Monday

Varanasi – a reality check












Varanasi (Benares) gets its name from Varuna (Var) river and 80 (assi) ghats – hence Varanasi. Why is Benares such a venerated immortal city I wondered on my journey there, very keen to discover more. It’s the combination of Kashi the holy city, Ganga the celestial river and Shiva the supreme God that makes Benares such an attractive sought after destination.

The ghats are beautiful and the most striking of them 80 ghats is the Dasarwamedh ghat. By early evening the ghats come alive and are buzzing with people from all walks of life. Shopping. Conversing. Praying. Donating. Singing. Meditating.

Approaching 7.30pm, thousands of devotees gather on the steps of the ghats, offering flowers and prayers and singing in devotion to the river Ganges. The priests in their orange robes set against a glowing sunset, add reverence and anticipation, as the Aarti is about to begin.

The priests (5of them) start by praying to the river Ganges and then is followed by thousands of lit lamps floated on the river. The priests begin the hymns and the aarti takes on a reverential hue. With the sun having gone down, it’s the flames of the aarti that are most mystical yet real, that light up the ghat steps and the river waters, announcing to all that the one source of life is being revered and given the highest status man can give.
This image is going to my grave with me; it was so beautiful, so true.

The long sweep of the ghats by dawn was equally fascinating, there aren’t too many people around at dawn and for the second time in Benares I felt the calm n quite which was pure. I saw many devotees performing rituals, worshipping the river Ganges and praying to it. Benares before sunrise is another world altogether! Charming. Peaceful. Devotional.

Another day, by a rowing boat, we saw all the 80 ghats. Idyllic. The calm balmy waters, made me feel like I was at peace with myself. On one Ghat they burn dead bodies and I was warned about this before I reached Benares. We saw it from our boat and strangely for the first time I did not feel any fear and calmly accepted what I saw. The significance of people wanting to die in Varanasi is that they reach heaven and attain moksh soon after. Hence it is seen as many Hindus’ last wish.

We crossed the river onto the other side and saw a village on the other side,
We were free floating in the middle of the river, soaking in the quietude, the peace, the stillness, the calm of a river which is felt to be pure and of a city which is holy.

Another day. And we made our way to temple of God Shiv, Vishwanath.
Our friend from the hotel who accompanied us, had prepared us for the tour ahead, so we stayed focused on our prayers and ignored all other elements such as the pundits and their askance for more.

He narrated how the Muslims had plundered and razed this Vishwanath temple to the ground zillion of years ago, and how they had left a small little portion of the wall intact for the Hindus to realize how potently powerful they were.
The story has it that they constructed a mosque on top of the destroyed temple.
Someone had said to me that religion is the biggest vote bank for politicians in our country – sadly for us, this narration was the biggest live example:- (

It is said that Shiv’s first original “ling” was discovered here in Benares and the temple was built for this reason alone. The Vishwanth Temple.

This trip to Benares taught me some patience and tolerance, a higher need for calm and quiet. Did I feel transformed, did I come back to feel more spiritual? Am not sure cause as humans we don’t change overnight, we allow experiences and images to soak into us and if they have made a deep impact on us, we slowly adapt to them. Definitely a reality check.

13 comments:

Mike said...

The experience you have captured here is so vivid, its beautiful. So is it a place where both life and death are worshipped in a manner of speaking? Amazing. Thankyou for your blog, it is a lovely live narrative. As I was reading I felt I could 'see' your narration.

sabith khan said...

Hi Mee,

Interesting exploration of religious places in India...though i have yet to undertake such trips.

Nice pics too...very visual portrayal of varanasi...

ALLEX said...

These pictures reminded me of my own visit to the holy city. When I had visited I was full of apprehensions and confusions about the type of college that I will get admitted to . But after the visit, the day I returned home, I got the letter form IIT and I knew holy blessings have been showered. Its really a sacred place to be in.

melinda said...

This sounds beautiful Mee.how lovely. Very similar to sacre mor cathedral, u think? This goes into "must see" for my next trip to India definitely!

Mee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mee said...

Mike - thankyou:), am honoured. How is Wharton treating you?:)

Alexx- I did not go to Varanasi on a pilgrimage or as on a religious mission:) I saw this wonderful film on Travel & Living which inspired me to go there , as another destination to absorb:), had fun, learnt a few things, enjoyed n am back to whr I belong:)

Sabith - I hv been to a couplea "religious" cities if you will - and not for religious reasons:) varanasi, haridwar, shravanabelagola, shirdi, nasik, vaishno devi..m wonder if that makes me religious or a traveller:)
Mel many thanks:) when do u hit India?

melinda said...

Mee- am there mid july, for 2 weeks, so looking fwd to mtg you! Will drop you a long mail today. Love. Mel

Ajeya said...

Wonderful post. I think the aarti on the banks of the Ganga is one experience that is unforgettable for anyone, no matter what faith. It makes you lose yourself. Indescribable feeling.

Mee said...

Likewise Mel

Absolutely Ajeya

gita said...

When I think Benares- I think saints, gods, ganges, holy river, holy city, birth, food some delicious pedas- laal pedas, spiritual. What took you to Benares?

ashish said...

How very vividly described:-) You seriously got to think of publishing Mee!

Mee said...

Gits- Varanasi was just another stop in my huge list of travel places :)

Ashish - thats too much of an effort, besides which I like to live on my own terms, write when I feel like, dont write if I dont feel like:)

Sailaja said...

I went to Benares few years back and the place had a deep impact on me . I was staying near Narad Ghat and we took a boat ride to all the ghats. Now we alighted somewhere near Harishchandra Ghat,a place which people usualy choose as their last resting place. we had a cup of tea from a roadside vendor who were a muslim couple. I asked them if the sombere surroundings affected their mood and business. The wife laughed and said this burning pyre was truth of life everyone who is born is destined to die so death isnt much of a surprise. All this over cuppa tea ..... :)