Considered one of the oldest towns on earth (exactly the oldest that has been continuously inhabited), it is easy to see it as an intermediate point between earthly life and after life. It is a sacred place for all Hindus, but also an extremely special place for all visitors.
The Hindu religion is full of different pilgrimage routes and, without a doubt Varanasi is one of the most relevant points in the entire country. It has also been a cultural center of northern India for several thousand years, and is closely related to the Ganges river. Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation, that’s why thousands of people come here to die.
The city is known throughout the world for its numerous ghats and embankments made of flagstone steps along the riverbank where pilgrims perform rituals. The Dashashwamedh Ghat, the Panchganga Ghat, the Manikarnika Ghat and the Harishchandra Ghat stand out, being the last two where the Hindus cremate their dead and the records of Hindu genealogy in Varanasi.
Varanasi is also famous for its silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculptures. Being a craft center of the highest level and where you can find all kinds of products made with great work and high quality.
As I mentioned earlier, the city also has a close connection with other religions besides Hinduism. Buddha is believed to have founded Buddhism here around 528 BC. C. when he delivered his first sermon, «The Beginning of the Wheel of Dharma», in nearby Sarnath.
Offerings can be found throughout the city and often end up floating in the river.
Sadhu is the one who, among other characteristics, processes the Hindu religion, follows the path of austerity, renounces all ties that unite him with the earthly or material, tries to ignore human pleasures and pains. They leave any materialism and live in caves, forests, and temples throughout India and Nepal.
Sadhus follow the mythical life of Shiva, and that is why they have the trident as a symbol. Three strips of ash are usually painted on his forehead to represent Shiva’s quest to destroy the three impurities (egotism, desire, and maya or illusion).
The transit of people through the ghats and the banks of the river is extremely interesting to observe the Hindu culture in all its splendor. Personally, I am passionate about photography and it was a perfect place to interact with pilgrims and all kinds of people and take pictures of some of them.
The Aarti ceremony is a Hindu religious ritual of worship, where the torches are offered to God Ganga. It is celebrated daily in the ghat of Dasaswamedh. The four elements intervene in the act: the earth, symbolized by the flowers, the river water, the fire, is presented through the candles and the oil lamps and the air traveled by the incense that invades the scene of smoke and the smell.
The Ganges or the Ganges River – in the Sanskrit language and in most Indian languages, gáāgā, which means ‘go, go’. If death occurs elsewhere, salvation can be achieved by dipping the ashes in the Ganges. If the ashes are submerged in another body of water, a relative can still obtain the deceased’s salvation by traveling to the Ganges, if possible during the «lunar fortnight of the ancestors» in the Ashwin month of the Hindu calendar (September or October), and the performance of the Shraddha rites.
Many children guided by older religious teachers pray very early in the morning and perform interesting and noisy laughter therapy.
On the other hand, different people make a living around the thousands of pilgrims who visit the holy city. Many of them advise visitors on various topics.
«Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together«
– Mark Twain
In Varanasi, Aghori sadhus predominate, who usually participate in post-mortem rituals. These sadhus use the ashes of the funeral pyres to permeate their bodies, and also use the bones of human corpses to make jewelry, even use the skull of the deceased to make bowls.
It is very common to find women who shave their heads, as they explained to me when these women accompany some of their relatives to be burned in Varanasi, they offer their hair as an offering or sacrifice.
In the image you can see one of the two crematoriums on the banks of the river. Specifically, this is the largest and the feeling of visiting the place is extremely strange and can be complicated no be allowed in it.
This is the same crematorium as in the previous image and is located at the end of the busiest areas on the banks and a little out of the way. The first time I approached, some people came to speak to tell me telling me not take photos (these ones were taken from afar not to disturb them) and quite aggressively invited me to leave. After a couple of days I came back with some friends and this time they let us through without too much trouble. However they insisted on asking us why we were interested in approaching the cremation pyres. The atmosphere was very intense and the feeling of understanding that there were people being burned in the fire culturally fascinating.
A very common way of seeing the city is usually to hire a boatman for around an hour. This way you can see all the ghats from the Ganges, a very interesting experience that is shared with other visitors and pilgrim boats. It is best to do at dawn.
In conclusion, visiting the city of Varanasi is an incredible experience and for me it has undoubtedly become one of the most culturally fascinating places I have ever visited. Simply walking along the banks of the Ganges river with the first lights of the day is a journey through ancient rites and traditions that will feed your travelling dreams.