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  13. India: Varanasi – a...

Varanasi is one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities, and one of the holiest in Hinduism. With close to 3,000 temples and shrines dotting the city's landscape, Varanasi is often referred to as the City of Temples

About Varanasi

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.

Hindu temples

There is no shortage of temples for the Hindus in the city of Varanasi, with an estimated 3000 to chose 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!

Colourful and brigh header above temple doorway
Temple doorway
Lavish design symbolising the Hindu Faith
The lotus flower is very symbolic to Hindus, here is a chalked design we found on the street in Varanasi
Another Hindu temple close to our hotel with some incredible & erotic designs
Another temple doorway
The street behind our hotel in Varansi
A very nicely designed cycle rickshaw

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.

  1. BRAHMA – The first deity of the Hindu trinity, Lord Brahma is considered to be the god of Creation.
  2. VISHNU – The second deity of the Hindu trinity, Vishnu is the Preserver (of life).
  3. SHIVA – The final deity of the Hindu trinity is Shiva, also known as the Destroyer.
  4. GANESHA – One of the most prevalent and best-known deities is Ganesha, easily recognized by his elephant head.
  5. HANUMAN – Another easily distinguishable god is Hanuman, the deity depicted as a monkey.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. SARASWATI – Saraswati is the goddess of learning, music, art and wisdom.
  10. 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.

Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple at Banaras Hindu University
A statue of Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya founder of the Banaras Hindu Universtiry
Us standing front of the main temple on the Banaras Hindu University
The main foyer of the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple - Baranas Hindu University
The swastika is a common symbol found on Hindu temples and shrines
A wordly quotation from inside Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple
A group of musicians playing inside A wordly quotation from inside Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple

…. 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.

A lady selling vegetables on a side street in Varanasi
Young Brahman men studying to be priests
The signs of how impoverished the locals are in India can be seen everywhere
Quite a snazzy autorickshaw

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.

Boats full of tourists and Hindu devotees pack along Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi to watch the Ganga Aarti
Dozens of boats float on the river Ganges to watch the evening Aarti ceremony in Varanasi
The opportunistic vendors selling their goods from boat to boat before the Aarti in Varanasi
The Ganga Aarti ceremony begins
The sychronised ritual of the Aarti enacted by 7 priests in Varanasi
The Aarti is very atmospheric with the light, smoke and flames that appear during the ceremony

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.

A holy man at the Ganga Aarti in Varanasi
People waiting for the start of the Aarti
The Aarti Ganga commences
The air is filled with smoke and the smell of incense
This particular priest bore a resemblance to Kit Harrington (aka Jon Snow from Game of thrones)
People dispersing after the Aarti
A group sitting on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi
Karen still pumped from watching the Aarti
A holy bin

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.

It was a foggy start to the day and we could barely see a thing
A holyman is wrapped up against the chilly morning weather
A holy man hiding in a alcove on a foggy Varanasi morning
Bathers on the river Ganges in Varanasi
Early morning trading on the ghats of Varanasi
Weather does not stop the devotees going about their business
Bathers seem oblivious to cold and pollution of the Ganges
A boat appears in the mist on the Ganges in Varanasi

Lookout for the holy men

Varanasi is an incredibly important city for Hindus and draws millions of pilgrims every year who come to pray, comtemplate and bathe in the sacred Ganges. Among these pilgrims are numerous priests and holymen. As you wander around the city, and particularly down along the Ganges you will see many of them in prayer or just going about their business. This is all a part of the rich tapestry that makes Varanasi a very special place.

Groups of devotees gather around a holy man - by the Ganges in Varanasi
A religeous procession along the Ganges
A holy man rests in the heat of the day
In preparation
Deep in contemplation
Sharing a joke

In summary …

  • Never try and drive in Varanasi unless you are crazy
  • Always look down while you are walking as you’ll never know what you are stepping in
  • Don’t stop and talk to locals at the main tourist areas – they want to sell you something
  • Don’t wash, drink or clean your teeth in the Ganges
  • Cow dung and water makes a slippery hazard
  • Lassi is very tasty

Best time to visit Varanasi

Varanasi is 76m above sea level. The climate here is mild and generally warm and temperate. The rainfall in Varanasi is significant, with precipitation even during the driest month. In Varanasi, the average annual temperature is 25.7 °C | 78.3 °F. The rainfall here is around 982 mm | 38.7 inches per year.

Where to stay?

1. AMRITARA SURYAUDAY HAVELI

We stayed at the Amritara Suryauday Haveli which is a small hotel set on a ghat in Varanasi with wonderful views across the river Ganges. It was a great place with very comfortable rooms and helpful staff. 

We ended up taking most of our meals at the restaurant in the hotel and it was a pleasurable experience. The rooms are set around an inner courtyard where you can lounge and take your meals. 

There is a lovely rooftop area where you can lounge and watch the world go by on the river or on the ghats below.

2. BRIJ RAMA PALACE

Located on its own ghat, BrijRama Palace – A Heritage Hotel was built in the 18th Century and is considered as one of the oldest structures in Varanasi. Overlooking the Ganges, the property is a stone’s throw away from the popular Dasashwamedh Ghat.  

Every room at this hotel is air-conditioned  High-tea, yoga sessions and bottled water are complimentary.

Kedar Ghat is 2,300 feet from BrijRama Palace while the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is 1,300 feet. The Nepali Temple is 0.6 mi and the Sankat Mochan Temple is 2.8 mi.

3. SHIVA GANGES VIEW GUEST HOUSE

Located in Varanasi, 1,000 feet from Kedar Ghat, Shiva Ganges View Guest House features a restaurant, private parking, a shared lounge and a garden. Boasting family rooms, this property also provides guests with a terrace.

The rooms at the guest house are fitted with a seating area, a flat-screen TV with satellite channels and a private bathroom with a hairdryer and a shower. The rooms also have a desk and a kettle.

Popular points of interest near the accommodations include Harishchandra Ghat, Dasaswamedh Ghat and Assi Ghat.

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