Stepping into another world – Varanasi.
Let’s put this part of the world in perspective, look back to the 7th century BC.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built, the Maya culture was thriving, Ezekiel the Hebrew prophet was born, Egypt’s Thebes was captured and sacked, Argos defeated Sparta for the last time, Greeks had their first naval battle, the Zhou Dynasty ruled in China, and Varanasi was part of the world stage.
This century, every kilometer closer to Varanasi is a step closer to another world. About an hours drive from the airport, we reached Mahishasura Assi Ghat* on the Ganges to board a boat to take us to our luxurious hotel on the ghats. The Brijrama Palace is a 200+ year old Heritage hotel, open since 2016 after 18 years of restoration. On the Darbhanga Ghat, the only way to get there is by boat, but luckily for us, it’s the only hotel on the ghats with an elevator. The Ganges is a holy river and today Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India, a sacred city for the Hindu. The entire area along the 7.6 kilometer stretch of the river is vegetarian and there is no alcohol served (there is in the interior of the city). There are 84 ghats and 300 temples.
We headed out on the river in a traditional wooden row-boat to experience our first sunset in this special place. The breeze was cool as we were slowly rowed on this north-flowing part of the river. It is said the Goddess Ganges flows north towards heaven. Our guide Dr. Ajay estimated that each evening there are about 500 boats in the river along the ghats. Some pilgrims launch small floating lights as part of their ritual adding to the otherworldly effect.
We witnessed cremations at Manikarnika Ghat with fires burning, bodies in shrouds waiting their turn for the three-hour ritual, and cows wandering among the ash to eat the ceremonial flowers. Other than a smoky tinge in the air – there were no other odors. We hovered along another ghat to listen to chanting by young priests from the local monasteries (ashrams). They also blew conch shells and rang rhythmic bells. It was enchanting and mesmerizing. Being tired, and with the gentle rocking of the boat, I was lulled into a trance-like state.
The following dawn we were back out on the river to see the sun come up and witness morning rituals. Pilgrims come to bathe in the river, many people are seen meditating along the steps, and groups of women are engaged in prayer groups alongside the less spiritual activities of clothes washing, and unsanctioned fishing.
Getting into the narrow alleys of the old city was an intense, eye-opening experience. It’s cramped, dim, crowded, smelly, and fascinating. We immediately saw a snake charmer with his cobra. Not wanting to get too close (even thought the snake likely had it’s venom sacs removed), we asked our guide to deliver our tip! We competed with cows for space in the alleys (they won) and saw our first monkey of the trip.
The narrow passages were filled with pilgrims and small shops selling Hindu offerings of flowers and milk. The area is dominated by the Golden Temple (Vishwanath) the most sacred of Hindu temples, rebuilt in 1776. Twice the target of terrorists, there is major security to even get close enough to see the golden top with its 800 kilograms of real gold. No cameras allowed. In fact, we were not even allowed to take our purses. Our guide kept our purses and, after being thoroughly patted down by a female guard and showing our passport, we could finally see the top of the temple.
At Dasashvamedha Ghat we saw the line of bamboo parasols used by priests to conduct ritual prayers for the pilgrims who have washed in the river. Emerging behind the ghats on a regular street was an every-morning farmers market. The produce displayed was fresh and beautiful and the people-watching continued to be entertaining. Clearly some interesting individuals have chosen to live in and visit Varanasi.
Our hotel lobby features a quote from Mark Twain: “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, even older than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
I can’t improve on that.
*Ghats are the steps leading to the Ganges.