What to expect… visiting Varanasi

| December 14, 2016

I travelled to the holy city of Varanasi where I was greeted by the India that I had come to know from so many stories, movies and travelogues; bustling traffic, a cacophony of sounds, vibrant colours, historic buildings and fervent spiritualism.

Ghats of Varanasi

Varanasi, set along the banks of the River Ganges, is the holiest city for devout Hindus. At any one time there are around 2 million people in Varanasi, half of which are Hindu pilgrims who have come to visit the city, watch the Aarti ceremonies along the banks of the river and to bathe in its waters to purge their sins. For many Hindus, a visit to Varanasi is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, undertaken in the hope of experiencing the ultimate enlightenment.

I will be honest, I am not a particularly spiritual person, so I wasn’t entirely sure that I would be moved by this city – I was wrong. We arrived late in the afternoon and made our way straight into the city centre where we were met by a convoy of cycle rickshaws ready and waiting to take us to the Ganges. This (optional) mode of transport offered us an immersive experience of the city’s streets and some first-hand experience of India’s rules of the road (or lack thereof!)

Once we were nearby, our guide took us on a fascinating wander through Varanasi’s hidden alleyways and side streets as we wound our way down to the city’s riverbank. These narrow streets are bursting with life, from food stalls selling India’s favourite evening snacks  called chaats (fried pastry cases filled with a savoury and spicy broth) and tailors offering the finest silk cloth to meandering sacred cows and commuters on motorbikes. They are also pulsating with noise (chattering shop owners, beeping horns, religious music) and bursting with aromas (spices, incense and cow dung). It really is an assault on the senses, but in the most exhilarating way imaginable.

Varanasi street

 As you approach the city’s ghats – over eighty sets of steps that lead down to the water’s edge – the wide expanse of the Ganges offers your senses no reprieve. You are, in fact, greeted by a quite moving and unforgettable scene. It is well known that Hindus have been performing cremation ceremonies along the banks of the Ganges for centuries, but nothing can prepare you for the scene that greets you when you see this ancient ritual for the first time.

As I weaved my way through the crowds towards the ghats, I was amazed to find every nook and cranny in the surrounding area piled high with logs waiting to be burned. Every spare bit of space is taken up with timber in preparation for the many hundreds of cremations that take place in Varanasi every year. It is interesting to note that just one family in Varanasi has controlled the cremation process since its inception many centuries ago. They happen to be the richest family in Varanasi and own the largest house along the riverbank.

As you approach the area where the cremation ceremonies take place, smoke permeates the alleyways and casts a thick haze over everything. For a brief period we looked down upon the bonfires that burned fiercely below, taking in the respectful silence of the crowds. It soon dawned on me just how important this place is to the Hindus who gather here.

Unable to stay long in this area, we took a small motorboat out onto the Ganges to experience Varanasi’s historic ghats at sunset and to observe the cremations from a respectful distance. As evening draws in, thousands of pilgrims, locals and tourists gather along the river’s edge for the Aarti ceremony.

I felt extremely privileged to experience this deeply spiritual ritual. It would be almost impossible for me to describe the intricacies or meanings behind the ceremony but what I can tell you is that the sight of the Hindu priests holding flaming golden horns aloft with bells chiming and chants echoing around the surrounding walls will live long in my memory.

Varanasi is included on the Grand Tour of Northern India group tour. Varanasi can also be included in a tailor-made itinerary; you can either call a Tour Consultant on 020 7873 5000, or fill out a tailor-made enquiry form.

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