Varanasi. The city of Light on the Ganges

Varanasi is one of those places that just stays with you forever. It’s intense and overwhelming. It is spiritual but also commercial, dirty and crowded yet enlightening and calming.  There’s the initial shock, then irritation and frustration until you reach a point where you stop trying to make sense of it and immerse yourself completely.

 

The original name of Varanasi was “Kashi” meaning “The city of Light”  It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, dating back from the 6th century BC.  It is the only city in the world that has maintained the same traditions since it’s very beginning.  It lives and breathes spirituality.

The modern name Varanasi is derived from the names of the rivers Varuna and Assi ( also a ghat) and is literally the land between them. Situated on the banks of the river Ganges, it is the eternal destination for Hindu pilgrims.

Varanasi is a must see for anyone who travels in India.

But it can take a while to adjust.  Being followed tirelessly by men asking for money trying to sell you something or convince you to take them as a guide, after a while became frustrating and increasingly annoying.

“What you’re looking for madam? Looking for me?”  “You want something madam?”

I’d hear that on every street and every corner. My search for spirituality in the holiest of cities wasn’t as straight forward as expected. Narrow alleyways often blocked by cows, crowded streets, people bathing and washing their clothes in the river not far from the ghats where dead bodies are being burnt and then thrown in the water, hippies, beggars, tourists and pilgrims, stray dogs, goats and chickens, baskets with cobra snakes, it can easily get overwhelming and leave you restless and looking for an escape route.

I’m glad I didn’t leave too soon though. After a couple of days I finally allowed myself to get completely immersed in the organised chaos of Varanasi and as if by magic I felt at peace and began seeing the other side of the City of Light.

Sitting on the steps of one of the ghats in the early evening, overlooking the Ganges and the hundreds of candle lights floating on the water, it was easy to imagine the place millenias back in time.

 

Arti pooja ceremony on Dashashwamedh Ghat

Every evening as the sun sets down, the ceremony of Arti pooja is performed at Dashashwamedh Ghat. Facing the river, Brahmin priests perform a ritual of fire offering to the Ganges.  There are flowers and small candles floating on the water, burning incense and ringing bells, accompanied by carefully choreographed performance of the priests.

Faith plays such an important role in people’s life here. It’s there in the quiet hope in their prayers while they offer poojas to the Ganges. Life and death are equally celebrated here, all centred around the river.

People bathe in it’s waters convinced it will wash away their sins. Dying in Varanasi is considered auspicious and a way to end the cycle of rebirth. It is believed the ashes from the dead return to the origins of life in the river Ganga.

 

The burning of dead bodies in Manakarnika and Harishchandra Ghats is a daily cremation ceremony. Anyone can go and witness it, just keep your camera in your bag. Pictures are not allowed out of respect for the dead and their families. I found the experience very moving and humbling and a great reminder of the transience of human life.

 

5  must visit Ghats in Varanasi:

Dashashwamedh Ghat  This is the main ghat in Varanasi. It is located close to Vishwanath Temple and is central to the Agni pooja ceremonies performed there every night.

Digpatia Ghat  Built in 1830 by the king of Digapatiya and named Digpatia Ghat. A beautiful palace whose architecture is a great example of Bengali art and style.

Manikarnika ghat One of the oldest and holiest ghats in Varanasi. Hindu mythology teaches that the ghat is especially sacred and that people cremated there receive liberation from rebirth. It is the central place for cremation on the Ganges .

Scindia ghat . Named after the Scindias, who built it. There are several Kashi shrines nearby . According to mythology, Agni, the Hindu God of Fire was born here.

Vijayanagaram ghat  The Maharaja of Vijayanagaram provided the funds for the construction of this ghat in 1890. This is the only ghat that represents Andhra Pradesh. There are the temples dedicated to Lord Shiva and Nishpapeshvara.

 

Agni Pooja ceremony performed every evening in Varanasi

Festivals in Varanasi:

Ganga Festival: Usually in November.  Offers homage to the holy river Ganga.

Kartik Purnima: Ghats of Varanasi come alive with thousands of brightly-lit earthen pots November- December.

Mahashivaratri  February or March.  Mahashivaratri marks the night when Lord Shiva performed the ‘Tandava’. It is also believed that on this day Lord Shiva was married to Parvati Ma

Dhrupad Mela: February or March.  Five-day long music festival  celebrated on the Tulsi Ghat of the Ganges.

Bharat Milap: Bharat Milap, held in October/November is an important festival of Kashi or Varanasi. Celebrated to commemorate Lord Ram’s return to Ayodhya after 14 years of exile and his reunion with his brother, Bharat. The essence of this festival is victory of truth over evil.

Akshya Tritiiya April or May.  Considered one of the four most auspicious days of the Vedic Calendar.

 

Useful links:

Transport information : www.indiarailinfo.com

buy train tickets online: https://www.cleartrip.com/trains

Best time to visit: October to March

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