Varanasi: India’s Sacred Heart

Ghats at Varanasi

One thing India is definitely not short of is holy places. From humble village shrines to grand temples, the sacred is interwoven into the fabric of everyday life. But everyone I spoke to seemed to agree on one thing: for Hindus, Varanasi is the holiest of the lot. In Hindu mythology, Varanasi is the city of Shiva, the Destroyer. He is believed to have come down from the Himalayas with his wife, Parvati, to establish the city on the bank of the sacred River Ganga. Archaeological evidence of settlement here dates back to the 11th century BC, making it one of the oldest cities in the world.

And what a city it is, with tall, flat-roofed buildings surrounding a maze of tiny alleys and dead-end streets that are thronged with people, cycles and speeding mopeds. Steep steps lead down to the riverside ghats, which play host variously to boats, bathers, cattle and corpses. Rishis and sadhus – Hindu holy men – smoke beedis and receive alms, while loquacious touts and boatmen practise the ‘Varanasi shakedown,’ keen to relieve tourists of their cash. And through it all runs the sacred, yet hideously polluted, River Ganga.

It was like nowhere else I’ve ever been and, I suspect, nowhere else on the planet. I loved it.

Sunrise on the Ganga

It would be difficult to miss sunrise on the River Ganga even if you wanted to: in Varanasi it’s not ‘you want tuktuk, madam?’ but ‘madam you want boat?’ You absolutely should take one of them up on the offer though, because sunrise looks like this:

Sunrise on the River Ganga.
Sunrise on the River Ganga.

I actually bypassed the eager boatmen and booked a boat ride from my hostel – Bunked Up Hostel, which was fabulous in every way. I paid only 200 rupees for a boat shared with three other travellers, which was substantially less than the prices the riverside boatmen were quoting . We went from Pandey Ghat down the river to Assi Ghat, and then back up past Manikarnika before returning to the hostel.

One tip I would give is to try to get out early – I left at around 5.45am (in late February) and the river was still very peaceful and atmospheric. The larger boats seem to come out a little later, and by 6.45 the river was thronged with people, both tourists and pilgrims. It’s fascinating watching the pilgrims bathe in the Ganga, but the pre-dawn quiet is worth getting up a little earlier for.

Manikarnika Ghat

Manikarnika Ghat
Manikarnika Ghat from the River Ganga

While the Ganga gives life, Varanasi is most famous as a city of death. Hindus believe that cremation in Shiva’s holy city assists a soul to achieve moksha –liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth – and so the city has developed a thriving cremation industry centred around Manikarnika Ghat.

Cremations take place in the open at the burning ghat, and it’s possible to watch. I worried slightly that it would feel prurient to do so, but it was fine: the bodies are covered and as long as you keep your distance, do not take photos of funerals and generally behave respectfully, you won’t be in the way.

Manikarnika is quite a place: piles of wood are stacked high and cremation pyres burn round the clock. It is a hive of activity, with doms – an untouchable hereditary caste responsible for burning bodies – carrying corpses draped with colourful shrouds, mourners gathering as the flames catch, and logs being thrown onto pyres ready for the next ceremony. Pilgrims bathe in the holy water just feet away from where bodies are dipped before cremation, and cows idly chomp on rubbish in the background. Death and mourning here is not sanitised and private as it is back home, but, like many things in India, is played out in public. It didn’t feel morbid, as I thought it might, but actually quite refreshing.

Wood at Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi
I didn’t get a picture of the funerals, as it’s forbidden to do so, but this is the wood behind Manikarnika.

The ceremony is highly symbolic; the wrapped bodies are dipped in the Ganga and rested before being placed atop a pyre of wood. The chief mourner, usually the deceased’s eldest son, circles the body five times, representing the five elements, and then anoints the body before lighting the fire. The complete burning of the corpse takes about three hours, and the ashes are then scattered in the Ganga.

You can read more information about the ceremony and its significance here, and I also enjoyed this short video about the doms who run Manikarnika.

If you do visit Manikarnika, be very wary of approaches from people here. Scammers, probably aware of the warnings in Lonely Planet, have become more creative, saying that they ‘work here,‘ or ‘just want to practise their English‘ to draw you into a conversation that inevitably ends with a request for money. Be polite, but don’t go anywhere with them ‘to get a better view’ – I saw a couple who had done so involved in an argument with an old man dressed as a sadhu who was aggressively demanding money. I found that the best approach was to stay back, not only because it helped me avoid the scammers, but because it felt more respectful.

Ganga Aarti Puja at Dasaswamedh Ghat

A priest during the Ganga Aarti Puja ceremony.
A priest during the Ganga Aarti Puja ceremony.

Every night, allegedly at 6pm – it actually seemed to start much later – the Ganga Aarti Puja ceremony, in which prayers are offered to the holy river (and goddess) Ganga, takes place at Dasaswamedh Ghat.

Aarti ceremonies always involve fire (the word comes from the Sanskrit ‘to dispel darkness’), and there was no shortage of that on offer; the young Brahmin pandits who officiate swirl various flames, of ever-increasing size, clockwise overhead to the sounds of chanting and drumming. It’s a highly choreographed spectacle in which every action has symbolic significance, with the items of the ceremony invoking the five elements of the Hindu universe.

If you’re in Varanasi, the ceremony absolutely shouldn’t be missed. You can pay to go on a boat for a view from the river, or jostle for a decent, and free, seat on the steps – I opted for the latter, and enjoyed the people watching just as much as the ceremony. It’s quite an atmosphere, with thousands of people paying rapt attention as the priests wave mesmerising swirls of fire.

Varanasi Walks

Varanasi Walks Guide
My Guide Lao Tse

Much of what I learned about the puja ritual and the cremation ceremonies was through conversations with Lao Tse, my guide from Varanasi Walks. I don’t often take guided tours, but decided to opt for one in Varanasi to get a deeper perspective on the customs and practices that I observed. Varanasi Walks is not the cheapest walking tour option, at 1600Rs per person for 1-2 people, but in this case I think its worth splashing the cash. I got a  3 hour, 1:1 tour with a lovely, knowledgeable guide; Lao Tse was born in Varanasi and was able to answer all of the question that I fired his way.

I took the ‘City of Light’ tour, but by mutual agreement we skipped the Golden Temple as the queue was snaking through the alleys. Instead, we visited a number of other beautiful temples, including the Nepali Temple, a beautiful Krishna Temple run by the Gujarati community, and many temples devoted to Shiva and Parvati, including some located within private houses. The temples have beautiful wooden and sandstone carvings, and some date back hundreds of years.

Lao Tse also took me through the alleys and showed me where different communities from all over India have settled in Varanasi. Sadly the sari market – Varanasi is famous for its silk – was closed as it was Sunday, but the closed market stalls were still atmospheric in their own right. Lao Tse explained that the silk is woven by Muslims, who then sell the saris to Hindu traders. We also ate some delicious jalebi and gulab jamun, although as a confirmed dairy-hater I wasn’t too keen on the local delicacy of malaiyo.

It was a fascinating three hours, and I would thoroughly recommend Varanasi Walks if you want to learn more about this unique city.

Accommodation Tip

If you’re heading to Varanasi on a budget, I highly recommend Bunked Up Hostel it was cheap, clean, sociable and fun, with hot water and – by Indian standards at least – fast WiFi. They hosted live music for Maha Shivaratri (more on that coming in a separate post), and made the night one to remember! Plus, its rooftop cafe has this view:

Sitting out at the rooftop cafe at Bunked Up Hostel,Varanasi.
Sitting out at the rooftop cafe at Bunked Up Hostel.

It’s difficult for me to pick favourite places, as everywhere I’ve visited in India has had its own charms. Varanasi, however, was certainly one of the most unique and fascinating places that I’ve ever been to – a visit here will linger long in the memory.

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