After four wonderful nights, we left Srinigar, Kashmir, spent a night in Delhi and then flew to Varanasi. Varanasi is the Hindu religion’s most holy city, straddling the famous River Ganges. We spent two nights in a boutique hotel, with a fourth floor room overlooking the Ganges. The views were spectacular and the architecture was amazing. The building dated back 700 years and was formerly an emperor’s palace. This is a heritage property but it does need some serious “TLC”; however, we made some allowances….
Anyway, Varanasi probably ranks amongst our greatest travel experiences ever. After relaxing for a few hours in the afternoon of our arrival, we met our charming guide and the three of us took a boat trip upstream. These are large rowing boats that probably seat about ten people comfortably or twenty-five at a push! Our guide explained that Varanasi had eighty plus ghats; these are distinct areas with wide flights of steep steps going up from the river. We saw people praying in the holy Ganges, washing themselves and others meditating or doing their laundry. The Hindus believe that every person should visit the Ganges at least once in their lives and wash away their sins. The Ganges also attracts many hundreds of pilgrims each day. We stopped at one of three famous cremation ghats. This was a sight never to be forgotten.
We saw about six fires, which represented burning bodies, with mourners around the flames. Other bodies dressed in a brightly colored shrouds were carried down to the Ganges for preparation which included putting the holy Ganges water in the mouth of the deceased and washing the body to purify it before the cremation. The oldest male relative is the one that is given the honor of lighting the fire. Instead of chemical fire-lighters, the chief mourner uses ghee, clarified butter to light the flame (this is the same as used in Indian cooking). Women are not allowed at cremations as crying is not allowed and the whole procedure lasts about three hours. Cremations are conducted 24/7, and on average two hundred are performed each day, but we learned that the following groups are not permitted to be cremated:
- Priests (Brahmin)
- Pregnant women
- Victims of a snake bite
Later we got off the boat and watched the spectacular Ganga Aarti by the ghats of the River Ganges (open previous link for photos). This is the evening service that the priests perform each day, giving thanks to Mother Ganges and bidding her good night – it is quite spectacular and very colorful. After the service we parted from our guide and had dinner in the Old Town. We then returned to our hotel by boat.
Next morning we started with another cruise up the Ganges. We were watching people praying, washing and meditating, just as others had done for centuries. Then we noticed something large floating in the water, covered in cloth, about twenty-five meters from the bank – our guide told us that it was a corpse. He explained that many people who are not cremated are buried in the Ganges, normally with weights to keep the body down. When bodies rise to the surface, it’s the responsibility of the city to clear them but it does not always happen.
After the boat trip, we walked in the Old City then rejoined our car and driver from the previous day. On the way, we saw a car with a corpse on the roof rack – the mourners were in the car and the corpse was headed for cremation. Our first stop was the Bharat Mata Temple. This is the only temple dedicated to Mother India; it was built by the British in colonial times. The statute of Bharat Mata is built in marble and is a model of undivided India, depicting the mountains, plains and oceans. Instead of the customary gods and goddesses, it houses a beautiful relief map of India, carved out of marble, which we found most unusual.
Next we visited the famous Banaras Hindu University, one of the oldest educational centers in India. The Banaras Hindu University was founded in 1917, by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, a close friend of Ghandi, as a center for the study of Indian art, culture, music and a wide range of subjects. The university campus is spread over five square kilometers. The campus area is huge with beautiful gardens, wonderful architecture and huge recreational areas.
Later we visited Sarnath, one of the most famous Buddhist centers in the world. Bodhgaya Buddha delivered his first sermon in Sarnath so it is regarded as the birthplace of Buddism. It is also a famous historical site for Sikhs. We spent an hour wandering around the ruins which reminded us of the famous Angkor Watt site in Cambodia (open this link for our blog on Angkor Watt).
Later, we walked along the river until we reached our hotel. Candidly we were shocked at the poverty, dirt, stench, begging and pestering. We were pleased to arrive at our hotel.
We have taken many photos and video footage but it all still needs editing, so please be patient. Meanwhile, if you are keen to see some truly amazing photos of Varanasi, open this link.
In the evening we took a boat into the main area for shops, bazaars and restaurants, but we kept getting pestered, so decided to go back to our hotel for dinner. By this stage one curry was much like another!