Varanasi / Benaras / Kashi, the spiritual capital of India is the holiest pilgrimage for Hindus and a pilgrimage for Jains and Buddhists as well. The name is derived from the two tributaries of Ganga – Varuna and Assi, that forms the city’s border.
Situated on the bank of River Ganges, Varanasi is the most auspicious location for Hindu cremation ritual. It is considered that the soul of the Hindu who is cremated in Varanasi and the ashes dispersed in River Ganges, will definitely go to heaven and will achieve Moksha. Hence many Hindu’s last wish is to be cremated at Varanasi or at least their ash to be dispersed in river Ganga. There are two ghats dedicated to the cremation ritual – Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats. We visited the ghats on a boat.
The city of temples, Varanasi has innumerous temples with many household having a private temple while most other available spaces, however small it may be, has been converted into a temple. As we did the historical city walk I discovered various temples, the much talked about narrow lanes, one of the Gurukul where Sanskrit and the slokas are taught, the Nepali temple (built by the King of Nepal, dedicated to Lord Shiva and one of the oldest temples) and the doors of Old Varanasi.
A Strange Experience: during the walk I got rudely asked to move out of their way by some men at separate instances, though I was not blocking rather was trying to move forward. However I let them pass by. I thought they were Brahmacharis (men who remain unmarried) and hence women irritate them (how stupid of me). So I asked my guide after 3 such encounters if that was the case and came to know that they were just plain rude and that’s how they behave with women. I wish I had encountered someone that rude one more time to vent out my anger but Alas!
Note: while there are many guides in the city we hired Mr. Mayur Jaiswal (he has many positive reviews on Tripadvisor) who is a young chap and knows the lanes and the history very well . On top of that he is quite inexpensive and shows you exactly what you want. He is flexible with the time and will not push you to buy anything. He has no fixed charge, and will gladly accept whatever you give him. His suggestions were very good as well.
Varanasi is considered to be established by Lord Shiva and hence the main temple of the city called Vishwanath temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Bhang, the drink of Lord Shiva is legal in this city and is sold at govt authorized outlets.
Note 1: Bhang is an edible form of Cannabis, generally mixed to drink or buttermilk or lassi or similar beverages.
Note 2: Lord Shiva as per Hindu mythology should be worshiped on a Monday to get maximum blessing. We unfortunately visited the temple on a Monday and had to push our way to see the idol.
Mark Twain said – “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” As per Archaeologists the 1st settlement happened in the 11th or 12th century and that makes the city (even if not established by Lord Shiva) one of the oldest continually inhabited cities of the world. Historians are still researching on the age of the city.
The city of temples cannot be without the prayer ritual. While each temple has its own Aarti being performed, River Ganges, the holy river, has her own. The Ganga Aarti or the ‘Agni Pooja’ is a thousand years old ritual that is performed every evening attracting and enchanting followers / tourist from many parts of the world. There are two Aartis that are performed at two sections of Dashaswamedh Ghat – one with five priests and another with seven priests. One can watch the Aarti from the steps of the ghats or the boats or from the roof tops of the nearby restaurants. I watched both the Aartis one each on consecutive days, once from the steps and once from the boat. And I enjoyed both.
While the priests prepared for the ritual, the viewers looked for the best spot.The Aarti was performed at the edge of the steps and the items for the ritual comprised of a table covered in saffron coloured silk cloth, incense sticks, brass lamps with snake hood, multi level brass lamps, conch shell, praying bells, handkerchiefs, flowers, water pot, yak-tail fan, peacock’s feather and others. All these items are considered sacred in Hindu Mythology.
The priests started the ritual at around 6pm and it took around an hour to complete the ritual. It was an amazing experience that no words can describe.
A trip to Varanasi however is incomplete without the boat rides on the holy river once in the morning and once in the evening. The boatmen are usually your guide to the various ghats that you cross during this ride. This is however a subject for another blog. During summers one can enjoy the sunrise but since I visited in the winters it was quite foggy. During this season one can also see the Siberian (as per what I heard) seagulls who migrate to Varanasi every year. They will fly back in Jan end.
While walking on the ghats early in the morning one can see many Sadhus who spend most of their life on the ghats praying, doing yoga, meditating and the like. I ended up talking to one of them who told me about the ingredient they use to keep themselves warm without having to use warm clothes, the ashrams who feeds them, and then he sang while playing the Dumru – the drum of Lord Shiva. He used to work for a govt office after completing his graduation and then one fine day he just felt like leaving everything behind.
As I mentioned earlier, Varanasi is also a pilgrimage for Jains and Buddhist. Most of the Jain and Buddhist temples are located in Sarnath. A day trip is sufficient to cover all unless you want to pray at these temples. The temples I visited are Japanese Buddhist Temple, Thai Buddhist Temple, Chinese Buddhist Temple and the ruins.
On the way back I also visited a weaving shop to check out the weaving process to make the beautiful Benarasi Saree. The silk sari of Benaras is popular in India and in many place the bride generally wear a red Benarasi Saree with intricate design, done with gold or silver thread – because of which the sarees are relatively heavy.
Food is an important ingredient to experience a city. However this city being a spiritual capital, non-vegetarian is not available everywhere. You need to check with your hotel. The must eats are: Kachoris and jalebis at Madhur Jalpan, lassi at Blue Lassi bar, Mukkhan malaiyo (a winter special sweet), the UP special mutton curry – I tried them all and I loved them as much.
My trip ended in 3days and I know it is too short to experience this city. I would love to live here for a while but that may not be possible so a 2nd visit with longer time is a definite must.
1. River Ganges is the Holy River for Hindus and and any disrespect shown to River Ganges not accepted by the people here. Do not drink or urinate or show any kind or disrespect to River Ganges.
2. Cow is considered as the holy mother by Hindus, and any disrespect shown to her is not acceptable. Do not even push a cow to move her out of your way.
For more info on Varanasi check the following links apart from the ones I have linked to earlier in the blog, that I found useful:
- For hotels – I searched through booking.com and tripadvisor.in
Next Stop Rishikesh.