as busy as it was the day before and we spent time looking around as the chaos always demands attention as there is so much to see just standing in place. It is at this time we met Raja, a ~15yr old kid who we tagged right away as smart and full of hustle. He offered to take us on his boat for a view of all the ghats from the Ganges. This is something we had wanted to do so, after the usual bargaining (settled on ₹ 2,000/~$35), we set off in a boat that had seen better days. But, compared to all others around, this one started up right away after a vigorous belching of black smoke. Varanasi from the water is a completely different experience as one finally sees the entire scope of the beautiful chaos around without actually being in it. As you will see from our pictures, the views are as breathtaking as they are varied. We cruised past the many ghats we had seen before and finally headed into the northern ones. As before, each had something unique to see and we spent a good hour slowly cruising up the river. It was then that we came to Manikarnika Ghat, also knows as the Burning Ghat, which is perhaps the most confronting one of all the ghats we had seen. It is here where a majority of the dead bodies are cremated and it begins with a view of a literal line on the ground of dead bodies, each wrapped in ceremonial cloth and adornments. Piles of firewood line the shore and pyres burn around the clock, sending their earthly ashes to the heavens. Hindus believe that being cremated and having one's ashes laid in the Ganges in Varanasi breaks the cycle of birth, death, and re-birth. In a culture that believes in Karmic death and paying for sins in multiple lifetimes, the breaking of the cycle (called moksha) is profound. Nothing could prepare me for this sight and again, it does cause one to reflect on their own life and mortality. We were also warned not to take any pictures as here it is forbidden.
The morbid spell was finally broken as we sailed around the corner and came to Scindia Ghat in which a beautiful Shiva temple can be found lying partially submerged in the Ganges. Raja informed us that just next to this ghat was the best place to alight and walk up to the famous temple complex which we did. He took us up a very narrow alleyway to the entrance to the Shri Kashi Vishwanath temple, one dedicated to Shiva. There is an official entrance to the complex and one pays a modest fee to enter. As with most temples, you have to enter barefoot and there is a place to leave your shoes. But, Rajan insisted that we leave our shoes and bags at his friend's shop as it was safer and we would get priority access. Long story short, we got taken for another $30 but at least we did not have to carry our bags about. Camera are not allowed inside and photography is banned. The only advice we have is to just enjoy the beauty of the ancient temple and never give in to the many requests for rupees and the "special prayers" the priests will perform on your behalf.
We spent the rest of the day wandering about the back alleys and exploring away from the ghats. We had afternoon tea in the excellent Vishnu Tea Emporium where you sit cross-legged on the floor while the host makes delicious tea from one you pick from the many varieties on offer. This is also a great opportunity to meet other tourists as this is a well known, if very small, place. After a quick trip back to the hotel to change, we went back to Dasaswamedh Ghat to again take in the evening prayer ceremony, this time from a moored boat.
This brought to end our visit to Varanasi as we were off to Thailand the next morning. I cannot help but comment on the environmental impact that tradition and ritual have in this city. The funeral pyres burn almost every day of the year, 24x7, spewing smoke and the ashes of the dead into the air which we all breathe while in the city. Trees are a precious resource in India and thousands are chopped down to feed the unrelenting appetite of the funeral pyres. Finally, while we saw a relatively clean Ganges, stories (and photos) abound on bodies, body parts, and partially decomposed corpses floating in the river. While none of this should give pause for you to visit Varanasi, it is something that will cross your mind.
(click on image to enlarge)