The holy city on the Ganges is equally shaped by life and death. Varanasi is the best place to learn about change and eternity. Throughout the centuries, the holiest – and most Indian – of the Subcontinent’s cities has retained its original charm and identity.
The City of Prophets and Ascetics
Varanasi is older than its name: at the times of the Buddha, the city’s name was Kashi (the City of Light). Later, it became Benares or Banaras, and now it is called Varanasi. The city on the Ganges river is one of the oldest in the world. The founders of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism preached in this place, as did the most important figures of Hinduism. All these people, all the time that has passed, have left their mark. As Mark Twain aptly put it: “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, And looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
About 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of Varanasi lies Sarnath, an important Buddhist pilgrimage site. It is here that Siddharta Gautama – who after his enlightenment was called the Buddha (the Awakened One) – delivered his first sermon. He taught the Four Noble Truths of suffering, its origin, its cessation and the way to attain the cessation of suffering.
Today, roughly 2500 years later, Buddhists from all over the world visit Sarnath to meditate where the Buddha once sat. The Dhamek Stupa was built in the 5th century, and is an imposing monument. More recent temple structures have been built by the Tibetan, Sri Lankan and Thai Buddhist communities, among others.
The Ghats – Religion and Death
The Ghats of Varanasi are the city’s most famous landmark, and they constitute its identity. Ghat is the Hindi word for steps leading to a water place – in this case, the Ganges. The river is India’s holiest, and is revered as Ma Ganga, as Mother Ganges. Every evening, the Aartis is held. This Hindu ceremony is centuries old. Priests sing mantras and other holy verses while offering fire to the deities.
Thousands of locals and tourists come to witness the Aarti every day. Many do so from one of the old, wooden boats, which can be rented at cheap rates. The view from the Ganges is truly majestical.
When floating down the Ganges on a boat, columns of black smoke will be noticeable. In Varanasi, human corpses are burned – since millennia, around the clock, and openly visible. Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi brings salvation from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. That is why old and sick people from all over India come to the holy city to spend their last days – and to die there. There are two cremation ghats. On the Manikarnika Ghat and the Harishchandra Ghat, around 30.000 people are cremated every year. This takes place in public view. It is not unusual seeing playing children or sleeping street dogs right next to the burning corpses.
Life in Varanasi
A labyrinth of narrow lanes extends behind the Ghats. This is where the daily life of Varanasi unfolds: merchants sell religious statues and pictures, as well as important Hindu scriptures and everything from cooking utensils to mangoes. The city is famous for its silken Saris, which have been hand-woven for centuries. On every street-corner and at any time of the day, cheap and delicious street-food is available. Two of the specialties of Varanasi are Malaiyyo (a milky dessert) and Laaiya Chana (chickpeas with vegetables). Like in all Indian holy cities associated with Shiva, Bhang is openly and legally sold. Bhang is a cannabis preparation which can be drunk with Lassi or water. Followers of Shiva consume Bhang ceremonially. They believe that the Hindu God Shiva, who is the destroyer of the universe, drinks and smokes cannabis as part of his meditation practice.
In the newer parts of the metropolis, huge shopping malls, trendy cafés and high-class restaurants have sprung up. Modern age has arrived in Varanasi – but the city has retained its identity.
Other Sights in Varanasi
The Kashi Vishwanath Mandir is one of the most important temples of Varanasi. Located a few hundred meters from the river Ghats, it is visited every year by countless Hindus from all over India. The temple is dedicated to Shiva, whose Lingam (a phallic stone idol) is whorshipped here.
At the times of the Moguls, many mosques were built. Thei minaretts still shape the city skyline today.
The Dashashwamedh Ghat is among the most famous ones. It is here that the Aarti takes place every evening. The Assi Ghat is the city‘s southernmost Ghat. It is a tourist hotspot: foreigners and Indians alike enjoy sitting in one of the many restaurants overlooking the Ganges. Around the Ghat, there are also many hostels and cheap hotels or guest houses.
And so, the morning sun rises over the Ghats. For countless time, it has been burning down on the temples and people of the holy city – just like the Ganges has been slowly passing through Varanasi on its way east. The centruies have brought about change, but one thing has always stayed the same: life and death in this eternal city are so present, so intertwined like in none other.