We were afloat on a boat on the Ganga, our ride bobbing against others under the evening sky on a river spangled with candle-lit flower bowls. Our first day in the city of Varanasi was ending in direct view of one of Hinduism’s most flamboyant and gorgeous dedications to the waters of life: the Ganga aarti on Dashashwamedh Ghat.
In an awe-inspiring choreographic spectacle, two separate groups of priests whirled humongous flaming lamps, billowed incense, clanged cymbals and blew conches on the city’s main ghat (stairway to the river). It’s one of the most recorded sights of Varanasi, and yet, as I was about to discover, the city delivers its stereotypes but with an unforgettable presence that transcends all the stories you have heard. I hadn’t anticipated the gentle power of the Ganga – at once a goddess and a river – to mute out the clangour of the thronging banks; serenely rippling in the eye of chaos.
I almost missed this moment. In the tradition of all who head to Kashi – the Luminous, the City of Light – I nearly didn’t make the trip. Ten hours before, I found out at the airport that I didn’t have a seat as the airline had overbooked the flight. After running between counters for help I was about to give up, when I overheard another Varanasi-bound passenger complaining, and a bunch of us gravitated and lobbied until we were put onboard. I was being shaken out of my comfort zone. It fit in with one of the many stories that do the rounds of Varanasi, that visitors will be thwarted and challenged until finally rewarded for outlasting their trials by Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and the supreme consciousness in Shaivism; the fearsome yet benevolent patron deity of the city.
I was in Varanasi – bumping through narrow lanes in suicidal cycle rickshaws, passing hole-in-the-wall government-approved shops selling bhang (a form of cannabis associated with Shiva), shuttling between its daily festivities and unexpected oases of calm – to find potentially illuminating experiences for travellers. The United Nations had named 2015 as the Year of Light – more to do with science than spirituality – but still a good trigger to explore India’s own city of light that has been a beacon for several religions.
The city bristles with temples and symbolism – it is not unusual to wake up at an unearthly hour to the sound of chanting and bells ringing. Every resident of Kashi is said to be a form of Shiva, and every pebble in the City of Light is said to be a lingam, the phallic icon of Shiva. Kashi is said to rest on Shiva’s trident, with the temples of Omkareshwar, Vishveshwar (Vishwanath) and Kedareshwar marking its prongs. Only in Varanasi (the city lying between River Varana and the Asi stream), does the River Ganga run from south to north – in Shiva’s direction – its bend resembling the crescent moon on the god’s forehead. Kashi is said to be laid out in concentric circles that are an archetype of the cosmos; walking its five spiral pilgrimage routes are said to reveal the cosmic order and rhythm, and to align the human with the divine. In fact, pilgrims are believed to gain the merits of all the Hindu pilgrimages across India just by visiting their representational shrines in the city.
Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world – one of its names is Avimukta (never forsaken) – but in typical paradox, its buildings are only a few centuries old because of the many kings who plundered the city and razed its shrines, only to inspire others to reconstruct them with as much accuracy as possible. “Kashi”, its oldest moniker, means “concentration of cosmic light”, from the legend that when the Hindu god of creation, Brahma, and the preserver god Vishnu were arguing about who was supreme, Shiva appeared in a pillar of light that pierced through the entire cosmos. Kashi is said to be the light that Brahma and Vishnu saw, and the Kashi Vishwanath temple represents one of the 12 jyotira (light-manifested) lingas that form a major pilgrimage route in India. The original site of the temple is debated given that it has shifted and been rebuilt four times, twice replaced by a mosque.
Gate number 4, said to be the best way to access the Kashi Vishwanath temple complex, is on the route that mourners carry their dead to Manikarnika Ghat, the bigger of Varanasi’s two cremation grounds – though you’d never guess it by the aromatic food stalls and traditional handicraft shops lining the way. One of the city’s names is “Mahasmashana” or “the great cremation ground”, but the city of death is not a city of darkness because those who die here are said to escape the curse of Yama, the Hindu god of death, as Shiva whispers the mantra of liberation to the passing soul. The cremation grounds with their rising embers and breezes carrying ash and the chants of the mourners are a sobering and profound experience; we observed the glowing pyres of Manikarnika from a ledge above, and took a boat down the smaller Harishchandra Ghat, which also has an electric crematorium.
The sacred geography of Varanasi is the particular expertise of Rana P.B. Singh, professor at Banaras Hindu University and co-author of the highly recommended and excellently researched Benaras: A Spiritual And Cultural Guide. His three most illuminating experiences are not the usual. Lolarka Kund, a pre-Aryan fertility temple near Assi Ghat, is one of the two oldest sites mentioned in the Mahabharata. Lolarka means “trembling sun”; the temple is said to mark the spot where the sun god Surya trembled with delight at the sight of Kashi. Sent to Varanasi as an envoy of Shiva, the enchanted Surya found it impossible to return, and instead, split himself into 12 and set up residence at the 12 shrines that now form the path of the Aditya Yatra.
When we visited Lolarka Kund, a few discarded clothes lay on the steps – it is customary for devotees to return when their boon is granted, change into new clothes and leave the old behind. Pappu, a guide with Varanasi Walks, told us that he remembered a time a few decades ago when people lined up for a few kilometres to dip in the pool. People may visit from far away to conceive a son, Pappu said, but it is a long-standing local joke that the most warrior-like woman of India’s freedom fighters, Jhansi ki Rani, is a daughter of the same soil.
Singh also recommended the Kapileshwar temple at Kapiladhara, “the oldest site mentioned in the Mahabharata”, and the Kardameshwar temple at Kandwa that has “the only temple complex which was saved from the [Mughal] destruction”; one of the few in north India “to have maintained its live tradition of rituals”.
But Kashi is not just sacred to Hindus. It is the birthplace of three of the 24 Jain tirthankaras (teachers) – Chandraprabhu, Parshvanatha and Suparshvanatha. Mahavir, the 24th tirthankara and Buddha’s contemporary, taught here. Medieval poet-saint Kabir of the Bhakti and Sufi movements, was brought up in Varanasi by a poor Muslim weaver family, and accepted as a disciple by Ramanand on the steps of Panchganga Ghat. Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, was influenced by the city’s saints Kabit and Raidas, and is said to have visited and taught in the city.
One of the most peaceful spots I visited was in neighbouring Sarnath, at Dhamekh Stupa in Deer Park, where the Buddha first preached in 528 B.C., in the manner of the 1,000 Buddhas before him. Nearby is the Mahabodhi Society’s Mulagandha Kuti Vihara temple, with luminous frescoes painted by Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu, and in whose vicinity is a bodhi tree, a descendant of the tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya.
I returned with a pack full of memories from all the roads to the divine that wind through the holy city. A monk striding around the Buddhist temple complex, turning prayer wheels on Republic Day with an Indian flag in his hand. An ash-smeared Aghori sadhu whose penetrating gaze I caught as he stood immobile, anchored by a stick in a hurtling sea of people. The Ganga viewed from the house of Hindu saint Tulsidas, author of the seminal retelling of the Ramayana in Hindi and the initiator of Varanasi’s legendary Ramlila theatrical performances. The large outdoor statue in Sarnath of Mahavir, left open to the elements just like the sky-clad monks of the Digambar Jain sect; simple, unadorned and yet stilling. My last boat ride that morning, we had set out at pre-dawn, the time associated with Brahma and meditation, and sailed down as the sun set fire to the earth, until we pulled in to the strains of a live classical music concert on Assi Ghat. I had been to a city drunk on the divine and yet full of all the chaos and excesses of humanity. It was an intoxicating blend; easy enough to see why the city has never been abandoned by gods in mythology or people in recorded history.
Take a DIY City of Light walk and read our guide to Varanasi here.
is Assistant Web Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.
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