Varanasi: The city of light

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Cynthia Pickard travels to Varnasi, India and tells of her experiences in ‘The City of Light’.

On previous visits to India I have always shied away from the idea of dealing with the ‘full on’ nature of Varanasi, but this time I felt strong enough.

Varanasi is supposed to be one of the oldest living cities in the world, an important spiritual and religious centre since the sixth century BC, every Hindu feels they should come here at least once in their life and immerse themselves in the Ganges, and if they can also be cremated here, so much the better, they will receive enlightenment. There is definitely a magical feeling about the river; first viewed further north, looking so wide and clean and freely flowing, a wonderful turquoise colour with the blue sky reflected in it too, it is easy to understand why it is so admired and worshipped. Compared with other dried up river beds, and contrasting with the surrounding deprivation and dust, the Ganges radiates the strong feeling of a life force. People are eager to immerse themselves in the river, to scoop up the water in their hands to drink it and believe that it’s impossible to catch any illness from it. Despite the fact it looks so clean, I personally wouldn’t. During the monsoon the river rises by 40 feet and covers the steps of the 70 odd ghats.

The town, built on the left bank of the river is a mass of temples and shrines to the many deities, ashrams and lodgings for the thousands of pilgrims who arrive daily.  Despite the crazy traffic jams, for a city of four million inhabitants it’s very traditional and hasn’t progressed into the 21st century as much as elsewhere in India.

In the evening there is a huge gathering at the main Dashashwamedh ghat for the ceremony of Arti, prayers chanted by the priests to send the river to sleep.

In the early morning light as the faithful come down for sacred bathing and purification in the river, the sun rises as a pale pink disc through the mist and the buildings take on a warm glow.  Orange clad ‘sadhus’ (holy men) line the paths to the ghats holding out their tin plates for contributions.  

A boat rows us along the river to view the burning ghats where smoke rises day and night and huge piles of wood lie ready for the next immolation. There are four kinds of people whose bodies don’t get burnt; sadhus, children under five years old, people who have died of diseases like cholera and those who have died of snake bites, the last are laid on top of rafts in case they might only be in a coma and will wake up again, by which time they could be a long way down river.

Walking back through the narrow alleyways crowded with stalls selling flowers and sweet offerings to pilgrims, I notice a shopkeeper unwrapping a chocolate bar and feeding it to a cow lingering nearby, another step to enlightenment.
Cynthia Pickard travelled with Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel Ltd. www.wildfrontierstravel.com / 020 7736 3968

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