The city of Varanasi has been a cultural centre of northern India for several thousand years and is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. Situated on the sacred river Ganges and located more than two hundred kilometres west of Gaya, Varanasi is a major religious pilgrimage site in India. In Hinduism it is regarded as the holiest of the seven sacred cities and is centred around the worship of Hindu god Shiva. Varanasi is also an important site of pilgrimage for Jains and Buddhists.
As we left Bodhgaya in an auto-rickshaw for the nearby train station at Gaya, I recalled a comment an Italian man had made to us in Kathmandu. He described his time in Varanasi as like ‘being in hell’, a reference to the poverty, the poor sanitation and the ‘burning ghats’ where public cremations are held for the dead. Other people we’d met had explained that the spiritual importance of the city attracted all kinds of people from beggars and sardhus to poets, artists, musicians, hippies, mourners and mystics. I wasn’t sure what to expect; perhaps something somewhere in between a hellish environment of human suffering and an intriguing confluence of creativity and spiritual devotion.
The four hour train journey from Gaya to Varanasi was much more pleasant than our previous experience en route to Mumbai. This time there were no children in the compartment and barely any salesmen walking up and down the carriage selling their wares. The scenery outside the train was invisible to us because the windows were so grubby and scratched, so we laid back in our bunks and read our books. It was early evening and dark by the time we arrived.
The city of Varanasi, known also by the names Banaras and Kashi, was much bigger than I’d expected. As we raced through the busy narrow streets in an auto-rickshaw, the size and spread of the city became apparent. It is home to almost 1.5 million people and maybe half as many cows. To many Hindus, the cow is a sacred animal, and in Varanasi its veneration was obvious. Throughout the city the cow had right of way, and so they wandered the streets, squares and public spaces with the same ease and detachment as if they were grazing in a meadow. Auto-rickshaws, cars and motorbikes had no choice but to veer around the cows as they ambled along the streets, seemingly oblivious to the noise and congestion that surrounded them.
Along the river, between the water’s edge and the city, were an extensive series of steps known as ghats. There were over eighty ghats in total, most of which were used for bathing and puja (prayer ritual) ceremonies. Two of them were used exclusively for public open air cremations and were often referred to as the ‘burning ghats’.
We stayed our first three nights in Varanasi at Assi Ghat, in a guest house right on the street closest to the Ganges. Assi Ghat is the southernmost ghat in Varanasi and the region around it is popular not just with visitors to the city but with students and researchers from the nearby Banaras Hindu University (BHU), the largest residential university in all of Asia.
We had arrived in Assi Ghat during the annual Maha Shivaratri (great night of Shiva) festival so the city was particularly busy with locals and pilgrims engaged in two days of festivities centred around Lord Shiva. Worshipers gathered around various shrines at Assi Ghat with offerings and prayers although the main focus of their attention was further north at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, one of India’s most important sites for the worship of Shiva. We decided it would be better to visit the temple after the weekend, when the main festival celebrations had ended.
It was only towards the end of our stay in Bodhgaya that the diarrhoea I’d had since leaving Delhi had finally subsided. Despite generally enjoying Indian food, I’d decided to reduce my consumption of it and to eat more Western-style dishes. In the Assi Ghat area I managed to find two particularly good places to eat. One was a pizza and pasta restaurant right on the ghat, with a view over the river. It would become my go-to spot for dinner, not only because the food was good, but because similar options for Western-style meals were limited. The other place was a popular breakfast and lunch cafe called Aum, run by an American woman and her Indian partner. They served amazing lemon pancakes and delicious salads, soups and a variety of refreshing home-made drinks.
On our first morning over breakfast the American woman told us that in Varanasi the life of the city is along the river, on the ghats, so that is where we chose to spend most of our time. In the early morning, before sunrise, we would leave the guest house and walk down to the water’s edge where there was always a hive of activity. Hindus would come to bathe in the Ganges, based on their belief that its sacred waters would wash away their sins and purify their souls. Some would even drink the water, despite it having dangerously high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. Presumably the devout believed their chance of becoming sick would be overridden by the river’s sacred powers.
As dawn emerged we were woken by the sound of chanting, bells ringing and musicians playing traditional instruments at small outdoor concerts. At sunrise, the musicians were replaced by a guru who leads a group of devotees through a series of yogic breathing and stretching exercises. Siting cross legged on a cushion and talking directly into a microphone and amplification system he guides them in Hindi through a series of numbered counts and instructions to energise their bodies and minds.
Sunrise was always a special time along the river. The emerging scenes of daily life, the various rituals along the ghats and the old architecture marking the edge of the city, would be bathed in a soft golden light. Wandering along the ghats, I saw all kinds of other-worldly sights – snake charmers blowing music though their flutes at impotent cobras, pet monkeys on a leash helping vendors at street side stalls and sari-wearing Hindu women offering fruits and sweets to stone Shiva lingams. Everywhere there were shrines covered with vermillion powder and draped with marigolds. People washed their clothes or vigorously soaped their bodies in the river as old wooden boats glided past, loaded with tourists gazing in awe at the myriad of strange but highly photogenic scenes unfolding in front of them.
Every evening at various places along the ghats, a special Hindu ritual known as Ganga Aarti is performed. The ones around Assi Ghat were generally smaller than the large crowd-drawing performances that happened on ghats further north. The Ganga Aarti is a devotional ritual to Ma Ganga, the goddess of the sacred river Ganges. The ritual uses fire as an offering and is performed next to `the river by a group of young priests dressed in brown and saffron coloured robes. The ritual lasts around 45 minutes and includes a highly choreographed sequence of movements with various fire objects. Accompanying the ritual is the sound of chanting and the continual ringing of a bell. Similar rituals are also performed at Rishikesh and Haridwar, two other sacred cities along the river.