Varanasi is by all accounts a colourful and visceral travel experience. Here, Expat Living reader and freelance journalist Amita Sarwal describes her recent trip to the Indian holy city for an annual festival.
In the late 19th century, Mark Twain wrote that Varanasi was “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend.” Over a century later, the enticement remains for this Indian city steeped in antiquity.
Our visit to Varanasi coincided with Dev Diwali – not to be confused with the country’s annual festival of lights, Diwali, celebrated two weeks earlier. It’s believed that on this full moon night, Lord Shiva descends to Earth to bathe in the River Ganges.
Celebrating Dev Diwali
As the setting sun’s saffron rays split the rippling Ganges, the facades and riverfront steps of the 87 ghats were lit up by strings of multihued electrical lights and earthen oil lamps, as if to ward off the enveloping twilight.
The celebrations in Varanasi – which gets its name from the confluence of the Varuna and the Asi, tributaries of the Ganges flanking the city’s northern and southern borders – had started at dawn, when devotees and sadhus came in throngs for the kartik snan (holy dip) in the river. By evening, thousands of colourfully attired people, holding their flower-bedecked puja thalis (prayer plates), gathered to join in the ceremonies, culminating with the deepdan or offering of lighted lamps to the Ganges.
The foremost attraction at the ghats is the aarti ritual – at its most elaborate on Tuesdays and on religious festivals such as Dev Diwali. It involves 21 young Brahmin priests holding aloft metal lamps of various shapes. The fragrance of burning incense fills the air, chants of mantras reverberate, and drums beat rhythmically while 24 girls blow notes from conch shells.
Ghats & Temples
The next morning, the freshly swept ghats were rather clean considering the crowds of the previous evening. Some of the metal lamps could still be seen, scrubbed clean with river silt and shining in the sun.
Most Varanasi ghats were built in the 1700s when the city was part of the Maratha Empire. While the majority are bathing or praying ghats, a few like the Manikarnika Ghat are dedicated to cremations – epitomising a co-existence of life and death.
While each ghat has its own characteristic architecture and specific identity, the focal point is undisputedly Dashashwamedh (“ghat of the 10 sacrificed horses”), probably the oldest, most prominent and busiest ghat. Legend has it that Brahma (the Creator) built the ghat to welcome Shiva (the Destroyer).
Varanasi boasts an estimated 23,000 temples. Top of the list is the famed Kashi Vishwanath dedicated to Lord Shiva. It’s one of the 12 traditional Jyotirlinga shrines (symbolic representations of Shiva) in India. Built in 1780, its two pinnacles were plated in gold 50 years later. Also notable is the Sankat Mochan Temple, dedicated to the monkey-god Hanuman.
Side trip to Sarnath
Besides Hinduism, Varanasi played a significant role in the development of Buddhism. Sarnath, or Isipatana, is considered one of the four places of Buddhist pilgrimages. Lying 10km northeast of Varanasi, it was here that Gautama Buddha delivered his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. Buddhists from Thailand, Japan, Tibet, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are frequent visitors to the site.
Sarnath’s famed Dhamek Stupa is an impressive edifice, 128 feet high and 93 feet in diameter. It’s one of few structures to survive after Turk invaders destroyed most of the ancient buildings here in the 12th century. It features niches in eight directions edged by elaborately carved borders.
The Sarnath Museum next door displays noteworthy relics including the broken Ashoka Pillar that was erected here, originally surmounted by the Lion Capital of Ashoka. It too was broken during the invasions, though its base still stands at the original location.
Jet Airways and Singapore Airlines fly to Varanasi via New Delhi.
Local transport includes taxis, rickshaws, cycle rickshaws and three-wheelers.
When to go:
Best time to visit is from October to March
Do try local favourites like kulhad (earthern cup) chai, along with sweet and savoury snacks such as rabdi, gol gappe, launglata, jalebi and kachauri – and, in winter, the frothy, milky mallaiyo. The Keshari Restaurants serves Indian thali meals, while Pizzeria Vaatika Café offers vegetarian Italian.
Where to shop:
Varanasi is as famous for its hand-woven silk saris and fabrics as for its brassware, bangles and wood and stone sculptures. Stores to try include Prabha Trade Silk Sarees, Taj Estate, Varanasi Remembrances and Shanti Handicrafts.
- Wear suitable attire, especially along the ghats and when visiting temples.
- Experience a sense of finality at Manikarnika Ghat, probably the world’s largest, busiest cremation site.
- The use of plastic bags at ghats is banned.
- Visit tourist information centres to avoid being misled by fake guides.
- Avoid photographing funeral pyres and visitors to the cremation ghat, Manikarnika.
- Book a hotel well in advance for Diwali as this annual festival draws many visitors from India and overseas.
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