The holy city of Varanasi goes by several names including Benaras and Kashi. Indians like to have multiple names for their important cities (some of this was done when the colonial names were shed!). The city is old, really old, and is widely believed to be one of the oldest living cities in the world – its origins as a centre of learning and civilisation stretching back over 3000 years. Author Mark Twain was fascinated by the legend of Varanasi and once wrote: “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together. ”
The heart of Varanasi is the most sacred of rivers, the Ganges. According to Hindu legend, Lord Shiva unleashed the Ganges from the knot of his hair. For centuries, its rich floods lent fertility to the soil of the central Gangetic plains, which nourished some of India’s most prominent ancient civilizations.
Varanasi’s legends go back some 10,000 years, to the oldest epics of Hindu literature, including the Puranas, the Vedas and the Mahabharata. They say Varanasi is the city of Lord Shiva, who walked here with his wife Parvati at the beginning of time. It could also be the battlefield where the god Krishna set fire to a duplicate but imposter Krishna, or the place where the Lord Rama came to do penance after slaying the demon Ravana. Of course, none of these myths and legends can’t be proved but they suffice to draw millions of Hindu devotees to this ancient city every year to bathe in the Ganges which they believe has the power to wash away the sins of mortals. Some come here just to die. Hindus believe that one who is graced to die in Varanasi would attain salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and re-birth.
The area surrounding Varanasi is not just important to Hindus it also has significant symbolism to other faiths. Sarnath, the place where Buddha preached his first sermon after enlightenment, just 10 km away and it is also a pilgrimage centre for Jains, as Varanasi is believed to be the birthplace of Parsvanath, the twenty-third Tirthankar.
Considering its theological significance it is not so surprising that Varanasi has also become a centre of learning, health and the arts. For example, it is home Benares Hindu University, the biggest University in Asia and Ayurvedic medicine is believed to have originated here.
Varanasi is also famous for its trade and commerce, especially for the manufacture of the finest silks and gold and silver brocades.
We visited Varanasi with little knowledge beyond what we had seen on television or read in books. Nothing can really prepare you for the real-life experience. On the negative side, it is one of the nosiest, busiest and dirtiest places we have ever visited – and this does put some people off from visiting. But, it is a truly fascinating and amazing place that will overload all your senses with the variety of experiences that surround you wherever you go in this incredible city. We highly recommend putting Varanasi on your travel plans in India.
1. HINDU TEMPLES
There is no shortage of temples for the Hindus in the city of Varanasi, with an estimated 3000 to choose from. One of our reasons for coming to this city was to find out more about Hinduism, so our second day in Varanasi was dedicated to exploring the temples and culture of this sacred place.
Still struggling with jet lag we woke up early, so Karen decided to do the yoga class on the roof of the hotel. As it turned out it was just her and the yogi, but it was a unique experience to be able to do yoga with the sun rising over the Ganges!
Our guide collected us and took us a few steps down the road to the doorstep of a temple. There are somewhere in the order of 23,000 temples in Varanasi, so if you stop anywhere you are likely to be on a doorstep of a temple. After a short introduction, we headed down the streets passing several more temples. Walking around Varanasi you start to appreciate the density of this city of 1.2 million people. The streets are narrow and are challenging to navigate as you have to avoid piles of rubbish, cows and dogs (and their excrement) and crazy scooter drivers. Surprisingly, you don’t see too many people!
The basics (very basic) of Hinduism
Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion, according to many scholars, with roots and customs dating back more than 4,000 years. It is the world’s third-largest religion; numbering about 1.15 billion, or 15-16% of the global population, with 90% living in India. There are said to be 33 million gods in Hinduism symbolizing one abstract Supreme Being, but there are ten main Hindu deities that are more commonly celebrated.
- BRAHMA – The first deity of the Hindu trinity, Lord Brahma is considered to be the god of Creation.
- VISHNU – The second deity of the Hindu trinity, Vishnu is the Preserver (of life).
- SHIVA – The final deity of the Hindu trinity is Shiva, also known as the Destroyer.
- GANESHA – One of the most prevalent and best-known deities is Ganesha, easily recognized by his elephant head.
- HANUMAN – Another easily distinguishable god is Hanuman, the deity depicted as a monkey.
- KRISHNA – Lord Krishna is one of the most powerful incarnations. He is kept very near to many Hindus’ hearts, as he is not only viewed as a hero and leader but also as a teacher and a friend.
- KALI – Perhaps one of the fiercest deities is Kali, also known as the Dark Mother. Kali is known for her tongue protruding from her mouth, her garland of skulls, and her skirt of bones.
- RAMA – Rama is the model of reason and virtue and is often considered to be the ideal man due to his compassion, courage, devotion and adherence to dharma.
- SARASWATI – Saraswati is the goddess of learning, music, art and wisdom.
- DURGA – The goddess Durga is an important representation of the Divine Mother, also known as ‘the Invincible’. She is said to protect mankind from evil and misery and does so as the destructive force of jealousy, prejudice, hatred and ego.
There are some additional key things to know about Hinduism:
- Hinduism embraces many religious ideas. For this reason, it’s sometimes referred to as a “way of life” or a “family of religions,” as opposed to a single, organized religion.
- Most forms of Hinduism are henotheistic, which means they worship a single deity, known as “Brahman,” but still recognize other gods and goddesses. Followers believe there are multiple paths to reaching their god.
- Hindus believe in the doctrines of samsara (the continuous cycle of life, death, and reincarnation) and karma (the universal law of cause and effect).
- One of the key thoughts of Hinduism is “atman,” or the belief in the soul. This philosophy holds that living creatures have a soul, and they’re all part of the supreme soul. The goal is to achieve “moksha,” or salvation, which ends the cycle of rebirths to become part of the absolute soul.
- One fundamental principle of this religion is the idea that people’s actions and thoughts directly determine their current life and future lives.
- Hindus strive to achieve dharma, which is a code of living that emphasizes good conduct and morality.
- The Om and Swastika are symbols of Hinduism. The Swastika, which represents good luck, later became associated with evil when Germany’s Nazi Party made it their symbol in 1920.
- Hindus revere all living creatures and consider the cow a sacred animal.
- Food is an important part of life for Hindus. Most don’t eat beef or pork, and many are vegetarians.
- Hinduism is closely related to other Indian religions, including Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism.
Banaras Hindu University &the New Vishwanath Temple
From the centre of Varanasi old town, we headed to Banaras Hindu University, which was established in 1916 by Madan Mohan Malaviya. More specifically we were heading to the New Vishwanath Temple, located in the centre of the campus. The temple itself was spectacularly large and is an oasis in the chaotic centre of Varanasi. After leaving our shoes at the shoe parking place we headed into the temple itself, which like many Hindu temples was lavishly decorated. The halls were filled with the sounds of chanting, which we thought were recorded, but it turned out to be a live group of musicians. Our guide took us through several rooms and gave us more insight into the Hindu faith, including some rooms with shrines.
…. and more temples
From the Banaras Hindu University, we crossed town to the Sankat Mochan Hanuman (the god depicted as a monkey) Temple. Here the security was far greater than we had seen anywhere else in Varanasi, and this was due to a bombing at the temple in March 2006 which resulted in the death of 10 pilgrims, with another 40 people being injured.
We then headed back towards our hotel and were dropped off a short distance away, allowing us to take a walk through the streets and visit more sites. The first stop was a school for Brahman priests, who were deep into their studies when we arrived. Finally, we visited the Shri Jagannath Ji Mandir Nrusinh Bhagwan Temple, set within a small compound. The shrine had a very simple wooden structure and pays homage to the Lord Jagannath (the symbols representing this deity are very curious), who is believed to be “Lord of the Universe” and is considered a form of Vishnu. Within the grounds live several families and devotees, who serve and maintain the temple, and live a very simple life.
lavishly decorated. The halls were filled with the sounds of chanting, which we thought were recorded, but it turned out to be a live group of musicians. Our guide took us through several rooms and gave us more insight into the Hindu faith, including some rooms with shrines.
Watch the Aarti, a spectacular daily religious ceremony
The Aarti is a daily ceremony that takes place after dark at Dashashwamedh Ghat. Many people chose to watch the Aarti from boats on the Ganges, which is what we did on our first night in Varanasi.
By the time we arrived the waters around Dashashwamedh Ghat were packed with boats full of tourists and pilgrims. The Ganga Aarti is a colourful ceremony that pays homage to Lord Shiva. The Aarti is performed by seven young priests who are pursuing their Vedas and Upanishads. The priests stood on a highly decorated platform and follow a highly choreographed ceremony involving mantra chants, conch blowing, incense and a seven-layered camphor lamp (something resembling an inverted chandelier with flames). The whole thing lasted 45 minutes and was fascinating to watch.
Equally fascinating was to watch the people and boats around us, it was somewhat chaotic as boats shuffled positions to get the best views, and at the same time, young men leapt, risking life and limb, from boat to boat trying to sell trinkets to the passengers. When all was done the armada of vessels set off in every direction, through which our oarsmen skillfully navigated our safe passage back to the hotel.
A different experience is to watch the Aarti onshore, which is what we did on our last night in Varanasi.
The walk to the site to Aarti was only a short stroll from our hotel and we arrived in plenty of time to get a prime place on the steps of the Ghat. Once settled in, we spent our time people watching. Viewing the Aarti close up was a very different experience to watching from a boat on the river. This was a more intimate experience and we were able to observe more of the detail and intricacies of the ceremony. The procedural sequences were well-rehearsed, with the four priests (one who remarkably looked like Jon Snow – a.k.a Kit Harrington – from the “Game of Thrones” TV series) synchronously moving through the various phases – it was truly mesmerizing, and the forty-five minutes passed by so quickly.
Take an early morning boat ride to observe the devotees bathing in the Ganges
Sometimes watching people going about their daily business can feel obtrusive and awkward so I was a little unsure of the prospect of taking a boat down the river in the morning to watch Hindu devotees bathe in the Ganges. But it was incredibly interesting and I soon forgot any discomfort I might have felt.
When we rose and looked out of the window all we could see was a thick blanket of fog; our view of the Ganges, only a hundred feet or so away, had disappeared overnight. The plan for the morning was another boat ride on the Ganges to view the morning rituals of the devotees and pilgrims who come down daily to the river to wash in the holy waters. The prospect for this did not look great! So, after breakfast, we were surprised to see our tour guide.
We had thought the trip might get cancelled. Anyway, we headed down the river, where Karen managed to find a very slimy patch (probably a patty from a passing water buffalo moistened by the mist) to slip in and crash to the ground. It was not a great day for being wet and stinky on a boat (although the general smelly atmosphere would have covered the evidence of the fall) – so she popped back the room to change. Take 2! We went down to the dock again, being careful this time where we were treading, and boarded our little rowing boat. Casting off down the river, we travelled close to the shore as the fog still persisted! Through the gloom, we could just make out people on the Ghats bathing in the water. Although the weather was not ideal it certainly added to the atmospheric drama of the experience. After we had gone half a mile or so, the guide ordered our oarsman to take us ashore, so we continue the rest of the tour on foot.
Lookout for the holy men