The Ancient City of Varanasi
Lies on the banks of the holy River Ganges or Ganga as it is known to Hindus. Varanasi or Benares is situated in the north of India in Uttar Pradesh state. For Hindus it is the holiest place in the country and very propitious therefore everyone of them, man, woman and child expect to visit here at least once in their lifetime.
Boats on the Ganges
Varanasi is so ancient it is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. It is closely associated with the holy Ganga River due to its religious importance. It attracts millions of visitors every year many of which are Hindu pilgrims but also tourists flock in their droves to visit this culturally abundant place. There aren’t many destinations in the world where the senses can be so completely overwhelmed with the variety of characters, traditions, and scenery that Varanasi has to offer.
Ancient Hindu and Jain Temples line the Ghats
It’s an allout assault on the senses with the sights, sounds and smells of this bustling and extraordinary holy city. Pilgrims come from far and wide to bathe in Ganga Mata or Mother Gangas waters. To do so is considered extremely auspicious although it could also be considered extremely dangerous these days due to the pollution that she has had bestowed upon her. The Ghats or steps that run along for many kilometres along the banks of the Ganga are where most of the action takes place yet that’s not to say the rest of the city is devoid of interest, far from it. Walking amongst the back streets of Varanasi is like taking a step back in time, you can find traditional workshops and crumbling abodes, small temples and effigies of the gods and if your hungry there are plenty of restaurants and chai (tea) stalls also along with all manner of goodies for sale in small shops.
Backstreet Tea (Chai) Stall
Forget about Neon Sign advertising
The Ghats of Varanasi are a fascinating place to take a stroll along and there are no less than a 100 of them, each with their own little nuances. Most are actually bathing ghats where the devout come to wash away their sins but others are cremation sites.
One particularly popular (should we say) cremation site is Manikarnika Ghat, here it is possible to witness the burning of the dead at all hours of the day as the area is open to anyone and they burn at least half a dozen bodies at a time. Again it is considered very favourable to be cremated here due to the religious significance. In fact old people who realise their days are almost numbered come to live in the city in the hope that they won’t miss there chance to attain moksha and will be here ready when their time comes. Death in the city is something that is not feared but looked upon naturally as just another stage of life. It is welcomed in fact and even celebrated.
Manikarnika Ghat (The Burning Ghat)
The holy water from the Ganges River has another very important role, to be used for washing the millions of sari’s and other clothes that are constantly being subjected to the dust and dirt of the surrounding environs. Laundry duties are performed in the river just as frequently as the devout perform ablutions. All along her banks the Dobhi Wala’s or laundrymen can be seen scrubbing and whacking worn clothes on an old rock beside the river, ringing them out and drying them on the filthy steps YET the mystery remains how after it has dried in the mid-day sun it has become so spotlessly clean! Definitely one of life’s mysteries.
Dobhi Wala checking the Laundry
The Lucky Ones
Boat rides can be had for a reasonable rate and you will get a superb view of Varanasi from the river and of all that occurs on the famous Bathing Ghats. The devout could be sat meditating or reading the scriptures, others will be cleansing themselves in the water of Ganga Mata (mother Ganga), religious ceremonies often take place and temple bells are always ringing in Varanasi. You will pass water buffalo up to their necks in the river keeping cool and see people making cow dung patties which they stick to any available surface to dry out and later use as fuel.
Cow Dung Patties (great supply of fuel)
Water Buffalo Keeping Cool
Random Meditator (could be sleeping!)
The telling of Rosary Beads (Mala)
Ancient Varanasi City itself has plenty of wildlife, be it an abundance of the sacred Indian cows who chomp and chew their way through the streets eating old veg that has been thrown out for them or more bizarrely, cardboard boxes! Or eagles competing for airspace along with kites that the kids fly very skilfully I might add from the rooftops. Monkeys live side by side with residents albeit begrudgingly. Often these Rhesus Monkeys that thrive in Varanasi are chased off with sticks at time when they try to steal the locals food and the poor old wild dogs struggle to get by on the leftovers that the cows don’t consume.
Resident Rhesus Monkeys
Varanasi is a must see for any adventurous person, it is a vibrant city, magical even, full of wondrous things that really challenge your ways of perception. It is a place of learning, not only for an individual who when visiting for the first time will no doubt be shocked and somewhat dumbstruck at the way of life here but also for those more serious students who want to learn about religion or music. Varanasi is famous for having some very learned teachers wether it be those who have a penchant for the musical teaching the Tabla, Harmonium or more often than not the traditional Sitar or those that teach Yoga. And after lessons how nice it would be to take a Chai (Sweet Indian Tea) somewhere down on the ghats and just watch the world go by….
Down by the River
Holy City of Varanasi as seen from the Boat
Boating down the Ganges
And if you were to get bored with the ghats head up into the city, a crazy, mad, bustling place where you can see MORE of the real India, why not go by cycle rickshaw?
Godolia – Part of Varanasi Urban Area