Varanasi — India’s Holy City

Not many would know who Mark Twain was but most have come across his quotes at some point in their lives. This is what the famed American author from the 1800s had to say about Varanasi:

“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

The fact is, what he said over 200 years ago still holds true today and perhaps will hold true 200 years from now too.Varanasi doesn’t change because it never seems to have found a reason to. Also called Kashi or Benaras, it is considered the spiritual capital of India and the oldest continuously inhabited city of the world. It is believed to be over 3000 years old,which places the enigmatic city’s birth prior to Jesus or the Buddha. In fact, the Buddha gave his first sermon 1500 years ago at Sarnath near Varanasi marking the foundation of Buddhism.

In truth, it’s hard to describe what Varanasi is. It is a boundless form of spiritual energy and so, everybody who visits findshis/her own meaning for the city. But what is unanimously agreed upon by travellers is this: Varanasi hits your senses hard. It is unbelievably chaotic, intensely colourful, and eccentric in its own right. And this is true for Indians and non-Indians alike. So don’t consider what you see in Varanasi to be representative of India because it isn’t. Visiting Indians are just as likely to walk around wide-eyed as visitors to the country are. Indians might be a bit more attuned to things but they are just as awed and stunned by the city.

Legend has it that Lord Shiva founded the city of Varanasi and fell so in love with it, he refused to leave. Established on the banks of the river Ganges, Varanasi is considered the most important city in the realms of Hinduism. It is believed that all who live in Varanasi find liberation upon death, which is perhaps the reason why both, life and death, are celebrated with exuberance here.

Varanasi is most famous for its ghats or the natural amphitheatre that formed over hundreds of years on the banks of the Ganges due to the unique way by which the river has flowed here for centuries. Kings who ruled the city over time realised the importance of these ghats and ordered to have them firmed up structurally. There are a total of 87 ghats in Varanasi most used for one or another religious ceremony and some specifically for cremation services — yes, burning of human dead bodies.

Dasaswamedh ghat is the most famous ghat in Varanasi because this is where the Ganga Aarti (pooja or offering) takes place in the evenings. It is an elaborate ceremony marked with a lot of color, religious chants and largely spectacular sights that go on for well over two hours. This evening offering to the Ganges has been on for hundred of years non-stop and witnesses a few hundred people in attendance every day.

Manikarnika ghat is the cremation ghat where human dead bodies are lit in a funeral pyre. Being cremated on the banks of the river Ganges in Varanasi is considered sacred in Hinduism. On any given day, between 20 and 100 bodies arrive and are cremated at the Manikarnika ghat, which means that the funeral pyre hasn’t been extinguished here for many years. Most visitors to Varanasi find their way to Manikarnika ghat to witness this ritual. And don’t be surprised if you spot a dead body floating-by in the river. You might be thinking CSI in your heard, but this is part and parcel of what Varanasi is. It is eccentric,remember?

This brings me to an important thing to do when visiting Varanasi — a boat ride at dawn along the ghats. Wake up early morning and walk over to Assi Ghat, which is kind of the ‘bathing’ ghat for Varanasi inhabitants. You can catch many boatmen walking about awaiting customers starting at 6am. Be sure to bargain because prices always start high, especially for foreigners. Start bargaining at 50% of whatever the boatman says, get the deal done before getting into the boat and always pay at the end of the ride.

The boat ride will take you down the entire stretch of Varanasi all the way to the other end (and back, if you request). This is where you will get to see the city in the light you have been seeing it in all those picture on the internet. It is quite a beautiful experience.

In fact, as you take the boat ride down the river, you can ask the boatman to offload you near Manikarnika ghat, where you can witness an ongoing cremation and then walk back along the ghat, which is yet another way to experience the oldest city in the world. Quick note here: Manikarnika ghat is easily identifiable as the one with many vultures, crows and eagles hovering high above (This wasn’t meant to scare you!).

Entering the city.

The old city of Varanasi is quite old and Mark Twain wasn’t kidding when he said it. The city’s lanes are extremely narrow and largely out of bounds to four-wheelers. Your legs get a fair amount of workout because that’s the only way you get to experience the charm of Varanasi. The lanes are lined with small shops selling everything from local arts & crafts to American dinner. Beware of cows and cow-dung for there is a lot to be found and stepped over especially during the mornings.

Besides the ghats, there are of course — the temples. It is a spiritual city after all. The most famous of all temples here is the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, who is believed to have founded the city. It is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas and ‘Vishwanath’ is another name given to Shiva. Vishwanath refers to the ‘Ruler of the Universe’. The Kashi Vishwanath Mandir is over 800 years old; was destroyed and rebuilt a number of times by raiders and subsequent rulers. It is fair to say that the city holds a tremendous amount of history, which continues to live and breathe in the modern world today.

There is still a lot more that can be said and written about this city because Varanasi is an experience unique to every individual who visits it. It houses a very powerful spiritual energy that you probably won’t realise is hitting you when you first enter the city, but stay for a week or two — then leave, and it is upon departure that you will realise that there was something there that you are now missing. But fear not, because you can always go back — today, tomorrow, next year. Whether it is you, your children or grand children — the city will remain the same, rife with the same energy. Another 1000 years may pass,yet, Varanasi shall live on the same.