Life and death; joy and suffering; mystical tranquility and gritty reality; sacred riches and earthly poverty. No other city provides a starker set of contrasts than Varanasi.
This should not come as any big surprise, perhaps, for Varanasi is not only the oldest living city in the world with an unbroken history of over 3,000 years, but also the holiest city in all of India lying on the banks of the country’s most sacred river.
Varanasi is home, too, to all of Hinduism’s myriad gods, including Shiva, the most powerful of them all, who chose the city as his earthly abode after his marriage to Parvati. It’s also where devout Hindus come to live out the last years of their lives so that they are liberated from the circle of life and death when they die and their ashes are cast into the River Ganga.
The best time to get a sense of the city is at dawn, when you make your way down to the Dasashvamedha Ghat and board a small rowing boat gently bobbing up and down on the sacred waters.
The steps of the ghat are already filling up with people preparing for their daily devotions, but as the boat floats out into the river your guide turns your attention to the eastern sky and you watch the sun emerge from behind the clouds and send orange-pink rays of light over the waters.
This is when the river comes alive as people chant and immerse themselves in the waters to purify themselves in time-honored rituals that date back thousands of years, and for a few uncertain moments you want to become part of the observances rather than a mere observer. Even though the guide is doing his best to tell you everything he knows about the city, you feel you aren’t even scratching its surface.
The boat carries you down the river at a leisurely pace past imposing old temples and palaces lining its banks and more groups of devotees bathing in the waters, until you see smoke spiraling up from the funeral pyres at the Harischandra Ghat, one of the city’s two sacred “burning ghats”.
The guide explains that you are not allowed to get too close and that you can’t take any photos, so the boat turns around and we go back up-river. He tells us with a chortle that the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi decided to try and stop the traditional practice of burning dead bodies using wood by building an electric crematorium.
Not surprisingly this attempt to modernize the ritual was totally unsuccessful, but it may prove to be remarkably far-sighted in the fullness of time because the guide also mentioned that there is now a huge shortage of wood and ultimately an alternative may be necessary.
After our boat turns around, we once again pass the Dasashvamedha Ghat, which is now much more crowded than when we left it, and glide further up the river to the second burning ghat, the Manikarnika Ghat. This is considered the most sacred of all the city’s ghats because it is believed tomark the spot where Shiva created the universe.
Hindus believe that anyone cremated here achieves Moksha, liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth, and it is said that the fires of this ghat have burned continuously for centuries without ever going out.
Our boat comes to a halt nearby the Manikarnika Ghat, and after walking past smoldering embers and large piles of wood waiting to be burned, we make our way into the maw of the old city through narrow, labyrinthine alleys crowded with shops, shrines, people, and wandering cows.
Suddenly, the peace and calm of the river seems a million miles away as we plunge into a noisy and chaotic world of vibrant living color.