Varanasi. The ghats and beyond. Return to India 5

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January 25th 2018
Published: April 2nd 2018
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25th January 2018

Uttar Pradesh

Return to India 5 (click on 'previous' below the panorama for earlier blogs)

Varanasi - The Ghats and beyond

Continuing the travels of two somewhat elderly brothers, David (of ‘the grey haired nomads’) and the younger, Mike, (aka, ‘keep smiling’).

The good guidebook tells us there are 88 ghats here in Varanasi; those long terraces of riverfront steps leading down to the banks of the mighty Mother Ganges. Most are used for ceremonial bathing but just two are used exclusively as cremation sites. Raju, our guide here in Varanasi, has organised a boat to take us downriver this evening, to view the proceedings from the water just before sunset. The guidebook also talks much about tigers, but that will have to wait. There are no live tigers here in Varanasi as far as we know, but we'll keep our eyes open just in case.

A mass flotilla of assorted boats heads downriver, joining us in simple rowing boats and motorised open craft, favouring the 3Km shoreline of steep stone ghats and imposing ancient buildings rising above us.
Varanasi - Harishchandra Ghat Varanasi - Harishchandra Ghat Varanasi - Harishchandra Ghat

Several pyres are visible from our little boat, spitting sparks and flames into the night sky.
Lights now sparkle on the rippling waves as dusk approaches and the chatter of excited visitors echoes across the water on a cool breeze, dancing to the rhythm of dipping oars.

Male mourners gather before a muslin-wrapped body prepared for cremation at Harishchandra Ghat as we pass, wood weighed ready for the ceremony. ‘Women do not attend these ceremonies,’ Raju tells us. ‘That duty falls to male family and friends and the eldest son will mourn for thirteen days.’ Several pyres are visible from our little boat, spitting sparks and flames into the night sky. Such cremations are held here day and night, to the metronome clanging of bells. We in the West are spared this ritual of passing; this passage of the soul through Ganges-bound ashes, this passport to heaven, so breaking the cycle of death and rebirth. Yet here there is such hope in this Holy River amongst Hindus, in this oldest of India’s cities.

Boats jostle on the water before the temples at the larger Banikarnika Ghat, a little further downriver, where crowds of mourners are now gathered on the steps. As many as a dozen funeral pyres are reflected in
Varanasi - Banikarnika GhatVaranasi - Banikarnika GhatVaranasi - Banikarnika Ghat

As many as a dozen funeral pyres are reflected in the dark water here this evening.
the dark water here this evening, their flickering flames a testimony to the faith bestowed upon their beloved Ganges by these 200 or so cremations each and every day throughout the year. Around us spellbound visitors stare in wonder form their boats, a thousand differing thoughts that tear at the heart for the deceased and their loved ones. Let’s not dwell on it. Life is always too short.

But such memories fade and spirits are soon refreshed on the return journey up-river, stopping off for yet another view of an Aarti or two from the river. Bells, fire, red-robed priests and much chanting accompany the ‘oohs and aahs’ from the watching crowd, their boats bobbing gently on the turbulent water. We'll sleep well tonight after another long and hectic day.

Before we leave Varanasi there’s just time for us to visit nearby Sarnath,10km or so north east of the city. Magnificent neem trees adorn the peaceful grounds here where once deer roamed. Groups of monks and Buddhist devotees sit quietly in meditation and contemplation on neat lawns, entranced by the special ambience of this most venerated places for all Buddhists. Take a moment to
Varanasi - Banikarnika GhatVaranasi - Banikarnika GhatVaranasi - Banikarnika Ghat

Boats jostle on the water before the temples a little further downriver, where crowds of mourners are now gathered on the steps.
sit on this bench and listen: for despite the large number of strolling visitors, one could quite easily be seated in a church or temple.

The park is dominated by the 40m high tower of the Dhamekh Stupa, an imposing 40m tapering tower, built where Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon. And nearby is a fascinating archeological site of ancient monasteries and the remnants of the Dharmarajika Stupa built by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka to enshrine the relic of Lord Buddha. Also here is the shattered base of one of a number of stone Ashoka Pillars erected across northern India during the 3rd century BC. This one here at Sarnath is thought to have stood over 17 meters in height and weighing around 50 tonnes. Its capital of four lions back to back, now housed at the Sarnath Archeological Museum, has been adopted as the official emblem of India. The more recent Mulagandhakuti Vihara 20th century temple now stands where Lord Buddha sat in meditation.

Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment while seated under Bodhivriksha, the ancient sacred Bodhi Tree here, and it is here that we are reminded of our most memorable visit to Dharamsala back in 2013. For here there are parallel rows of spinning prayer wheels and fluttering Tibetan prayer flags. There is a special feeling here that we experience wherever we encounter Buddhism. Have you noticed? A touch of tranquility, or perhaps a better word is serenity - it paints pictures. Were serenity a colour, what colour do you think it would be?

Strong security is evident at the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple back in Varanasi. We must leave our shoes and socks, cameras and bags at the gate. But as visitors we can work our way around the long queue of Hanuman devotees under Raju’s guidance and weave our way through a maze of colourful temples shrouded in garlands and offerings. Many thousands of pilgrims are here in the temple today, many sitting cross-legged in large groups, solemnly chanting as they read from a script. It was here that ten lives were lost and some forty badly injured in a terrorist bomb attack back in 2006. How is it that man can be so cruel to his own in such a place of worship?


Neem trees - and serenity
a brighter note, we’re now off to the Puppet temple, Tulsi Manasa. Built in 1964, this delicate Shikhara style temple is dedicated to Lord Rama and is noted for inscriptions on the walls telling us of the life and exploits of Rama, prince of Ayodhya, who won the hand of a beautiful princess, so the story goes. I’m at a loss to comprehend all the fascinating tales associated with the Hindu religion, but the dozens of automated puppets depicting Rama’s story throughout the temple will surely warm the soul of many a youngster, their parents and all of Rama’s devotees.

We’ll be leaving Varanasi tomorrow morning. Meanwhile there’s French onion soup with veggie noodles on the menu at our hotel this evening - and Irish stew (with rice of course). Makes a nice change.

This is Mike’s twelfth visit to India and he’s still not seen tigers in the wild. Ranthambore disappointed us with five barren safaris when we came in 2013. We hope to put that matter right this time. Tomorrow we’re going to look for tigers in Bandavgarh National Park. Want to come? Of course you do!


The grey-haired-nomad
The Puppet TempleThe Puppet TempleThe Puppet Temple

Tulsi Manasa

Scroll down for more pictures – and back up to the top watch the panorama show!

Our Guide in Varanasi: Raju Verma

My Guide: My younger brother, Mike[url=http://A mistreated goddess , who’s detailed research and planning made this fascinating trip possible. You can see his take on this remarkable journey at:

Accommodation: Palace on Ganges Hotel

Nice rooms, conveniently situated on the edge of town near the river and excellent restaurant.

Additional photos below
Photos: 17, Displayed: 17



Prayer wheels
Varanasi aartiVaranasi aarti
Varanasi aarti

.....from the river

Many in Europe will share a different interpretation of this religious symbol.

3rd April 2018

Memories fade and spirits are soon refreshed
Can't imagine seeing this burial ritual from a boat at sunset. That must have been an amazing experience. History and archeological sites abound.Thanks for the travel tips and where to stay.
25th May 2019

Varanasi a city that not everyone will understand. I got it and i loved it, i had such a connection to this place great pics and really great information for travelers.
25th May 2019

Thanks for your thoughts. I shall not forget Varanasi or any moment of my numerous visits to wonderful India.

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