“Varanasi is the India of your imagination. One of the most colourful and fascinating places on earth, surprises abound around every corner.” ~ Lonely Planet
After exploring the lands of Maharajas and Maharanis, my parents and I went to what people like to call the “real” India — the holy land of Varanasi.
This ancient city that has been standing for over 5,000 years is the religious capital of India. Due to its auspicious location on the banks of the Ganges River it is the holiest of seven sacred cities in Hinduism. Throughout centuries the city has been home to different movements of philosophy, education, culture, arts and obviously religion.
Without a doubt this was my favorite place of all India. It was probably the most uncomfortable and overwhelming of all, especially after having stayed in palaces and being treated like a Maharani for the past weeks, but it was definitely the most spiritual and mesmerizing. It is chaotic and magical at the same time.
In Varanasi devotion takes place 24/7.
Early in the morning you see thousands of people bathing in the waters of the Ganga river, saying their morning prayers, being blessed by their priests, or performing the rituals previous to the cremations. Many of them are locals but thousands of them are pilgrims that come into the city everyday to pay their visit to Mother Ganga (as it is required for Hindus to do the pilgrimage at least once in their life) and wash away their sins with the holy water.
Others, like us, are tourists that crave to form part of the beautiful spectacle that is taking place. I was fortunate enough to be blessed by a priest right on the banks of the river and then make my offerings to the one and only mother Ganga. It was a truly mystical experience.
During they day, at any time, you will find people are visiting the temples to visit and pay respect to their gods & goddesses and performs different rituals.
During one of our visits to a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva we saw people whispering into Nandi’s ear, Lord Shiva’s bull (that is his personal chuffer to put into modern terms) after they had paid their respects to the God. According to the belief they whisper their wishes into Nandi’s ear so he, as Shiva’s confidant, will let the God know about your wishes for them to be fulfilled. We found this to be so curious and very humbling in a way because although God is omnipresent, people still rely on their belief in Nandi to help them out.
The Hindu religion is full of this mythical stories and beliefs like this, which I find to be very entertaining and easy to relate.
We were also fortunate to run into a traditional Hindu engagement during our visit to an ashram and have a nice afternoon walk through the old city with a renowned professor: S.B. Rana who explained many interesting details about the area.
For example we learned that the way the old city was constructed resembles the body of Lord Shiva. The 87 Ghats which are the riverfront steps leading to the banks of the River Ganges represent his 87 ribs and the road that connect them would be his spine and it is considered to be auspisicious to walk from one end to the other and back.
At night, every night, the evening aartis take place. This is an Agni (fire) Pooja (ritual) that is performed every single night as a way to say goodnight to Mother Ganga as well as to honor her, Lord Shiva, and the entire universe. The event is attended by thousands of people, from devotees to tourists, every night as a way to give thanks to the sacred river for her blessings and get her ready to sleep –– the ritual literally ends with a lullaby. It is a true spectacle of pure spirituality and devotion.
It is probably one of the most fascinating experiences of the whole trip.
Life in this city is not easy, there are more than 3 million people packed in a city that was not designed to inhabit so many people. That number does not even take into account the thousands of people that swarm the city in their pilgrimage to wash away their sins in the sacred water of Ganga and many who come to die here as it is considered a direct gateway to heaven. Hindus believe that when you die here you attain moksha, liberation from the cycle of rebirth
It is a place where life and death are celebrated side to side in public spaces, which can be very intense and maybe unbearable to some, but so divine at the same time.
I had several encounters with this as I watched cremations take place and had a procession of people carrying a dead body pass right behind me in the streets of the old city. Instead of feeling appalled by it I tried to understand my feelings towards the situations and took it as an important life lesson:
These people don’t see death as a taboo the way our western culture does. We are so terrified of dying or losing a loved one because that death is not talked about, ever. One of the most remarkable things of the ceremony for me is that at the end the chief mourner will throw the last splash of the sacred water with his back to the body and walks away without looking back as a sign of non attachment. This act gives the soul space and peace to leave this world.
Unlike us, people here understand that nothing is permanent and there it makes no sense at all to built attachment to our human life.
We come to this earth to fulfill a purpose and be the best human being we can under our different life circumstances and where our time here is up the only thing left behind is our body but our soul will continue to exist forever. If we could actually try to see life this way we would be on better terms with death and what it represents.
Varanasi awakens all of your senses and certainly creates a rush of emotions. It is a place where dualism is the norm and devotion is the bond that keeps everything together. It is a humbling, eye opening, and mind-blowing experience. Everything from walking the Ghats and alleyways of the city to floating down the river during sunrise is sacred and spectacular.
It is challenging to describe Varanasi in a few words so here are some pictures to help out!
Love, light, and bliss !