Varanasi Travel Blog› entry 9 of 13 › view all entries
Varanasi, also known as Kashi (the âcity of lightâ) or as Benares, is situated on the west bank of the Ganges and is Indiaâs holiest Hindu city with a spiritual legacy that goes back 3,000 years. Sanctified by Shivaâs presence and the sacred Ganges, the 90 or so ghats along the river define the life and identity of Varanasi. Lined with temples and shrines they reverberate with the endless cycle of Hindu religious practice--from daily rituals like bathing and washing clothes to profound rites of passage.
We wanted to stay in the Old Town section of Varanasi near the ghats but 3 of the first guest houses we checked were booked so we ended up at the Yogi Lodge, about a 10 minute walk from the river.
While waiting my turn to check in I noticed an abbreviated, kind of Cliffâs Notes, version of Autobiography of a Yogi on the counter. Iâd recently read the book in preparation for this trip and took this as a good sign. As I filled out the registration book I came to a part where it asked for my date of arrival in India. I paused and started counting back the days to when I landed in Delhi. Rej, the front desk manager, immediately said, you arrived in Delhi on March 11. I slowly looked up from the book and stared at him as if Iâd just witnessed my second spiritual sign. He smiled and said, itâs right there on your passport, see the stamp? It says âDelhi - March 11â.
One is awakened in Varanasi by any number of things: cows mooing, fruit and vegetable vendors yelling, bells ringing for morning devotionals--all seemingly just outside--and monkeys screeching as they crawl across the grates of your open bedroom window. The monkey thing can be a little unnerving when your head is only two feet away. Iâm hoping there isnât a monkey with really long arms.
Saturday, Bhai, our tour guide took us to three Hindu temples. One is almost 800 years old. Itâs an outdoor temple surrounded by high, red walls and is still used everyday by devout Hindus. As we sat and watched the procession of people going up to the altar you couldnât help but feel the thousands of spirits of those who had done the same thing over the last 8 centuries.
Sunday morning a group of us gathered before sunrise to take a boat tour on the Ganges to view the ghats from a different perspective. Walking through the old section of the city to get to the ghats is like stepping back into Medieval times. The alleys, similar to those by our hotel, are flanked by homes and shops that are more than 500 years old.
Although there are more than 700 temples in Varanasi, none are more sacred than the river itself.
The multi-colored, row boats, all lined up for tourists, are almost 30 feet long, 8 feet wide, and sit only a foot in the water. We shoved off with two little boys on board selling offerings of flowers and diyas--leaf bowls filled with marigolds and a candle.
The main ghat in Varansi is the Dasahvamedha Ghat and is the cityâs holiest spot. Itâs also the ghat used in virtually every Varanasi postcard. Rows of priests sit under bamboo parasols ready to perform ritual prayers for the pilgrims that swarm here. Daily prayers, or Aarti, at dawn and dusk, serve as salutations to the river. Oil lamps are offered and bells rung while sacred mantras are chanted.
After lunch Katie, Christine and I walked the ghats almost from one end to the other, continually being confronted by hawkers of every stripe; haircuts, shaves, boat tours, you name it, and stopped at the Manikarnika Ghat, one of only two burning ghats used for funeral ceremonies.
Get togethers on the hotelâs rooftop at night are such a great way to relax after a long day of site seeing. Last night we shared who knows how many beers with people from Germany, Norway, and England and talked about the usual; cultural differences, politics--Iâve yet to hear anything but high praise and sincere thanks for Obama being elected--and travel experiences--where've you been? how long are you staying? where're you headed after this? It's an amazing journey for everyone.