Varanasi, the ghats

Varanasi (called Benares by the British) is the most fascinating city we have ever visited. Also one of the oldest.  Mark Twain said of  it, "Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."

As soon as we arrived, we were plunged into one aspect of the life of this Hindu Holy City.  We were surprised and  happy to be picked up at the airport by friends who bedecked us with yellow and red flower collars, as a very Indian and very generous sign of welcome.

We were driven directly to a village in the suburbs where worshippers were in the last day of the consecration of a temple dedicated to a Hindu saint whose name we've forgotten.  We were told that such a ceremony takes place for a week or so, the final three days and nights being periods of constant festivity.  In the final hours, the spirit of the saint or god is expected to descend into the statue of the saint, confirming the temple as a true place of worship.  We arrived exactly at that point. 

We were treated as honored guests, draped with yellow and vermillion garlands of flowers, marked with saffron on the forehead, presented with amulets of the saint and greeted with warm smiles of welcome.  It was a joyous Indian fête, with music and flowers and happiness all round.   We hqd to tqke off our sandals to stepped up in front of the saint's statue.  Then we walked over to where a big group of children were sitting on the far side of the temple listening to a young girl singing, accompanied by a couple of musicians

This was our introduction to Varanasi and to the role of the Hindu religion in the lives of many of its people.

About a week after we left the Holy City, we were sad to learn that two bombs had been exploded in Varanasi, one in a temple in the south of town, the other in the Cantonment Station in the north. The bombs  killed at least 21 people and left many others seriously injured.  It reminded us that Indians' religion is not just a source of joy, but an excuse used by some to try to violenty enforce their own political goals on all the others.  Sound familiar?

That's Varanasi, life and death -- in spades.   We came back from Khajuraho for Shivaratri, the greatest festival of the year, when there was an enormous, long line of people waiting to get into the Vishvanath Temple (the Golden Temple).   They were entertained during their wait by flower-decorated chariots and musicians passing through the streets.   We saw several wedding celebrations, with brass bands accompanying the newlyweds and their friends through the night, with music and fireworks and cries of joy.  We also saw dalits ("untouchables", also called harijans)  carrying colorfully-wrapped bodies through the streets to the Harishchandra or Manikarnika Ghats to be cremated, their ashes then to be cast into the Holy Ganga, thus ensuring moksha, liberation from reincarnation.   For a Hindu, Kashi (yet another name for Varanasi) is the city par excellence to die in.
Varanasi is a living monument of contrasts:  life versus death, rich versus poor, caste versus caste, old-style versus modern, and sometimes, unfortunately, Hindu versus Muslim.  But we saw no trace of tension between the  burka-dressed minority of Moslem women and the majority of the women who always wore colorful saris.

To the tourist, the traditional introduction to Varanasi is a boat ride at dawn past the famous ghats, steep steps leading down to the holy river Ganga.  Although the Ganga flows from the Himalayas roughly southeast to the Bay of Bengal, there is an S-shaped curve in it at one point, so that here, when you go north on the river, you go downstream. Varanasi is on the left or western bank of the river, facing east across the northward-flowing river.  So at dawn, worshippers come down to the ghats to greet the sun as it rises over the opposite shore.  And tourists in boats like us also admire the wonderful calm and the faint, mother-of-pearl light of the early dawn.  It is a tradition to set afloat a candle in a shallow cup, while you make a wish or think of a loved one.  The day begins early in Varanasi.

River view
Man praying in the holy Ganga at dawn View down the river just before dawn
The sun is rising over the Ganga A funeral pyre has been burning all night, before the ashes are thrown into the holy Ganga

We set our candles down on the water, thinking of dear friends who are not with us any more

On the great festival day of Shivaratri people came out in greater numbers to bathe and to pray in the holy river.

Asi Ghat - the man in the front / middle is praying

Tulsi Ghat Whole families have come down to the Ganga riverbank

Kedara Ghat Dashashvamedh Ghat

Darabhanga Ghat with stately old palace  Close-up of Dashashvamedh Ghat with a myriad of bathers

In addition to bathers, there are the dhobi washing clothes by beating them against rocks at the river edge, as well as the often-colorful clothes drying in the sun.

Dhobi (clothes washers) Drying saris on the ghat

Swimmers - the women don't swim, they just immerse themselves, in their saris

Of course, many of the ghats themselves are quite striking.  We only saw about the southern 60% of them, but we found these to be particularly striking.

Asi Ghat, in the south --
the festive day of Shivaratri is over
Gangamahal Ghat, just north of Asi Ghat, on an ordinary day 

Sacred cows in the Ganga, some of them
being washed by young men
Chet Singh Palace at Shivala Ghat, owned by the maharajah of Varanasi

Varanasi is also a city where you want to wander around in the streets and sample the feeling of the city.  

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