The Sacred City of Varanasi, India
About Varanasi (also known as Banares, Banaras and Kashi)
Varanasi, located on the banks of the River Ganges in the Uttar Pradesh region of Northern India, is the holiest of the seven sacred cities of the Hindu and Jain religions. It is believed to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world and is closely associated with Jainism, one of the oldest religions in the world. According to legend, Varanasi was founded by the god Shiva, a Hindu god. Archaeological evidence suggest that the earliest settlement in Varanasi began in the 11th or 12th century BC. However, old texts belonging to the Vedic peoples thought to have been written around the same time reference the city of Varanasi and suggest that the area was inhabited by tribes even before the this time.
Where is Banaras / Varanasi
The Ganges or Ganga
One of the most important aspects of the culture of Varanasi is the river that runs through it, the river Ganges (Ganga). It is the river that draws in thousands of Hindu's from all over India, and in fact the entire world, each and every year. Hindu's believe that bathing in the water of the Ganges cleanses their souls of their sins and that having the river take their ashes or their dead bodies allows their soul to be freed from the cycle of passing into the new life of another body. The Ganga represents an eternal peace for the soul. The name of the river is the name of the goddess that is worshipped in Hindu culture, Ganga.
Visitors to Varanasi can be forgiven for being both overwhelmed by the spiritual nature of the city whilst at the same time feeling uncomfortable, afraid and well, disgusted. Varanasi exemplifies both the good and the bad of human civilisation and takes it to extreme ends of the scale. One can't help to be in awe of the thousands of Hindu's in full dress who walk the streets bare-foot carry candles and saying their prayers at all hours of the day. The sight of people bathing in the waters and the piles of human ashes laying by the side of the same water, ready to be cast in is a a powerful visual. In Varanasi Hindu customs and practices are on show twenty four hours a day.
Exploring In Varanasi
The narrow little alleyways and streets around the river front intertwine and link some of the ghats along the shoreline. Tuks and Tuks and other vehicles cannot come through these streets as they are too narrow. Wondering around these alleys can provide hours of fun and amusement. the sights and smells and sounds can be captivating and really overload the senses. Cows, worshipped by the Hindu religion, and certainly not eaten, will be wondering around the streets of Varanasi, sometimes alone or sometimes in bigger groups. They're normally not aggressive but it's best to just let them pass and try not to touch them. It's amongst these alleys that most of the budget Varanasi accommodation can be found. For my visit, I stayed in Scindia Guest House which was a lovely old guest house overlooking the Ganga river.
And then there's the extreme other side of Varanasi, the more tangible, physical side. Fumes from the burning of human flesh drift over the city from the crematoria down by the river. Everywhere you look you will see excrement from cows, dogs and people. You will see people starving in the street desperate for something to eat before they literally collapse and die. The river itself is disgusting and filthy. It's hard to imagine how people can actually bathe in there, but they do. Many of the hotels, restaurants and guesthouses wash their sheets and tablecloths in the river. You can see women doing this early in the morning, scrubbing the cloth and beating them against rocks before placing them out to dry in the sun as it begins to warm up.
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Arriving at the train station can be a hellish introduction to the city. Tuk Tuk drivers will try and take you anywhere other than the place you want to go. Always agree the price of the journey before getting in the vehicle and make sure you've done some planning so that you know roughly where your accommodation is. They will be wanting to take you to a place where they can get some commission. Having a map and also having the address written down is essential. Make sure you also have the name and phone number of the manager of your accommodation., You may need to contact them in order to find them, especially if you are staying near the river as you will have to negotiate your way through the network of narrow alleys and streets. Street names and signposts do not exist here. Also beware of people on the street who suddenly appear alongside you and start a seemingly friendly conversation. they've literally seen you coming and will try and lead you off to a place where they get commission such as a textiles emporium.
Have you ever been to Varanasi?
Travel experiences of the author during his trip to the holy city of India, Varanasi is the main theme.
Sunrise River Cruise
The must-do activity in Varanasi is a morning river cruise in a long boat. Most hotels and guest house (even the most basic) will be able to arrange this for you. Be ready for an early start as you set off towards the river in the dark. A man will be paid to row you gently along the river front giving you excellent opportunities to take photos of the amazing buildings of the city and to witness the people coming down to the river to carry out their religious activities. It really is an amazing spectacle.
Burning Ghats and Cremation Pyres
When the sun does come up you can really feel the buzz and the life coming out of the city and you can feel the vitality and energy of the place. You'll certainly notice the 'burning ghats' as you drift past in the boat. You'll notice huge piles of logs piled up and there will be probably be some smouldering piles on the shore of the river. These will be the fires that have been used to cremate bodies. One of these burning ghats burns continuously for 24 hours a day and you may even see Hindus performing cremation rites in front of the cremation ghat. Common sense should be taken when recording or taking pictures. The activities you are seeing are actually happening and aren't being staged for the entertainment of tourists. There has been known to be some resentment and ill feelings towards tourists recording these holy activities some respect should be shown at all times.
Some Interesting reading...
In photograph after photograph, the secular and the profane coexist; the old can hardly be told from the new. Everything is experienced at once - the ghats, the streets, the faith, the temples, the river, the celebrations, man and beast, the burning bodies, all jostling for space in the same frame. These photographs demonstrate unforgettably how all of India is in Varanasi, inspiring and appalling, ancient and up-to-date. A collector's edition.
The India guide from the trusty Lonely Planet people. Particularly useful for finding places to stay as a lot of the budget options in India still don't have websites or use the popular hostel booking sites.
This book gives clearly written explanations of the basic ideas and practices of Hinduism and its culture. It answers so many questions—Do the Hindus worship many gods? Are the Hindus idol worshippers? What is the purpose of life? What are Hinduism's spiritual practices?—and so on, covering the most mundane to the most profound ideas and questions of Hinduism.