Varanasi is know as the city of Shiva is on the banks of the sacred Ganges and is the Holiest place in India. Hindu pilgrims come to bathe in the river’s waters, a ritual that washes away all the sins. The city is a lucky place to die, since if you pass away in this city you are ensured a release from reincarnation and it’s an immediate passport to heaven. The Indian people still call this city Benares, but its reverting to its original of Varanasi, its the name of two of the cities smaller rivers Varuna and Assi. We also passed by a man who was sitting a large pot and was told that several different groups of local people feed the homeless people kitchari for free multiple times a day.
We were told the highlight of the town was the sunrise boat ride, which we had scheduled, but since the German Prime Minister was visiting all boats were not permitted out. We were still hopeful that there was a chance of a boat ride, so we arrived at the Ganges Ghat Dadaswamedh at 5:30am. Well... we didn’t catch a boat, but the sunrise over the water was beautiful. The sun was extremely red with large rays, rising over the very blue waters. We stayed here for 30 minutes watching people performing morning Puja (offerings), singing, and funeral processions with priests.
We walked along the Ganges river and passed several smaller temples, then finally the Manikarnka Ghat or “cremation steps.” This is where people bring their deceased loved one to be cremated and then have their ashes sprinkled into the holy river. They light the wooden pyre with an amber from the eternal flame, that has been burning for a thousand years. There is only two cremation sites here one at each end of the river. They had a raised covered area so that they can continue to cremate during the monsoon season. Most family members bring their loved one pre-cremated because it’s a lot easier for transport.
Before coming to Varanasi we had friends who gave us many warnings, saying that the city would be a shock to our senses. Things such as the visual sight of bodies floating in the water after only being half burned (families who couldn’t afford a whole cremation), the stench of the bodies being cremated, the wailing of family members, and lots of music. We did not experience any of this, it was quiet and serene, in the cremation area there was one body, but it was completely covered.
Our tour guide had us go through winding alley local people’s alley way to see the two famous temples of this area: Vishwanath or “The Golden Temple”for Hindus and the Great Mosque for Muslims. We were told that the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb destroyed the original one and placed the Muslim temple in the same spot, however in 1776 a new temple was created. This is a temple dedicated to Shiva with a shivlingan inside and only those with Hindu faith are allowed inside.
The tour guide like all of the other guides on this trip brought us to some shops just to “look” at Bernas silk at his family’s shop. The process goes like this... they offer you a beverage and a seat, insisting you don’t have to buy and just look. Then after they show you countless versions of one specific item they give you the hard sell. This is where you have to be tough and give them the hard no, in which you feel super guilty and you walk out as hurriedly as you can, before they try to whisk you to a nearby friend’s shop. Either the tour guide doubles off as a shop owner or they get a commission off your purchase. That’s why the tour guides that are usually cheaper 200rps for 2 hours bring you to shops and the 700rps ones don’t. I also recommend checking how understandable their English is before choosing a guide.
Then we went to the newer side of Varanasi and quickly drove through the Benares University campus. We were told that this was the top university in India, also men and women were separated. The museum was not opened at this time, so we could not visit.
Then we drove to the Hanuman temple (the monkey god), where they feed the local monkeys here so there were dozens of monkeys outside. The main statue here looked like an orange painted stone figure, didn’t look like the God. There was a large banyan tree in the courtyard where people tied pieces of fabric. No pictures from this place because no cameras or cell phone allowed.
We also went to the Tulsi Manas Temple is modern and built of marble. It’s two story walls are engraved with verses and scenes of the Ram Charity Manas, the Hindi version of the Ramayana. It’s author, the poet Tulsi Das, lived here while writing it. There is a museum on the upper floor in the back that shows scenes from his story.
Then finally we visited the Durga goddess temple, which was built by a Bengali king and is stained with ochre. Durga is the terrible form of Shiva’s wife Parvati. This temple were filled with people reading scriptures, ringing the bells, and praying. The Goddess figure looked like a porcelain doll in an elaborate dress. We were only allowed to take picture from the outside.