also known as Benares is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Situated on the banks of the River Ganges, it is the holiest of the 7 sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism and played a very important part in the development of Buddhism.Varanasi is steeped with religious history and culture and the great temples and mosques provide for a fascinating insight into the heart of Indian culture.
I once read in Lonely Planet about Varanasi “Brace yourself. You're about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you're ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favourite stop of all.”
For me, it has certainly become my favourite place to visit in India, I would not consider visiting India without visiting this “Belly of the Beast”. The magic of the River Ganges is indescribable, there is certainly something going on here.
The river is worshiped by Hindus as the goddess Ganga, and all along its course Hindus bathe in its waters.
Varanasi is a veritable paradise for pilgrims, who throng the 'Ghats' of the Ganges,( the long stretch of steps leading down to the water on the western bank of the Ganges), for spiritual rewards like deliverance from sin and attainment of nirvana. The Hindus believe that to die here on the banks of the Ganges is an assurance of heavenly bliss and emancipation from the eternal cycle of birth and death.
Varanasi is a absorbing labyrinth of tiny laneways and fascinating sights, sounds and smells, it hard to know where to look first as you make your way through this ancient and fascinating city. But it is the river that draws me to its magic time and again, as the circle of life plays out before your eyes. From the Pilgrims bathing on the Ghats in the early morning to the Cremation Ghats that run 24 hours a day, where bodies are cremated in public.
A boat ride at sunrise sees the mellow light playing on the intricate buildings, reflecting the hues of red, orange and yellow, sturdy wooden row boats ply their way along the river and the faithful enter the water to perform puja to the rising sun. people come to the Ganges not only for a ritual bath but also to wash clothes, do yoga, offer blessings, sell flowers, to receive a blessing from a holy man or to celebrate.
As the Ganga goes to bed at night another boat ride glides you along the river with
thousand of Diyas (Small candles votives, surrounded by flowers on a round cardboard holder ) burning and moving with the tide. At sunset every evening the visually dazzling Aarti ceremony is performed on one of the main Ghats to put Mother Ganga to bed.
Varanasi is a place that will never leave your travel memories.
MARY HAMILTON-SMITH: AUSTRALIAN WOMENS TRAVEL