India’s Oldest Living City

As the home of the sacred Ganges, Varanasi is steeped in spiritual and historic sights

By: Rachel Reid Holbrook and Mark Edward Harris

This is the first Image
The holy waters of the Ganges River
are the destination for many pilgrims
to Varanasi.
Mark Twain wrote, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

Since the American writer penned those words in 1896, the name of this mystical city situated on the Ganges River has changed (to Varanasi), but little else has.

One of the oldest living cities in the world, Varanasi is considered sacred to both the Hindu and Buddhist religions. For more than 2,500 years pilgrims have made their way to this sacred stretch of the Ganges. Varanasi is even believed to be the home of the Hindu god Shiva.

We arranged a two-day excursion to Varanasi through Southern California-based SITA World Travel, who provided us with a driver and guide to explore this ancient city by car, rickshaw and rowboat. We arrived in the late afternoon via Air Sahara (which offers a 25 percent Youth Discount on the basic fare to passengers below 30 years of age on the date of travel) on the only nonstop flight from Mumbai. A more common route is through Delhi on a number of carriers, including India’s premier airline JetAirways.

Most international tour operators book their clients in one of three hotels the Radisson, the Taj or the Ramada, which opened in 2006. For those looking for the most classic Indian experience, the Taj is the best choice. All three hotels have restaurants that serve a variety of cuisines that have been vetted for the Western stomach.

Raj, our SITA-provided local guide, acquainted us with the history and myths of his hometown as we drove to the banks of the Ganges. Traffic slowed as we came up behind a group of young men dancing and singing with moves borrowed from the Bollywood cinema behind a Shiva statue pulled on a rickshaw. Raj suggested we exit the car to walk the final mile to experience the cacophony of sounds and smells that can only be found in India.

Among throngs of worshippers and dodging cow-made land mines along the way, we made it to the sacred river’s edge at sunset just in time to witness a Hindu ceremony performed by seven priests, each on a separate platform in front of the crowd gathered on the ghats (stone steps along the banks of the Ganges). They progressed through a series of prayers. The most breathtaking was twirling fire, a spectacle worthy of a Las Vegas extravaganza. But this is not for show; it’s a poignant religious ceremony and one that visitors are fortunate to be privy to.

After the ceremony we joined a small armada of rowboats and, with our tour guide at the helm and a young oarsman manning the paddles, ventured upstream to a burning ghat with several funeral pyres ablaze. The scene, which has changed little for centuries, is overwhelming. A surreal and mystical spot, this is where, according to the Hindus, the holiest departure from life takes place and the cycle of life completes itself if one dies while in Varanasi, he will not be reincarnated. Hindus bring their deceased family members wrapped in a colorful cloth shroud, then after immersing it in the waters of the Ganges, cremate their loved ones on the banks of the river. Candles and flowers float on the water between the rowboats, chants from the ceremony can be heard and the air smells of incense and fire.

After an awe-inspiring experience, we ended the day with a spicy multi-course Indian dinner at the Taj Hotel.

The next morning began at 5:30 a.m. to view the bathing rituals on the Ganges, the main reason visitors come to Varanasi. The hotels empty out to the streets with foreigners making their own pilgrimages most with cameras in hand. Hindus refer to Varanasi as Kashi, or the City of Light, because according to Hindu legend, it is where the first rays of light fell. Dawn is the time that the most vibrant worshipping takes place at the 70 bathing ghats along the Ganges as devotees submerge themselves in the holy waters.

A rowboat is the best way to view the ghats in the early morning light. Above the Lali Ghat we spotted a holy man, covered in ash and meditating in a full lotus position on a ledge overlooking the Ganges. We asked our oarsmen to bring us to shore for a closer look. Afraid to disturb the meditation, we moved cautiously, but when he noticed our presence, he welcomed us and proudly showed us photos that had been sent to him by past visitors. As we paddled away, he took a slow drag on a cigarette and, leaning on the skull cane next to his meditation spot, waved goodbye.

Once the sun had risen completely, we docked and strolled through the narrow streets of the old city. Among the must-sees in this area is the Vishvanath temple’s majestic 18th-century gold dome. Visitors are allowed a peak through the door of the temple, but only Hindus can enter.

Varanasi is sacred not only to Hindus. On the outskirts of the city Buddhists pay homage to their spiritual leader on the grounds where Buddha first preached. The ruins of the Dhamekh Stupa mark the spot along with a temple with a mural depicting the sage’s life. We escaped the afternoon heat with a visit to an air- conditioned archeological museum containing ancient Buddhist and Hindu artifacts.

No visit to Varanasi would be complete without some time devoted to shopping. The city is home to some of the best handloom silk weavers in India, with the tradition passed down through the generations. We visited Shai Silk Kala Kendra near the Golden Temple. After seeing and feeling the quality of these silk tapestries, it would be a feat of incredible willpower to leave empty-handed.

The Taj Mahal may be the most magnificent architectural landmark in India, but for a cultural experience, Varanasi has no equal.


India Ministry of Tourism

SITA World Travel, Inc.

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