Varanasi, the Holiest of them all!
The first stop after a 14 hour drive from crossing the border from Nepal, was one to greet you into India with a bang, or should that be a beep! There were cows just chilling along the main roads, men with no clothes apart from Ashed bodies and extravagant hair accesories on followed by women in white, beeping throughout the entire 2 hour traffic jam we arrived to in Varanasi, but even with all this chaos. There was a sense of spirituality. With every so often a temple, statue or lights from temples shops selling colourful items out the window of our mini bus.
Varanasi or its Indian wording ‘Baranase’ is the Holiest place in India, especially with the religion of Hindu due to the location on the river Ganges which they see has Holy water
The cows, The Holy Cows
My mind was baffled when I arrived in India, cows, cows everywhere, along the main roads, in herds, baby cows, cows in the middle of the busiest roads in the city. Roaming freely with no one moving them or worrying about why there was a cow in the middles of the road, they just go around them . The last straw was when I saw someone kiss the cow and offer it food?
You see within the Hindu religion cows are seen as sacred due to Lord Shivas (the most worshipped of the gods) vehicle/ guardian is a COW. They are seen as sacred animals so no beef is eaten, no milk is drank, nothing can harm the cows, they have no masters very often.
So you kindof just have to get used to it, I saw Holy men touching the cows, and people giving them food to stay alive and well, they see it as good karma and good fortune to do this, especially in Varanasi. Even the poop, that is apparently where the saying Holy Shit came from 😛
The 3rd largest river in the world, and known as the Mother Ganges by most Hindu worshippers. It is believed due to its links to the Gods is believed to have healing powers when people go and bath in it from the banks.
The story of its creation is, In Hindu beliefs, the Ganges River came to earth from the heavens, where it flowed through sacred lands until an Indian King Bhagiratha pleaded with Lord Brahma, a powerful god, to bring the river to Earth. However, the river was too powerful and would destroy the world if it flowed here, so the King begged Lord Shiva, a strong and mighty god, to help contain the river’s force by using his hair to slow the river’s force, helping to guide it gently down to Earth.
You see people take flasks of the water to take it home with them due to its value to them and their families, there are people from all over India in Varanasi at all times due to its importance in their culture not just religion.
The buddhas first sermon – Sarnath
We immersed our selves not only in the Hindu religions here but the Buddhist beliefs to. Visiting the location of Buddhas first Sermon in Sarnath 15km from Varanasi. The tree where the sermon was taught to Buddhas followers is surrounded by prayer flags, prayer dials and a temple full of beautifully hand painted stories of Buddhas life.
The morning and evening Aarti ceremonies
Due to the religious importance of the Ganges, every morning at sunrise which was 5am when I was in Varanasi, i woke up early when it was pitch dark to witness the lifetime experience of the Morning Aarti which people literally pilgrimage from all over the world to witness. Arrive early surprisingly people will be in their hundreds already to see this.
The spectacular event firstly must be viewed from the Dasawamedh Ghat or the Assi Ghat when the water is high, 5 Brass lamps of large sizes are used during this event, which is accompanied by chants and crowds of people waiting to pray, its just beautiful to watch such precision and loyalty put into it. The 5 priests who perform the ceremony don identical dhotis and kurta for prayer, chanting happens throughout the ceremony which takes around half hour. It involves bells, water being sprinkles, flowers and ofcourse flames, this all represents the worship of the Holy God Ganga where the Ganges gets its name and has been done for centuries.
The Evening Aarti Ceremony is around the same, but this time the flames are heightened and become much more beautiful due to the darkness becoming greater. While the performance ritual happens the main speaker chants and people will clap their hands, repeat the prayers being said and even start singing. Its so beautiful to witness, you feel like you are intruding in some ways, its so calming and really makes you respect the Hindu religion which is present throughout India.
The old town
I was told not to wander into these local small alley streets, with a labrynth of activity and a high percentage of getting lost. But where is the adventure in keeping to the rules, especially when theirs a treasure trove of of architecture, new routes to find and the possibility of maybe finding the Ghats.
I headed to the Prahalad Ghat, one of the furthest Ghats to my hotel which is around 1 hours walk away nearer to the Southern Assi Ghat , each Ghat is connected to the next normally creating a beautiful walk for anyone visiting. The Ghats are full of communities, markets, food being sold, boats coming and going, religious Cremations taking place.
I walked through areas of complete destruction, then other areas where buildings were painted loads of different colours and had beautifully decorated doors with rustic artwork and pictures. I wandered into unused temples which had beautiful views of the Ganges river where I met people who told me the best streets to follow to get towards other Ghats.
The locals looked very confused when they saw me in such a local area of Varanasi, but one of the men directed me and gave me a little history knowledge tour for some of the journey. Another chatted outside his house for 15 minutes just because I said hello and good day to them in Indian.
I walked past cows down the narrowest of streets, came across washing lines, fresh food stalls and even someone making Mutter Paneer, each street winding down to a different Ghat.
I finally came to the Blue Lassi café in the more tourist area of the city, with shops selling jewellery, real cashmere and other clothing. I tasted some of teh oldest Lassi recipes in Varanasi, the astonishing thing is the path next to the shop is the main one down to the Harishchandra Ghat which is actually one of the main temple areas for cremations, but didn’t feel comfortable going and witnessing the normally private ceremony. To some this kindof ceremony in England would be one of sorrow and discreetness, however in Hinduism I found relatives or friends of the deceased were asking me to go and take part or watch. They celebrate the deaths with songs and flowers, colours as a happy event rather than mourning, its humbling
It was early in the morning so not very crowded but as the day was getting later there was suddenly people eating on the roads with communal lunch, tuk tuks beeping, cows walking past some of the food stalls. I also had the privilege of seeing first hand people ceremoniously bathing into the Ganges after having blessings and prayers chanted.
I was given a blessing, for my family for my journey and for myself, a great experience.