Varanasi – spiritual capital of India
Experience watching the spectacle of life and death on the river and meandering through the alleys of the old city of Varanasi, also known as Banaras.
Varanasi, once known as Benares or Banaras and Kashi, is a historical city in northern India. The city is sacred to Hindus and Jains and also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with settlements dating back to the 11th century BC.
Many Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi brings salvation/nirvana and so they make the trip to the city when they realize that they are close to death. For some, the culture shock of the burning corpses in plain view can be a bit overwhelming. However, the scene of pilgrims doing their devotions in the River Ganga at sunrise set against the backdrop of the centuries-old temples is probably one of the most impressive sights in the world.
Over 60,000 people come to the ghats every day to take a dip in the sacred waters of the Ganga, most notably at sunrise. A sunrise cruise on the Ganges River for a view of the activity along the ghats (stone steps) leading down to the river, where the locals and pilgrims alike cleanse themselves, literally and spiritually.
Stroll around the Ghat and head to the banks of the sacred Ganges River to witness the Aarti ceremony. Take in the sounds of chanted prayers and rhythmic drumming as you watch the Hindu priests — holding lanterns to keep the darkness at bay and bid the gods and goddesses a restful slumber.
Visit Akhara, a traditional gymnasium where Pehalwans (wrestlers) practice Kushti (Indian mud wrestling). There is something inherently sensual about Kushti, an ancient form of wrestling practiced in India.
Nearby Sarnath, a park where Gautama Buddha is said to have given his first sermon 25 centuries ago. Sarnath (10 km from Varanasi) – It is believed that in Sarnath Buddha gave his first sermon to his disciples after getting enlightenment. There is also a museum in Sarnath. The location is also known as Deer Park. Several Asian countries have built Buddhist temples there following their own ancient architectural traditions.
Ghats and the River Ganges
The River Ganga is a sacred river for the Hindus and you will see traditional rituals and bathing occurring at all times of the day.
On the Eastern banks, the River Ganga is flanked by a 300m wide sand belt, beyond which lies a green belt, a protected area reserved for turtle breeding.
The western crescent-shaped bank of the River Ganga is flanked by a continuous stretch of 84 ghats, or series of steps leading down to the river, stretching for 6.8km. These ghats were built by Hindu kings who wanted to die along the Ganges, and they built lofty palaces along the river, most of which are now hotels, to spend their final days.
Hindus consider it auspicious to die in Varanasi, so some ghats are known as burning ghats, where over 200+ corpses per day are cremated in full view before their ashes are eased into the Ganga.
Some of the most popular ghats, from north to south:
- Panchganga Ghat – the meeting of the five rivers
- Manikarnika Ghat – the main cremation ghat; a must-see, but remain quiet and never take photographs
- Dasaswamedh Ghat – known as the ‘main’ ghat, this is the site of the large evening aarti ceremony
- Rana Ghat
- Kedar Ghat – brightly painted in stripes and busy with bathers, very photogenic
- Narad Ghat – the ghat on which bathing with spouse is not advised because of the legend of contention
- Harishchandra Ghat – the cremation place where Raja Harishchandra did the last rituals of his son.
- Hanuman Ghat
- Shivala Ghat
- Tulsi Ghat – site of the large water purification plant
- Assi Ghat – a popular place to stay, with many hotels, restaurants, and internet cafes
- Shri Kashi Vishwanth Temple (Golden Temple). Security is tight and sometimes completely off-limits to foreigners. No bags, cellphones or pens are allowed. They can be deposited in the shops by the temple entrance. The temple was destroyed multiple times by Mughal invaders and was re-constructed by Hindu kings who followed them.
- Sankat Mochan Temple. The famous Hanuman temple, home to thousands of monkeys. Security is tight, mobile phones, keys, etc. are not allowed inside the temple. Inside the temple, you will find stacks of hanuman Chalisa text for the use of devotees.
- Sarnath – It is believed that in Sarnath Buddha gave his first sermon to his disciples after getting enlightenment. There is also a Museum in Sarnath.
- Chhath Pooja (October/November) – The four day festival for the sun god, Dala aka Surya. Rituals include holy bathing, fasting and abstaining from drinking water (Vratta), standing in water for long periods of time, and offering prashad (prayer offerings) and aragh (alcohol) to the setting and rising sun.
- Deepavali, or Diwali (October/November, always at new moon) – The five day festival of lights. The special decorations, ceremonies at the temples, and aarti ceremony at the ghats are spectacular.
- Maha Shivaratri (February) – A Hindu festival celebrating Lord Shiva, who lived in Varanasi according to Hindu mythology. On this day, the streets of Varanasi are filled with pilgrims and parades dedicated to Shiva occur all day. Entrance to temples will require a long queue and the temples will be extremely crowded. The day of Shivaratri is also the last day of the Dhrupad Mela, a festival of “Hindustani” (a form of Indian classical music) that goes on night and day for about 72 hours.