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My visit to Varanasi was one of the most significant experiences of my life. When I was making my way through ancient, narrow streets, or when I walked through ghats and observed the morning crowds bathing in the holy Ganga River, I felt like I was in a dream.



The City of Varanasi

The City of Varanasi is a holy place for the Hindus, Buddhists and Jainists and it is one of the oldest settlements in the world. According to the legend, it was founded by the Indian God Siva about 5000 years ago.

Varanasi is situated on the right banks of the Ganga River. The right river bank is saturated with ghats and palaces of Indian maharajas. The old town is interlaced by a web of narrow tortuous streets with small shops, that have immemorial houses, or Hindu temples sticking out of them. If you count them, there are more than 20 thousand temples in Varanasi.

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The city is crowded with several million people, but the historical quarters are closed to city’s regular traffic, therefore you don’t have to be afraid of being ran over by auto rickshaw. However, you need to beware of cows, since they are roaming the narrow streets and peep into the little shops as freely and peacefully as people, and they leave behind on the ground whatever they’ve recently eaten. I constantly had to watch where I step. The ground was cowered by so much cow kolache that stepping on the dried ones was the way to go.



Ancient Ghats

A ghat can be translated as a step or a stair. The whole right bank of Ganga River in Varanasi is covered by these ghats (there are more then 80). If it’s not the rainy season and there is no flooding, you can walk the whole bank from Assi Ghat to Marnikarnika Ghat. On my walk through the ghats I passed by half naked beggars, people without fingers sick with leprosy, holy men with white-painted faces dressed only in orange robes, women in colorful saris. In one spot, there were about 20 children sitting there, with their faces painted, dressed in yellow-orange uniforms. One of the children was holding a trident.

The ghats serve to people as an entrance to the waters of the holy Ganga River, where they perform ritual baths, that should purify their body and soul. There are crowds of people entering the water every morning. The men wear only white loincloth and the women wear colorful saris. The whole scene is full of unbelievable colors. It is fascinating to watch people bathing and performing ritual cleaning, brushing their teeth with a piece of stick and shaving their head while letting the water carry their hair away. The orange holy-men paint their faces white again and the women send baskets of flowers down the Ganga river. 

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Two of the ghats are cremation ghats – one of them is Harishkandra Ghat and the other is Manikarnika Ghat. The Hindu believe that if a human is cremated here, he escapes the endless circle of re-incarnation and will reach heaven, therefore believers from all over the country bring the bodies of their dead right here. It's not a cheap affair for Indians to bury their dead in Varanasi. Only the cremation costs about 20-25 thousand rupees (that means, half year paycheck). The price of the cremation depends on the type of wood which is used. The most expensive wood is sandal-wood, so it’s often used only in form of wooden chips. The bonfire on the main Manikarnika Ghat burns day and night and there are about 200-400 bodies burned daily. The fire burns on several different levels, depending on the cast of the deceased person.

When I made it to the Harishchandra Cremation Ghat, a family was just burying their old grandmother. The family members, dressed in white were circling around the bonfire, where the deceased lied. They were receding rituals and prayers. They repeatedly put fire in the dead woman's mouth and then quenched it immediately. Finally they piled another layer of wood on top of the body and the oldest son lid the bonfire. The grandmother started burning and I watched as her head burned and the rest of her body disappeared in the fire. After about twenty minutes the whole body was on fire, but the feet, because they were poking out of the bonfire. After three hours in a fire, the whole human bonfire burns all to dust and the remaining ashes are thrown into the river.

Dasahwamedh Ghat is right in the middle of all the other ghats and it is the most colorful one. There is a Hindu ceremony performed every evening. This magical show usually attracts about a thousand spectators, watching from the stairs of the ghat or from boats parked on the river. The performers, accompanied by Indian melodies, engage in various fire rituals and the audience claps in amazement.

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The Sacred Ganga River

You can also observe, what's going on, on the banks of Varanasi, right from the Ganga River. The view of the palaces of Maharajas and the adjacent ghats gain a whole new, fantastic look, if you watch from the river. During one blueish morning I was watching from a small boat people, standing in the river and praying, while others were doing their morning personal hygiene, or bathing in the river. Nearby other Indians were washing clothes in the river, they put soap on the clothes and then they beat them against the rocks. When the washing was done, they spread the clothes on the steps of the ghats and let them dry on the sun, making the ghats look even more colorful.

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You can float on Ganga River even at dusk and during the voyage you will see the palaces of Maharajas from Jaipur, Kalkata, Udajpur and others, as they get covered by dark. You can get all the way to the Manikarnika Cremation Ghat. When we got there, there were 6 bodies just being cremated and whole frame looked like a scene from a movie. Then we went back where we started, at the central Dasahshwamedh Ghat and we were able to watch the whole Hindu ceremony again, this time from the river.

And a little episode on the end: When my guide – and old daddy god thirsty, he just bent over the side of the boat, scooped some water from the Ganga River in his hand and drank it just like that. When I saw all the stuff floating in the river, I couldn't help but to ask if it isn't going to harm him? He calmly responded, that he will be fine, I wouldn't be, so I did not take a drink from the river and I can remember my trip to Varanasi as one of my most interesting travel experiences.



More about my travels to India, you can read in the travelogue



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