Varanasi, the holy city for Hinduism and one of the worlds oldest inhabited places, was the most impressive yet on this trip. Not because of a large palace or fort nor for cleanliness or kind people, but for its unique atmosphere, its stark contrasts and distinct mystique. To me the city signifies a lot of the india i wanted to see – even though that takes a lot of energy and tolerance at times. But let’s start at the beginning, which was nothing short of a shock…
“Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together” – Mark Twain
18h train ride 🚂
Our train from Mathura (India 🇮🇳: Holi Festival in Mathura 🌈 🙏 👳🏽♂️) was scheduled to leave just before 1am and we were looking forward to a bed on our 15h train journey to Varanasi. Already at departure we were 1.5h late in a jam-packed train station, but eventually we got going 😴.
By the time i woke up the train was running through some lovely countryside east to Varanasi. A rolling bed with a window (2AC lower side bed) proved rather enjoyable. And with 5h delay we also made it eventually – a delay that is sufficient to cross Germany or go from south to north in england 😜.
Ever walked in a city after a bomb attack? Well, it felt like we did.
The title might seem out-of-place, but trust me i don’t exaggerate. After a tuk-tuk ride towards the old town (the inner part of which is sealed off to cars and heavily guarded around the Golden Temple), we tried to follow google maps to our accommodation.
That proved harder than expected. First, there was the old town with narrow, dark and very dirty streets. Pretty creepy for a first timer in Varanasi. Then came the big surprise… We ended up on a big pile of rubble. Literally like you imagine a war zone.
Google maps indicated we were close to our home, but there simply were none of the streets as indicated in maps. A local then pointed me to one of the few houses not ripped down. Our home to be?
We checked in to what we found to be a room in use. Someone was still drying his pants – maybe from his holy bath in the Ganges? Definitely not our place – so for the first time in all my travels i just left (not an easy decision 11pm in that area).
We booked ourselves a OYO hotel on the main road and headed over. And suddenly things looked up. We had an excellent street dinner and finally a clean bed to rest. Hello Varanasi! 🙏 🐂
The current rubble field is part of a program to create direct access for pilgrims (and there are many) from the river Ganges rather than squeezing folks through the narrow streets. During deconstruction other old temples have been recovered. The program is aimed at reversing past ruthless construction.
Tracing Buddha in Sarnarth
My first official stop was Sarnath. It’s about 13km outside Varanasi’s center and has many things on offer. My interest was mainly the Buddhist temple / stupa, which one of the four pilgrimage places for devoted Buddhists. Here, it is believed, Buddha delivered his first teaching after his enlightenment nearby (it is referred to as Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta) in 528BC – mora than 2,500 years ago. The museum next door to the stupa offers a few insights on Buddhism, but not a great deal
The museum next door to the stupa offers a few insights on Buddhism, but not a great deal.
Amazing view of the Ganges
We had lunch in a roof top restaurant called Ganpati (views & direct access to the river – recommended). For the first time we got out of the dark alleyways and overlooked the mighty Ganges and the many embankments of Varanasi (they are called Ghats and there are 88). Simply stunning and it looks as if there are houses only on one side though is due the revealed sandbanks in dry season (when lack of rain and much decreased ground water flow let water levels drop sharply). No surprise we became regulars 👫 😊.
Ahhh – there are some restrictions for restaurants near the Ganges. No meat and no alcohol (the latter being made available in a tea-pot if you so wish…. So a Tuborg tea please! 🍻 🍵 😂).
Bathing in the Ganges – good/bad idea?
Really undecided on this one and not an expert. My hunch is further upstream (like Rishikesh) it is much better water quality yet the current very strong. In Varanasi the Ganges slows a lot, but is polluted. You should still hold to rails/chains and stay close to the shore. Our local guide thinks water quality has improved so much that it ia fine now. We ended up not taking a dip. So we missed the chance to wash off our sins this time.
Varanasi’s spiritual importance
Varanasi also goes by the local name of Baranas (‘happiness’ ) or Kashi (derived from ‘education’). Baranas means happiness. People have lived here for more than 3,000 years (some claim 5,000+) making it the oldest in India though still well behind Damascus (11,000y) or Jericho (some settlements date back 13,000y). Varanasi is the holiest of the 7 holy cities in Hinduism and Jainism (India 🇮🇳: Jainism religion basics🙏 & Ranakpur temple) also referred to as city of Shiva. Why so important?
- Buddha came to this region to study as he was not satisfied with knowledge he got elsewhere (the city was the center of education at the time)
- City said to be built by Shiva, a 3000 year old Shiva stone (one of 12 locations of Shiva Jothyrlinga or artefacts) remains in the golden temple and survived 4 destructions usually by Mughals (muslims) of the temple itself – a sign of Shiva’s power
- Located on holy Ganges river
- Power to deliver you to Nirvana and break the reincarnation cycle if you die here (moksha), many come here specifically to die
I note here that right at the start of a 3h guided tour my flip-flops broke and I went barefoot like Jesus himself through the dirtiest city I have seen. But it was ok.
Huge employment problem
Economically it is a really poor picture. There is the primary issue that only some 15-28% of Indian women are employed to start with (see below for Delhi as northern peer). Additionally in Varanasi men are not employed – no work (though there is some like India’s largest diesel-electric locomotives manufacturer) and for some no will to work (but meditate etc). 1991 official statistics pinning the non-employment at a staggering 73% in Varanasi. More recent numbers just for the construction sector confirm this.
Unlike Christians or Muslims, Hinduism is not a single god centric religion (and different temples or other holy sites are dedicated to one of the gods). Rather people choose which god to worship yet follow similar behavioural aspects and share main festivities.
Ethics of Hinduism
Main ethics of Hinduism (Dharmas) are Ahimsa (Non-violence), Dama (self-restraint), Asteya (Non-covetousness/Non-stealing), Saucha (inner purity) and Satyam (truthfulness). Similar to Jainism (where the gods are the teachers).
Sects of Hinduism
People not always assign each other to one specific god, however, there are four main denominations or currents:
- Vaishnavism (Vishnu main god)
- Shaivism (Shiva main god)
- Shaktism (female aspect of god is worshipped)
- Smartism (six main gods worshipped – Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti, Ganesh, Murugan, Surya)
Two Hindu festivals (there are many more)
- Divali – festival of light (Suriname 🇸🇷: Two days in Paramaibo) is the most popular and celebrated all over the world
- Holi (see India 🇮🇳: Holi Festival in Mathura 🌈 🙏 👳🏽♂️)
There is no obvious rigid regime, but temples have certain times for ceremonies (morning, evening, interim) and people chose their own ways of worshipping (like feeding cows ahead of family as the mum of our guide does, general food sacrifice before starting business etc).
The Ghats of Varanasi
There are about 100 Ghats in the city – steps into the Ganges river. Most are used for bathing, washing and the puja ceremony (a Hindu prayer ritual). Some Ghats are also used for cremation.
Key ceremonies to watch include:
- Evening Aarti (= part of puja ritual where light is offered to deities / Hindu gods) at Dashashwamedh Ghat. Starts 6.45pm (after sunset), but come early for a good place (6pm). Very crowded! Watch the gurus doing their tricks 🙏😂🤣
Before the evening aarti and already on the way to the ghat you will without doubt encounter Guru’s. They basically meditate all day and some make money from blessings and photos with tourists. Truly an amazing sight. Below gallery and videos should give a good impression. WARNING: Explicit content!
- Morning Aarti at Asi Ghat: Get there by 6am or earlier. Crowds are lighter and thus the ceremony more enjoyable. The sun rises fast once sunset is upon you. Amazing.
- Burial ceremonies / Cremations at the Manikarnika Ghat: This is the main Ghat where the dead are cremated. About 80 per day i read. That makes it 3-4 per hour (activity so at night as the only place in India) and the constantly burning cremation pits verify that. On top of people from the city and those that came here to die, additionally bodies are delivered to Varanasi for cremation and salvation. Photos are not well liked. My apologies for any offence caused.
Floating bodies of the Ganges
First up, we saw none though heard there are boat/guided trips on offer with “corpse guarantee”. Fact is that some bodies can’t be cremated (babies & children, unmarried girls and i read also prostitutes) and some families simply can’t afford it. Some of these bodies are dumped into the Ganges. Read here.
A Nepali temple (Kama Sutra style decorated 😜)
We visited a Nepali temple as part of our walking tour. Highly interesting architecture though we ended up discussing its decoration (plenty of sexual carvings) and eventually marriage customs in India.
A lot more could be written about this city. But just like we felt then, after three emotionally and physically straining days in Varanasi, so i feel now and will stop here and happily move on to Goa. 🏖 🎉 🍸