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Varanasi - City of Lights

- by Madhav Das Rathore

Posted November 12, 2012

Many authors and discerning travelers have addressed and explained, or have at least tried to address, the formidable task of explaining and penning down their experiences of Varanasi, the most sacred and ancient city in India.

I find it very easy to exhaust my limited vocabulary in my effort to explain the city of light, Varanasi. Maybe this is because I am able to see and understand the reasons behind the rituals and 4,000 year old hymns sung by the devout. Also, being Hindu comes in handy.

Varanasi is about 470 miles south-east of Delhi in the state of Utter Pradesh (Northern Province). At Varanasi the scene is beautiful, distinct colors, fragrance of incense, grace uplifting that surrounds the high altar of any part of human fraternity. Varanasi happens to be one of the most sacred cities for Hindus. It is adorned by countless temples, set like tiers of crown, above and among the broad flights of stairs that ascend from the most sacred river of India, Ganges. As we start our little walk to reach the ghats (river bank) we see girls carrying buckets overflowing with marigolds, roses, jasmine flowers and oil lamps; the devout are offering prayers to mother Ganges. The faithful cover themselves in gentle white or bright crimson robes to protect themselves from the morning chill.They carry water pitchers and urns on their heads and shoulders,and they climb up and down the high sandstone steps singing religious hymns and chanting sacred mantras in honor of gods and mother Ganges.This entire scene fills the atmosphere with a mystical aura.

VaranasiThe group of American nationals I was accompanying was awestruck and lost in their thoughts to witness all that was happening around them. The static population of Varanasi is 3.6 million out of which about 40,000 are Brahmins attached to the temples across the sacred city. The city is perched about 80 feet above the flow of river Ganges and spreads just over 4 miles on the western bank of the river. Ganges is buttressed by high steps and high walls of temples and palaces with worshipers performing sacred rituals and bathing in the Ghats and ash clad sadhus (holy men) everywhere.

Varanasi GuruAfter witnessing this mesmerizing scene during our walk before sunrise we all climb down to the bank where our boat, aptly named Ganges, is waiting for us. The two boat men sail southwards as we enjoy the sight of beautiful palaces, ghats and temples. The most prominent ones are The Palace of Maharaja of Jaipur, Palace of Maharana of Udaipur and the temples built by the Kings of Nepal. Finally, the first rays of sun kissed the city of Varanasi…it is a very soulful and captivating moment for all of us, the sunrise over the river Ganges. Towards the last leg of the boat ride we observed two families performing the cremation ceremony and last rites for the departed souls of their family members. Soon our boat touches the bank and we all climb out to begin an interesting walk through the old part of the city. We walk through streets which are 8 feet wide, twisting like earthworms after rain.Straight from these streets rise line of multistoried houses covered with beautiful and intricately carved sandstone panels on their outer walls. On the street level, on either side of the street, a row of small shops with their open fronts display cottons, garlands of flowers , utensils, pictures of gods and goddesses, packets of incense and hand woven fine silks,a specialty of Varanasi. Many rickety wooden platforms built on intermittent slats project from the edge of the shops at the street level. My guests have now started to bombard me with their questions as I try to answer each one of them to satisfy their curiosity.It gives me immense pleasure for the simple reason that they are interested in my mother, India. I know tonight over dinner there will be more talking than eating and just the thought makes me smile. After a very pleasant boat ride at sunrise and a gentle yet thought provoking morning walk, we finally arrive at the main street where many boys selling postcards and necklaces made of bright colored glass beads surround us. We climb into our bus and the ladies indulge in some retail therapy buying necklaces and post cards from the enterprising boys. After a short ride we arrive at our hotel and rush to fill our bellies with some freshly cooked breakfast where we are welcomed by smiling staff and the sweet aroma of masala chai!

Madhav Rathore
India Specialist
Cox & Kings, India