Varanasi, located on the banks of the Ganges, is a major religious hub in India and the holiest of the seven sacred sites for Hinduist, including Haridwar, Dwarka, Kanchipuram, Ujjain, Varanasi, Ayodhya and Mathura. This overwhelming city is full of chaos, color and spirituality, being a place that Hindus aim to visit once in a lifetime to participate in many spiritual rituals and to cleanse their sins by bathing in its purifying water.
Varanasi is probably the oldest inhabited city in India and one of the oldest cities in the world. It is believed that Buddha founded Buddhism in nearby Sarnath, where he gave his very first sermon back in 528 BCE. Varanasi was the location to establish the worship of Shiva back in the 8th century and continued an important place for Hindu devotion even during the Muslim rule from the 12th until the 18th century.
We headed to the holy city right after visiting Agra, home of the touristy Taj Mahal, and were looking forward to dig in its spiritual atmosphere. It takes about 12 hours to reach Varanasi from Etawah Junction, located about 1-hour ride from Agra. Despite de comfort of the sleeping train, the journey was exhausting as the train suffered a severe 7-hour delay and we had to spend the night at the “VIP waiting room” of the station, that was full of rats.
When we finally reached the holy city, twenty hours later, we were welcome with monsoon showers that had flooded the streets and expanded the river, covering the sacred Ghats and riverside temples. The heavy currents forced the tour operators to cancel the boat trips, a unique experience when visiting Varanasi, specially at sunrise. Perks of travelling during the raining season. So, what was left to do in Varanasi?
The Aarti ceremony
Aarti is a Hindu fire ceremony to honor the holy river and the Gods. It takes place every night rain or shine at 7 pm and devotees attend the ritual for purification and blessings. They also purchase votive candles to release them on the holy river as they make a wish. We couldn’t experience the magical moment of seeing hundreds of candles floating on the Ganges due to the heavy rain and strong current.
Witnessing the rituals: cremations
Hindu funeral practices are transparent and raw, just the opposite to our western ceremonies, where the dead are usually hidden, and the bodies are rarely seen again. The ghats of Varanasi are full of funeral pyres, as the Hindu believes that if a deceased funeral is laid at the banks of the Ganges river, their soul will reach Nirvana, escaping the cycle of rebirth. As the ghats were flooded when we visited the city, the cremation rituals were taking place on streets and square nearby the river.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple
This temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, the “destroyer of evil and the transformer”, and it is considered one of the most important places of worship in Hindu religion. A visit to the temple and a bath in the river Ganges is one of many methods believed to lead one on a path to Moksha, also known as Nirvana. We visited it in the morning and loved watching the crowds doing the second ritual of the day, around 11am. We bought flowers and milk for the deity from the shops near the temple. There is no entrance fee to enter the temple but is mandatory to remove your shoes and leave the electronic devices in a locker as pictures are not allowed inside.
And after couple of days getting to know the Hindu rituals, we visited the buddhist site of Sarnath, considered the founded place of Buddhism as it was the place were Gautama gave his very first sermon. The site is located 10km away from Varanasi and its easily reachable by tuk tuk. Once you get there, there is no entrance fee.
Trying the bhang lassi
Bhang is an edible preparation of cannabis used in food and drinks that has been consumed in Asia for over three thousand years. It is an ancient part of the traditions and customs of India and it is attributed medicinal properties, being part of many Ayurvedic medicinal preparations. Bhang is traditionally distributed during the spring festival of Holi to honor Shiva, meditate better, get closer to God and wash away their sins. It can be easily find at any restaurant or coffee shop in Varanasi, as its consumption is legal in Uttar Pradesh. I had a bhang lassi made with yogurt, nuts, spices and rose water at a rooftop coffee shop and found it tasty and smooth, experiencing the cannabis effects about an hour after drinking it. It definitely made me relax, feel the colors of Varanasi brighter and my legs feel like jelly.
Overall, I was amazed and disappointed about Varanasi at equal parts. The city is full of history and spirituality, but it was not a good idea travelling there in August, during the monsoon season, as we couldn´t experience walking along the ghats, visit the riverside temples or do the boat tour.