One of the world’s oldest cities enthrals visitors with its spiritual mystique
It’s scarcely 6am on a foggy morning when the boatman unties the rope that moors our wooden boat to the river’s edge, setting us adrift on the Ganges. He grunts and grimaces before pulling on the oars and rowing away from the handful of people who’ve gathered near the ghats – the series of stone embankments that lead into the mighty river of India’s holy city of Varanasi.
This is the scene that best evokes Varanasi’s reputation as the spiritual capital of this nation. Each day, thousands of locals and pilgrims mingle freely on embankments dotted with sacred temples and shrines, performing ablutions, washing their clothes and even cremating their dead on a site that Hindus hold sacred.
It’s an indelible experience for any traveller, even those familiar with the heady sights and sounds of India. The colourful chaos that permeates this country is no less potent in Varanasi, but it’s fused with a palpable religious serenity here, creating a city whose complexity and contradictions might simultaneously beguile and bewilder visitors.
Varanasi is a magnet for explorers who are attracted to its ghats and Old City, which lies inland of the Ganges and stretches to the west. Even first-timers to the Old City will find it easy to imagine how countless generations dwelled for millennia within these walls, making Varanasi one of the world’s oldest and continuously inhabited cities.
The Old City is a labyrinth of dauntingly crowded, narrow pathways that are also home to revered wandering cows as well as stray goats and dogs. A complete tapestry of Indian life unfolds here, with street urchins hawking brass ornaments and woollen shawls alongside makeshift stalls selling savoury snacks called chaat and hot, fragrant masala chai spiced tea. Housewives hang clothes to dry on balconies while schoolchildren walk to their rundown schools, sometimes stopping to smile and pose for tourists’ photos.
Since no map can unravel the confusion of these winding streets, visitors should simply lose themselves in the beauty of this maze, revelling in how every turn reveals sights such as ancient Hindu temples, Mughal-inspired mosques, and tiny shops.
One of the most delightful discoveries is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, which is dedicated to Lord Shiva and features spires and domes made of pure gold. Throngs of pilgrims jostle to enter amid tight security before heading to nearby shops for refreshments of lassi, the traditional yoghurt-based beverage that’s sometimes served in sweetened flavours such as mango, pomegranate, banana
It’s at a lassi shop that we witness one of the funeral processions that occur throughout the day across this city. Men carry a muslin-shrouded body on a bamboo stretcher decorated with brightly coloured cloth and marigolds, chanting Ram Nam Satya Hai, which means The name of Ram is truth, as they clear a path toward Varanasi’s main cremation ghat.
Many Hindus believe it’s auspicious for people to pass away on the banks of the Ganges and to have their ashes eased into the river, as this can emancipate them from the cycle of birth and death.
As we approached a cremation site known as Manikarnika Ghat, we moved silently with our heads bowed, mindful not to intrude on a solemn religious ceremony. It’s acceptable to observe without taking photographs in order to respect the privacy of the families in these rituals.
The ghat was swarming with people; boats crowded its base, which was filled with wood piles stacked as high as six metres. More wood, to be used for burning on the funeral pyres, were piled farther up the steps, near brown buildings covered in soot and ash.
Some men began making their way to the lowest step to immerse the bodies they had carried into the Ganges. Once the pyres were ready, the bodies were covered in wood and set ablaze.
In the end, the ashes were shovelled into the river – a sobering reflection of how in Varanasi, death needs to be dealt with as efficiently as possible.
But while death is the main theme at the Manikarnika Ghat, the rest of Varanasi’s ghats, which comprise extensive sequences of embankments along the Ganges, showcase the essence of life in this city.
Children frolic in the river, while other locals perform ablutions and wash clothes and crockery in the waters. Teenagers play cricket by the riverside, while sadhus, or holy men, sit or lie motionless in meditation. Tradesmen offer services such as massages and fortune-telling to tourists, who are constantly targeted by boatmen hoping to take them out on the Ganges to view the ghats.
It’s from the waters that we savour the best views of the temples, forts and palaces built in tiers on the west bank above the water’s edge. This is a highlight for visitors, gazing upon the buzz of activities on the shore with the Old City as a magnificent backdrop.
In stark contrast, the east bank of the river seems desolate, without buildings or trees in sight. A wide silt strip here gets flooded during the wetter, pre-monsoon months, causing the Ganges to swell and deterring people from building homes here.
The east bank’s sole attraction might be Ramnagar Fort, with a museum and repository of the collection of past kings and maharajas of the state. Its museum features antiques and artefacts such as vintage cars, bejewelled sedan chairs, elephant saddles, medieval apparel and armouries of weapons. The fort’s Mughal-style architecture is impressive and its view of the Ganges from the back is remarkable.
As dusk sets, visitors heading back to the Old City by boat will note that the activities on the ghats have lessened considerably. The main crowd now gathers at the brightly lit Dashashwamedh Ghat, where young priests perform religious worship. It’s an elaborate ceremony; hymns and mantras are played while the priests wave incense and lighted wicks in lamps while facing the river.
In a city where such rituals are commonplace in a very public manner, we witnessed first-hand how Varanasi’s inhabitants clearly cherish and celebrate life in ways that prove poignantly moving.