Saturday, March 23, 2024

Incredible India – Part 3: Varanasi, the City of Superlatives

Varanasi - A City of Superlatives 

Thursday and Friday, February 8-9

"Benaras (Varanasi) is older than History, older than Tradition, 
even older than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."

                                     Mark Twain

Varanasi is a city of superlatives:  the most ancient, the most holy, the most colorful, the most crowded, the most jaw-dropping.  It held everything I’d ever heard about India, both the good and the bad - teeming multitudes of people, Hindu temples, sacred cows and bold monkeys, bathing and cremation pyres along the Ganges, women in colorful saris, poverty and palaces. For me, it was the most fascinating, intense, and exciting city we visited on our trip to India.

Sitting on the west bank of the Ganges River, Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world. It has been continually occupied since at least the 11th century B.C. and recent excavations have found artifacts dating from circa 1800 B.C.  It is also considered the spiritual center of India, with over 3,000 Hindu temples, both large and small.

The population today is about 3,500,000 people, but that number is increased by the many Hindu pilgrims that flock to the city. Every Hindu hopes to make a pilgrimage to Varanasi - and many of them choose to come here to die.

The Many Names of Varanasi

Every Indian city has at least one nickname, but Varanasi has several.

Varanasi: The official name of the city. Hindu legend says that Shiva himself named the city based on its location between the Varuna and the Assi rivers, two tributaries of the Ganges. 

Benaras: the Mughal emperor Akbar was impressed with the beauty of Varanasi and named the city Benares (aka Banaras), a corruption of the name Varanasi.  The official name was restored in the early 1900s, but these two names are still used interchangeably.

The City of Light:   from the city’s ancient Sanskrit name Kashi meaning “the shining one.”  Other Sanskrit references to Varanasi include the names Avimukta, “never forsaken by Shiva,” Rudravasa, “the place where Rudra (another deity related to Shiva) resides,” and Mahashmashana, “the Great Cremation Ground.”

The Sacred City:  In Hindu mythology, Varanasi was founded by Shiva, and most of the temples here are devoted to this Hindu god.  During a conflict between Brahma and Shiva, Shiva tore off one of Brahma’s five heads and carried it away.  It dropped from his hand here on the shores of the Ganges and sank into the sand, creating a holy site.

The City of Learning and Burning: This nickname is derived from the city's cultural heritage of learning and spirituality, and from the funeral pyres that have burned here on the banks of the Ganges for twenty-four hours a day since at least the 5th century.


Rob and I left Delhi very early and boarded a plane for the short flight to Varanasi. From our plane window, we got our first glimpse of the snow-capped Himalaya mountains to the north.

The snow-capped Himalaya mountains seen from our plane.

Our drive from the airport gave us some glimpses of life on the outskirts of the city.  As in Delhi, tiny shops and signs of poverty stood side by side with modern buildings, like the white and orange train station, and old temples.

The busy roads outside of Varanasi

Once in Varanasi, we were driven to Raj Ghat sitting below a huge train bridge across the Ganges River. This site holds some of the earliest archaeological evidence of civilization here. Rob and I boarded one of the many boats ferrying both tourists and locals up and down the river and floated toward our lodging, the BrijRama Palace. 

A chilly morning cruise along the Ganges

The five-kilometer cruise sparked my immediate fascination with the city.  To our right, hundreds of old buildings and temples crowded together at the top the ghats, sections of the riverside steps up the cliffside. There are 84 ghats along the banks of the river. The names of the ghats identify one’s location (like an address), and many of them have special ceremonial purposes. On the riverbanks, Indians were bathing and washing clothes in this sacred river, named for the goddess Ganga.

The jumble of buildings along the river

Some of the most notable sights - huge palaces, cows on the ghats,
and our first sight of Manikarna Ghat, the site of Gandi cremations.

Lots of temples - both large and small

Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple -
the Leaning Tower of Varanasi!

On the east bank to our left was a broad sandy plain, the floodplain of the Ganges, where tourists - both Indian and foreign - rode brightly decorated camels. 

The flood plain of the Ganges

We soon arrived at Darbhanga Ghat, the location of BrijRama Palace - and yes, we truly were staying in a palace! Several of the buildings along the river had once been magnificent palaces of the rajahs of India. Many of them are now in sad disrepair, but a few have been turned into hotels, and the BrijRama was the best of the lot! It has been restored into a "boutique hotel" with 35 rooms. The hotel is gorgeous, with carved stone walls, large statues of the gods, pots of flowers, a lovely terrace on the roof with views of the river and floodplain across.

 Our first look at the BrijRama Palace with its elevator tower - the oldest in the city.

The lobby of BrijRama Palace.
We found the bowls of floating flowers all over India.

120-year-old statues of Shri Krishna and Rahda in BrijRama Palace

Artwork decorated every corner of BrijRama Palace

We quickly settled into our room and left immediately with our guide, Anand, for a walking tour of the city. We soon discovered how important boats were for easier travel once we were plunged into the crowds. From our hotel, we walked through the maze of narrow alleyways between the buildings. The alleys were filled with food vendors, shops, guest houses, and artwork brightening the shabby walls.  

The alleys of Varanasi

We had our first up-close encounter with one of the many cows who roam the town. Anand explained that the cows have owners, but that the owners let them wander as everyone is expected to feed a cow first thing in the morning, and the cows have learned the best places to go for a handout. (We learned of one grandmother who refused to feed breakfast to the family until they had first fed a cow.)  We also discovered that hundreds of motorbikes also use these tiny alleys, honking their horns constantly to warn us of their presence.

Rob always finds the animals!

Next stop was one of the many temples of Varanasi dedicated to Shiva.  We learned that one can always recognize a Shivan temple by the bull lying outside the walls.  The stone walls were ornately decorated with fine carvings of the Hindu gods.  Just below the temple was a courtyard full of more contented cows.

Cows in the middle of a crowded city

We continued on to the larger streets of the city, which were crowded side to side by cars, rickshaws, motorized tuk-tuks, and hundreds of people, thousands of people, millions and billions and trillions of people! We felt a bit overwhelmed but followed our guide as he proceeded through the crowds. It was hard to learn much about what we were seeing, as the constant noise of the horns drowned out the guide’s voice, so I just snapped away with my camera whenever I saw something interesting, which was pretty much every minute.

The crowded streets of Varanasi

Shops of every kind

The streets and squared were also filled with animals
who seemed completely at ease with the crowds.

We climbed to the terrace of one building to look down on the colorful flower market selling garlands for funerals and temple offerings.

As we turned down another alley toward the river, we had our first encounter with a small parade of men chanting and singing and carrying a pallet on which rested a roll of golden cloth covered with flowers. I knew at once that it was a body on its way to a riverside cremation. Two of the ghats of the city are devoted to this activity, and the largest of these, Manikarnika Ghat, was our next destination. 

Chanting family members carrying a loved one to Manikarnika Ghat for cremation

Manikarnika Ghat seen from the river

We were not allowed on the cremation grounds but stood on a hillside above. Anand explained that, in the Hindu religion, it is believed that if your body is bathed in the Ganges River and cremated there, you will skip the cycle of reincarnation and go directly to paradise. No wonder then that many old or sick people choose to come here to spend their last days in guest houses that exist for this purpose. There are an average of around 250 cremations a day here, and these go on 24 hours a day every day of the year. The families and friends bring the bodies here, beautifully decorated with the golden shrouds and flowers, dip them in the Ganges, lay them out on the shore to dry. The bodies are rubbed with ghee (clarified butter) then placed on the wooden pyres. The wood is sprinkled with oils to help it burn and the family lights a torch at the "eternal flame" that has burned for centuries above the cremation grounds, then sets the pyre ablaze.

Manikarnika Ghat seen from above
and bodies being taken and bathed in the Ganges

The eternal flame burns in the temple above the ghat.

Women are not allowed on Manikarnika Ghat, but they found a way to participate and honor their loved one during the ceremony.  Cow patties are used as fuel, along with the wood piled high on the sides of the ghat. The women who dry the cow dung leave their hand prints on the patties, and the family places these at the bottom of the pyre.

Handprints in the dried cow dung

These cremations are rituals that has gone on for centuries, and we recognized the beauty and love in it.  Incense, sandalwood, and the oils mixed with the smoke from the pyres, so there was no unpleasant odor. The men were chanting, rejoicing that their loved one had attained Moksha, the release from the cycle of rebirth. 

It was late afternoon and Rob and I were both exhausted by this time from our busy day in Delhi and the journey today, so we took a too-short rest in our hotel before going out for the evening activity - observing a special ceremony that takes place every single evening at sunset, the Ganga Aarti, a tribute to "Mother Ganga," the Ganges River, who gives life to the people of India. (Indians believe that they have four mothers: their biological mother, the cow who provides nourishment, the Ganges River, and the Earth.)

We took a sunset boat trip to the site of the ceremony, but our guide had recommended seats above for a better view of the event, so we did not join the huge crowd of boats in front of the ceremonial ghat.

A boat ride to the Ganga Aarti ceremony

The Ganga Aarti was loud, joyous, and fascinating. There were platforms set in a row, and several young priests spread out, one on each platform to perform the prayers of dedication to Lord Shiva, Lord Surya (the sun), Lord Agni (the fire), Mother Gagna (the river), and the whole universe. A loudspeaker blared out the chants of a priest, and at times, it resembled a "call and response," with the Hindu pilgrims raising their hands and responding vocally to the priest's words. The stairs of the ghat were crowded with worshippers, and the river below was filled with boats of tourists watching the ceremony from below. 

Scenes from the Ganga Aarti ceremony.
Trumpeting conch shells, ringing bells, lighting candles, and swinging incense

After the ceremony, we walked back to the nearby BrijRama Palace and went to bed early, looking forward to new Varanasi adventures in the morning.  


"The sun on the Ganges, the sun on the Ganges
is rising, is rising in splendor.
Is rising in splendor, is rising to welcome the newborn day."

Friday was another full day in Varanasi, but we enjoyed a much easier pace. We rose early and went onto the rooftop terrace to watch the beautiful sunrise over the Ganges.  

Many tourists go out in boats to watch the sunrise over Varanasi.

After the hotel breakfast, our new guide, Himanshu, was waiting. As we departed the hotel (via the oldest elevator in the city, built within the tower of our palace), he pointed out the marks high over our heads indicating the high water of the river during the monsoon season. It did help me understand why Varanasi was established here. The high cliff would have been essential to the safety of the city because the water can flood incredibly high. Several times, the river has risen above all the many steps of the ghats, and the elevator entrance has had to be closed off with cement. (The danger level to the city is 71.26 meters, and in 2021, the river rose to 70.26 meters...thats 230 feet!)

Previous floods marked on the high walls of BrijRama Palace

We started our tour with an especially lovely boat ride along the banks of the river.  The buildings and ghats were gleaming red and gold in the glow of the morning sun, and Indian families were already on the shores bathing and doing laundry.

Morning on the Ganges

Life along the shores of the Ganges

Our cruise docked by Jalasen Ghat and we walked up the broad staircase that was recently constructed to manage the crowds. In front of the statue of Mother India, who stands in front of a map of the country, we were suddenly approached by several groups of Indians who asked to have selfies or photos with us. Once people learned we were friendly and agreeable, this went on for several minutes. Himanshu explained that pilgrims who come here from the countryside have very little chance to meet westerners, and they want the photos to show their friends about their adventure. It was very sweet and quite delightful to be exchanging greetings of Namaste with so many people, including one adorable little girl.  I found the people of India to be very welcoming and friendly.  My own Namaste to strangers was always returned with a smile.)

Rob and Joan being celebrities in Varanasi

On the steps below the square, Rob enjoyed a cuddle with a cute puppy.

Himanshu took us to the beautiful little Nepali Mandir, the "Nepal Temple." This temple was built by a King of Nepal, Rana Bahadur Shah, who had to exile to Varanasi in the early 1800s. He decided to build a replica of a temple from his homeland. The temple is intricately carved all from wood. Inside, a priest was conducting a colorful ceremony, with chanting, incense, and chimes.

The tiny Nepali Mandir

Decorations on Nepali Mandir

Worship service inside the Nepali Mandir Temple

The bull outside the walls of Nepali Mandir let us know that it is dedicated to Shiva.

Following the temple visit, it was fun to wander through the maze of little alleyways again.  (I would never find my way out again without a guide!)  The dark little lanes were brightened by artwork painted on many of the walls.  

Artwork in the alleys. 
The trough at the bottom right is water for the wandering cows.

These alleys are filled with shops usually devoted to one product and remaining in the same family for generations. We made a stop in a shop that specializes in various oils with medicinal properties. The very pleasant shopkeeper demonstrated a variety of the oils - sandalwood, lotus blossom, amber, and others - rubbing tiny drops of the wonderfully aromatic oils onto our fingers and explaining the uses of each to help you sleep or relax or be energized. I also found one of the items I had been looking for - small statues of the Hindu gods for our travel "museum" at home. I bought Shiva, as he is important to Varanasi, and Ganesha, his son, just because I think an elephant-faced god is cool!  The Hindus pray to Ganesha for prosperity and for luck when starting a new venture.

The shopkeeper was our guide in the use of fragrant oils.

After our scent-filled stop in the shop, we plunged back into the huge crowds on the main streets of the city.

Crowded streets

As in Delhi, we were again treated to a bicycle rickshaw ride. From our high perch, we could enjoy the views of the masses of people. So many of the women wear the bright saris as their normal daily wear. I saw one woman on a rooftop tending her garden, dressed as if she were going to a gala event!  They were so pretty, I began to think that jeans and T-shirts just don't compare as a fashion choice.

Colorful saris

Varanasi is also known for its silk weaving, so our next stop was the home and silk factory of a family who has been weaving silk products for generations. The owner proudly showed us his looms from the 1800s and designed by a Frenchman named Jaquard. Two men were working the partially automated looms (with punch cards that guided the intricate patterns of gold-plated silver threads woven into the fine silk.) Rob and I each came home with a gorgeous scarf at remarkably good prices!

These looms have been in service since the 1800s!

Our last stop of the day was a very special one. Varanasi is not only sacred to Hinduism.  It is also an important site in Buddhism.  About ten kilometers away from the city is Sarnath, a sacred Buddhist site. Here, a huge stupa of brick marks the spot where, in the 6th century B.C., Buddha preached his first sermon to a small group of disciples following his enlightenment. 

The stupa that marks the site of Buddha's first sermon.

Because of this event, a complex of monasteries grew up around the grounds. In the mid-1850's, a British engineer named Alexander Cunningham led excavations here and restored the foundations of the monastery complex. Himanshu gave us a bit of history of this site, and the story of Siddartha Gautama, the Indian prince who became the Buddha, as well as the story of the Indian King Ashoka who helped to spread Buddhism around Asia. 

The restored ruins of the monasteries of Sarnath

Then Rob and I walked around the huge stupa (accompanied by devout Buddhists who were walking with hands folded in prayer.) It is mostly a brick ruin now, but there were places where the elaborate carvings that used to cover the structure were still visible.  Photos nearby showed what the site looked like before and after reconstruction.

Pilgrims circling the stupa at Sarnath

Ancient stone carvings on the wall of the stupa

Photos of the restoration of Sarnath

Himanshu said goodbye to us at our late lunch stop at the Taj Hotel where we had the best meal of the trip so far. Then our driver took us back to the docks where the hotel boat met us and took us back to the BrijRama Palace just in time for High Tea on the rooftop veranda.

High Tea on the veranda of the BrijRama

At 6:00, we could see and hear the beginnings of the nightly Ganga Aarti, so we walked along the walkway above the river to watch it from the sidelines. 

After our late lunch, and High Tea, we didn't need dinner, so we ordered an in-room fruit plate and once again collapsed into bed, sinking into dreams of a truly amazing two days.  Tomorrow we would be on the move again - to the "City of Love," Agra and the Taj Mahal.


Kim Davison said...

Wow! What an experience! I think I would need a day - or a week! - to recover!

Joan Lindsay Kerr said...

Kim, it WAS a pretty intense two days, but there was very little time to catch our breath on this trip. It took a fullmtwo weeks to recover when we got home...but it was worth it!