Category Archives: Varanasi

‘India 101’… Spirituality and the conflicted in timeless Varanasi, part one



I had hoped it would be as magical, as compelling as it had been that first time. During the two-month Indian leg of our backpacking trip in 1989, we had saved Varanasi for last. Positioned on the sacred Ganges River and considered to be one of India’s holiest sites, it was now the first destination of our ‘India 101′ trip with our sons and their girlfriends. It had been a difficult decision. Though we live in Southern India, should we venture north to travel this iconic route – Varanasi, Agra, and Dehli – or stay in the more gentle South. We decided on the former.

You want to get it right when your loved ones have traveled from afar, when you only have six days together ‘on the road.’ And I had been reluctant to revisit some of these treasured sites from our young traveller’s days. I wanted to remember them in that somewhat magical hue of days gone by, of simpler times. We had revisited Jaipur this past July and were pleased that we had. I had broken my ‘rule’ then of not revisiting… maybe it was alright to do so again?

After a brilliant Christmas at home in Bangalore, we strapped on our packs and flew north. Of the holy site of the Ganges, a quote from my old journal reads, “How fitting that this city of the faithful and holy should be our last stop. For to have experienced it early in the trip would have been too difficult to appreciate. Instead, it was the missing piece to completing the puzzle of India.”

Now, on reflection, had this visit been my first I might have been less convinced. Varanasi, or Benares, is said to be older than time itself. Ever wry, in 1897 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.”


And indeed, it is. Several thousand years old, Benares is the holiest of India’s seven sacred cities. Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism claim all, or part of their origin here. At nearby Sarnath, Siddhartha Gautama is believed to have founded Buddhism in 528 BC. In the 8th Century, the worship of Shiva was established as an official sect of Varanasi and further, Hindus believe that cremation along the sacred Ganges River will bring moksha – liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. It still feels as if one is stepping into a vintage National Geographic article. Holy men – sages and swamis, babas and sadhus – meditate, pray and wander in vivid shades of orange, tangerine and saffron. The more temporal – barbers, hawkers, soothsayers and snake charmers – also fill their days along the ghats. All eighty-eight of them.

These stone stepped embankments, some dating from the 1700’s, lead down to the edge of the Ganges providing access for pilgrims and locals to perform ritual ablutions. “My mother has bathed daily in these holy waters. Maybe for thirty years,” our guide imparted. For most Westerners this is mostly unfathomable. The sacred Ganges is full – of human and toxic waste, of dead cows, human ash and bodies, of bone remnants that defied cremation – the ribs of men, the hips of women.


The Aarti, before sunrise, is how Benares comes to life on the ghats. The air is chilled, the Ganges still swaddled in a misty shroud as we make our way to Assi Ghat. Brahmin students are lined in a row on a raised platform facing east to the river, where the sun will soon rise. The chanting of mantras ring through the air – the slow, steady beat of a gong accompanies the Sanskrit verses. The scent of camphor and sandalwood drifts around us. The young priests in training are precise, in perfect sync with their prayerful motions – the Aarti awakens the holy Ganges. Each day, each year, century upon century.

A separate prayer circle is close by, arms stretched out over a small fire. Not for warmth, but for the blessing of one’s body and soul. A priest sprinkles the devotees with petals. Ghee and grain are offered. Shanti, for peace is chanted. “It’s a bright example of reverence and living with less,” our guide offers solemnly. It is now 6:30 am.

We walk a few ghats upriver where a boatman is waiting. We seven huddle for warmth in his wide rowboat, one of hundreds that will soon float gently along the murky water. As his oars slice, soft and rhythmic through the water, seagulls call and circle. Boat wallahs beckon, piercing the calm morning air. Their wares are arranged prettily: prayer items, lacquerware, incense and Hindu prayer beads.

As the sun rises on the eastern horizon, ghat after ghat reveals itself. Each one serves a different purpose with distinct origins. A late King of Nepal built a temple on Lalita Ghat. Jain temples can be seen on the Bachraj Gat. The Maharajah of Jaipur claimed a ghat in 1770. The Dashashwameth ghat celebrates the Agni each evening – a worship to fire. It is also where dutiful prayers ease the Ganges to rest at the end of the day.

Perhaps the two most intriguing are the cremation ghats. Smoke is rising from the Harishchandra ghat as we row past in a respectful hush, a number of cremations in progress. Women are nowhere to be seen; it is believed their tears may prevent the soul from departing. The larger, busier Manikarnika ghat is further up river. Roughly one-hundred and twenty bodies are cremated daily. Wrapped in simple cloth, the face is left exposed, the body infused with ghee (clarified butter) so the body will burn as expected – usually up to three hours. The eldest son traditionally lights the funeral pyre, circling once for each of the five elements. He ignites by touching a taper, kindled from the eternal flame watched over by its guardians in a temple above the ghat, “Here, longer than anyone knows,” we’re told. Eventually the remaining bones will be laid to rest in the water by the cremation keepers. From the lowest caste, the untouchables, theirs is a job passed on through the centuries.


Those who are not cremated – children of a young age, priests, pregnant woman, and others who are already considered holy – will be rowed out into the water. Weighted and given over to it, they too will have have attained moskha, fortunate to have died in Benares or to have been transported here. What may your beliefs be, to witness the Benares ghats at sunrise is a poetry of daily rituals – the first bathe of the day, the slap of laundry against aged stones, the suns first rays on chiseled temples, the rainbow array of boats, the first kite zigzagging the sky, the hues of vivid oranges glinting in the sun, ashen sadhus re-dabbing their spindly bodies, the murmurs of first prayers – the circle of life in raw, intriguing motion.


As the morning unfolded we meandered through the back streets that radiate from the ghats. Needling our way through crowded narrow lanes, again I felt the weight of Varanasi’s history. A story told in trade – of fine muslin cloth and silk, of ivory works and sculpture – punctuated by cultural revival under Akbar, the Mughal Emperor in the 16th century. The enlightened Akbar built two large temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, just a few of the thousands that dot Varanasi. We squeeze past worshipers waiting to visit one of the most sacred, barefoot and prayer items in hand, hundreds upon hundreds wait in line. Shopkeepers have sold the devotees prayer items, provided storage for their footwear, and served up morning dosas. We are forced to step aside a number of times. Pressing our backs against aged walls, we watch silently as families pass, their deceased loved ones hoisted high on stretchers as they manoeuve to the ghats.

IMG_2683We see few foreigners in these narrow passages despite tourism playing a significant part in today’s Varanasi. Yet I know that many come to this city to bathe in its spirituality, to elevate and open their consciousness. They follow in the steps of many prominent Indian philosophers, poets, writers and musicians who have also sought enlightenment in this holy place… some do not leave.

We make our way back to the five kilometre long ghats, along a street of many outstretched, imploring hands. Begging is a reality in India and sadly, syndicates operate here openly. Time and time again we are besieged by young women, listless babies in their arms, some reportedly opium sedated. A little digging will tell you these precious children have either been kidnapped or rented out by their mothers for a small sum. With a filthy baby bottle in hand, the mothers plead for milk for their child. Should you yield to their pleas, know that it will be sold back to the shopkeeper, some of your rupees then lining the pockets of the syndicate. Even with this knowledge, it is wrenching to walk away, time and again. Also heartbreaking is knowing that some of the beggars are limbless or deformed, perhaps purposely maimed.

Our youngest son, on his first trip to India, has a difficult time reconciling it and accepting that this is an aspect of India – even that it occupies a place in humanity. He wonders how we manage to live in a country with such injustices, such crushing poverty. Our inadequate answer is that one has to find a way to rationalise, to mentally detach and perhaps find joy in other aspects of India. Should that joy prove elusive or the culture shock too intense, it can be difficult to manage. We find solace and purpose in our active support of an independent school, making a difference in young children’s lives… it has helped us reconcile the many inequities of this society.

Moved and impacted by the scenes of the morning, we try in the afternoon to appreciate other facets of life on the Ganges edge as we wander back to our ‘home’ ghat. Up close, we witness the deep reverence of those bathing in their sacred river and even the holy cows taking their turn. We speak to artists and babas. We delight in Andrew joining a cricket game on one of the less busy ghats. He hits a ‘home run’, a moment with local kids, a common thread, a semblance of normality. Yet so much of our time is spent deflecting the begging and the predictable scams. Eventually we retreat to a roof top restaurant for a long relaxing, yet animated brunch. From this viewpoint, the temples reach up to the clear blue sky and children dart their kites above Benares’ ancient vista. Here all is peaceful and serene. But that evening our curiosity exposes us again to conflicting emotions.


Five of us make our way to the large cremation ghat. Twenty or so bodies are in various stages of cremation, sparks leaping through the smokey sky, up to the heavens. The air is thick, filled with the scented smoke of mango, sandalwood and banyan. It is a scene that challenges description and I struggle to recapture the spiritual experience of that first time. It is so busy, so many bodies, so overwhelming. We are immediately approached by a personable young man. He encourages us to follow him for a tour. “I’ll explain everything,” he tells us, “but no pictures, no photos. And just give what you want at the end.” A few of us are skeptical, a few of us more trusting. We go along.

We hear and see more. We meet a mourner, head shaved, as is the eldest son’s duty. We are taken up to the sacred flame. After about twenty minutes, my eyes are burning, breathing is difficult and as if on cue, the tour is pronounced to be over. The young man then leads us further behind the ghats where the light of the pyres doesn’t penetrate, to the dark mounds of stacked wood. We’re told in mournful detail how much wood is needed to cremate one body, many cannot afford it, but we can help and contribute. How many kilos would we like to buy to donate? Now we’re led further to a small shrine. An older lady is perched on a platform beside it, dark kohled eyes peering from her sari wrapped body. “You’ll be blessed by this sister. How much wood will you pay for?” The tone and manner of the guide has changed. A few of us go along with the ‘blessing’. One of our sons refuses. We nod to each other knowingly – yes surely it’s a scam – but are there more accomplices waiting in the shadows in case we don’t comply. It feels ominous. We venture a modest payment.

Eagerly making our way in the dark through a zigzag of lanes to the direction of a main street, we ignore propositions to buy drugs, dodge cows blocking our path, notice glances that feel less friendly. We find our way out to the main street, just as our ‘guide’ from the ghat cruises past on a motorbike – yes, his job is finished for the day. No doubt he has paid off the ‘sister’ who ‘blessed’ us and perhaps the ‘mourner’ who repeatedly shook our hands – maybe a little too profusely. Their day of ‘work’ is finished for them all.

We ride back to Assi ghat debating what we had witnessed, incredulous that death, especially in this city, could be a way to deceive, to devalue sacred rituals. At a rooftop bar with the soothing sounds of an Indian ensemble in the background, we talk and process the experiences of the day, rationalising it as part of traveling, part of the experience, part of India. I mention that not once in my almost two years of living in South India have I felt compromised in the same way I’ve felt here – I missed ‘home’.

I notice that I’m still wearing my shanti beads. Bought earlier that day on the ghats, they are considered divine, tears of Lord Shiva. Their rudra seeds go through blessings – washed in a mixture of holy cow’s dung and urine, milk and ghee. “For enlightenment and self-empowerment,” the baba had told me as he draped them around my neck. How I wish that for the many millions of women and children in India who are in need of this and the release of poverty.

The next morning, we bid farewell to Varanasi, I know it will be my last visit. I dig out my old diary where many happy memories are recorded of upcoming Agra and Dehli. This ‘India 101‘ journey continues for our family and we anticipate more compelling sites and, without doubt, more thought-provoking experiences. We’ll experience it together…  to be continued


A calm moment in Varanasi, with Shanti beads

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At Sarnath, home of Buddhism