THE HOLY CITY OF VARANASI - November/December 2018


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November 17th 2018
Published: November 19th 2018
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‘Varanasi is old than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together’ - Mark Twain



Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh takes its name from its situation on the banks of the Ganges, on the confluence of two rivers, Varuna and Assi. It is said that the city rests on the trident of Lord Shiva thus imparting an incomparable energy into it. Known to devout Hindus as Kasha it is one of the oldest living cities in the world and is the aspiration of every devout Hindu to die at Kasha thus ensuring a direct passage into heaven. It is here where thousands of Hindu pilgrims immerse themselves in the sacred Ganges River every day of the year. This very sacred and vibrant spot transfers you from the amazing history and heritage world into one of its vibrant culture.





SARNATH



On our way to the ghats at Varanasi we stopped at a large statue of Lord Buddha at Sarnath. It is said that Lord Buddha, the great sage preached his very first sermon after enlightenment, setting in motion
Sarnath MuseumSarnath MuseumSarnath Museum

Oldest Archaeological site Museum
the ‘Wheel of Law’ at deer park Mrigadava in Sarnath. A popular place for various religions including Buddhist, Jainism and Hinduism, pilgrims travel from all around the world to this unique city which features monasteries construct by Buddhists from several countries including China Burma, Tibet and Japan.



Sarnath is one of the four most important pilgrimages in the world for Buddhist followers. The other three most important pilgrimages are Lumbini (birth of Gautama Buddha), Bodh Gaya (the place where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment ) and Kushinagar (the place where Buddha attained parinirvana).



The rich and eventful history of Sarnath is an interesting and captivating one, beginning with the arrival of Gautam Buddha in 528 BC. After he attained enlightenment he taught followers all that he had learned and thus they also became enlightened and set out far and wide to teach his preachings. This marked the foundation of the first Buddhist Sangha or a community of monks at Sarnath.



A veil of obscurity for the period of three centuries after the Buddha remains but excavations carried out at the site revealed that it had a continuous occupation from the 3rd century BC to the 12th century AD. The city was then ransacked by the Turks and the area was extensively plundered for building materials and sadly many of its ancient buildings and monasteries destroyed. Thereafter, Sarnath remained completely deserted until the 19th century when excavations at this historic city started to reveal its hidden treasures … … … To keep the astonishing antiquities found from this site, a decision was taken to construct a ‘site museum’ adjacent to the excavations, one of the first of its kind in the world.



Luckily for us we had time to visit this Archaeological Museum which housed many of the relics recovered from the area amidst natural surroundings. The museum building itself was quite unique, approached by a long path with tidy clipped hedge and large expanses of green grass on each side. Built entirely of sandstone with a flat roof it resembled a monastery or abbey complete with arched open verandah running down the sides. Inside, the central hall was set out as a main chapel and several galleries resemble monastic cells of old.



It was nice to get out of the warm sun and look around the cool interior which housed a rich collection of Buddha and Bodhisattva sculptures and images that are considered amongst the finest works of Buddhist art in India.



It really does not matter if you are not a believer, an archeologist or indeed a history buff, visiting this museum and the excavations will not disappoint you there is plenty to see. One of the most fascinating and important artefacts in the museum was the Lion Capital of Ashoka, a sandstone sculpture of four lions standing back to back on an elaborate base and this was the first thing that you saw as you walked through the doors. Erected by Emperor Ashoka circa 250 BC it was lost for years before being rediscovered by a British Civil Engineer in 1903. It was an astonishing sculpture and so old and in really good condition. Part of this sculpture was adopted as the official Emblem of India in 1950 and is present on India’s current postage stamps.



The sculpture was originally placed on top of a large pillar at Sarnath which is still partly in its original location. The capital itself was originally crowned by a ‘Wheel of Dharma’ with 24 spokes. Only a few fragments of these spokes were found at the excavation site and they have been recreated in what they believe it looked like and displayed with a diagram of the missing parts. The wheel known as ‘Ashoka Chakra’ is the centre piece of the National Flag of India.



It was impossible to view all of the artefacts as there are over 7000 but we had a quick look at many. One you should not miss is a delightful, nearly intact sculpture of Buddha from the 5th century. The Buddha sits cross-legged, with eyes downcast in deep meditation with a halo around his head - an astounding work of art and to think it is nearly as pristine as it was the day it was carved.



VARANASI



We continued on toward the city until it got impossible to move on in our vehicle as the crowds became so dense. We started walking for a while before our guide hailed three rickshaws for our group. These were not the motorised ones we had in Delhi but a cycle rickshaw, which is also called a pedicab. It was a relief to be sitting up high above the streets as the crowds were now immense.



We had arrived in the middle of a festival, so although this route down to the River Ganges is usually busy, today it was ‘mega busy’ and it was really bumpy sitting on the back of the rickshaw holding ones feet on a narrow bar in the front to keep stable. We felt quite guilty sitting on this as the poor young lad had to pedal really hard along the rough streets through the huge crowds - we did tip big though.



A place of pilgrimage since time immemorial, the holy city of Varanasi is set on the banks of the sacred River Ganges and one of the reasons we chose this tour was that it included a visit to the Ghats while many tours do not. In Hindi ghat means ‘river landing stairs’ or ‘mountain pass’. Ghats in Varanasi are riverfront steps leading to the banks of the River Ganges and the city has around 90 of them dotted along its river.



Most of the ghats are primary used for bathing and puja rituals (worship),
Streets of VaranasiStreets of VaranasiStreets of Varanasi

Garlands for the festival
while two are just used as cremation sites. Manikarnika, also known simply as the burning ghat is the place where the majority of dead bodies are cremated in Varanasi. For centuries, the old and sick have flocked to the site to die here on the banks of the Ganges, and special buildings (hospices) on the site are reserved for those awaiting their final hours. Hindus believe that if a person’s ashes are scattered here then their soul will finally achieve nirvana (moksha) liberating them from the cycle of death and rebirth. But to liberate the soul, the worn-out body must first be burned.



Huge piles of firewood line the shore and the fires continually burn with a stream of dead bodies, each wrapped in cloth and carried through the lanes on makeshift stretchers by the doms (a caste of untouchables that handles the corpses and supervises the burning ghat). Whilst we were there many bodies were being brought down to the river wrapped in orange shrouds and placed in the river to be washed before being left on the steps to dry going through the ritual of burial. In a way those were the lucky ones as
Manikarnika GhatManikarnika GhatManikarnika Ghat

Known simply as the burning ghat where the majority of dead bodies are cremated in Varanasi.
they had managed to end their days where all the devotees wished to be and to finally rest in the 'River Ganges’. Hindus believe the banks of the Ganges next to the holy city of Varanasi is the most sacred place on earth to die and around 300 people are cremated at the sacred site every day.





Only men attend the cremations and the atmosphere at the giant funeral site is not one of sorrow, as mourners instead laugh, chat and play cards as the funeral preparations are carried out. The Hindu attitude to death is not one of loss, but instead follows the idea of ‘shedding’ the worn-out body, as one might throw away clothes that are too worn out to wear.



The Varanasi site is a hive of activity, families weave between the piles of wood gathered for burning bodies; livestock amble around funeral parties; and spectators and tourists mill around observing the ceremonies - quite surreal to us tourist but every day life to those who live here. Legend says that the flames of the funeral pyres at Manikarnika Ghat have been burning for some 3,000 years.



This journey down to the river will remain with us for a very long time. It was hard not to be moved by the devotion of those around you and also by the poverty and dreadful state of health of so many - it just broke your heart.



As we neared the river we had to make our way through throngs of people sitting and standing filling the steps that led down to the water. You cannot imagine the scenes that play out before you as you near the water’s edge, the crowds get even thicker, so much so it was impossible to try and keep together in our group of just 7, so glad we were not a coach load . …… Being at the back I nearly lost sight of them as I let a child trying to keep up with her mother go in front of me only to realise I had lost sight of our group. Luckily though I spotted them and managed to scramble down and catch up with them.



Everywhere you tried to walk there was someone there before you, some were sitting down in family groups
 Chet Singh Ghat Chet Singh Ghat Chet Singh Ghat

Chet Singh (1770-1781) built this palatial building in the mid 18th century as a small fortress
lighting their candles, painting their faces and displaying their votive offerings. The bright colours of the ladies in their best saris, yellows, pinks, reds, greens, blue, purples and golds and all around them children happily playing.



Finally we managed to get to the waters edge and clambered on to our boat. The sky was alight with little lanterns floating in the sky whilst garlands floating down river. Being rowed very slowly up and down the Ganges with all this going on is hard to describe and something I cannot put into words in this blog - come and see it for yourself, you will not be disappointed.



GANGA AARTI EVENING CEREMONY ON THE GANGES



As night approached we rowed back to Dashashwamedh Ghat to witness the Ganga Aarti ceremony - this ceremony is performed every night on the banks of River Ganges at sunset and is basically part of the evening puja or prayers. I must admit I am struggling a little bit with but please excuse any typos!



Many pilgrims travel from all over India and sleep in the open air if they can't afford anywhere to stay which a lot of people can’t just to set foot into the 'Mother Ganga’ and pray at this ancient and important Ghat during the evening ritual. It was a wonderful experience to be a part of such a community all arriving at this location to pray and worship together. The atmosphere was very different in the evening and as the ceremony got underway priests stood on platforms and sandalwood and incense swirled around us as the sounds of puja chanting got louder and the blowing of huge conch shells filled your ears, whilst you early jumped out of your skin at the loudest of crackers pierced your ears - you were totally in another world



Sadly for us it was time to go and we were lucky enough to be looking forward to another comfortable bed for the night not like some of the community that would be sleeping on the ground under the stars. Repeating the process of getting here we struggled back through the crowds to find our same tuk tuk drivers waiting for us to take us back to find our vehicle, as mentioned we gave him a large tip for this most amazing experience.





EARLY MORNING ON THE GANGES



Early, very early in the morning we were taken on another boat ride along the River Ganges. Our guide said that the best way to appreciate the river’s spirituality is from a boat and although a ‘touristy thing to do’, after all that’s what we are, he said if you did anything in Varanasi you should not miss a morning floating down the river.



I must admit we did enjoy the ceremony the previous evening but seeing the Ghats at dawn, was another very moving experience. As we drifted by as it started to get light we watched as thousands of pilgrims came down to the waters edge and conducted ceremonial offerings to the goddess Ganga, known as Aarti. We were assailed again with the colourful garments, headed scents and chiming music, in tune with the rippling waters of the River Ganges as we floating along - so mesmerising. Garlands of orange marigolds floated by us glistening in the morning sunlight. And as the sun came up the noise of fire crackers and the people lining the river reached a crescendo a new day was dawning on the river Ganges - just another day in India … … … …





SOME THINGS WE DID NOT KNOW



I thought I would mention a couple of things we found interesting whilst visiting temples. It is common practice to carry a coconut and flowers as an offering to the temple deity, just as one would take flowers or a gift when visiting a friend at home. Some believe that coconuts are a representative of one’s self and after the offering, the coconut is broken, symbolising the breaking of ones ego. Just as one spends some time sitting and talking after dinner at a friend’s house, here too one normally sits for a while at the temple after the puja. While sitting though your feet should not point toward any of the Deities.



Eating is also not permitted in the temple as well as displays of affection such as hugging which are considered appropriate in the temple premises. One other thing you might find interesting is that it is believed that joining both hands such that all the tips of the fingers are touching each other activates certain pressure points in the body releasing positive energy and this is done in prayer during a puja.





MOVING ON





Sadly it was was time for us to move on from Varanasi but we had lived through an experience that we will never forget. A while later we were collected at our hotel and taken to the Airport for our next internal flight onward to the city of Agra - Namaste, see you there.


Additional photos below
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River Ganges Varanasi

A place of pilgrimage since time immemorial
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Sarnath

India's tallest Buddha statue


21st November 2018
 Chet Singh Ghat

Nice to read your story
Thank you for writing about your visit in Varanasi. I went there many years ago myself. When I read your blog though I realise that you had a much different experience from mine. You could understand and relate to what was around you in a way I couldn't. I only observed and watched where as you felt and lived more. Nice to read though. /Ake
23rd November 2018
 Chet Singh Ghat

The Holy City of Varanasi
Thanks for your comments, such vivid memories of our visit will remain with us for a very long time.

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