Holy City of Varanasi

Tuesday, August 22, 2017
Varanasi. The holiest city for Hindus, as the Ganges River runs straight through. This riverside city located in northern India toward the Nepalese border is most definitely one to add to your bucket list. The old part of town in by far the part with the thickest culture. Narrow streets twists and turns, but all leads to the Ganges River at some point. The name Varanasi comes from two Ganges tributaries forming the city borders. Varuna flowing in the northern Varanasi and Assi, a small stream in southern part of the city. Watch out for cows, stray dogs, motorbikes and local kids as you navigate these ancient paths.

Bathing ritual at Tripura Bhairavi Ghat in Varanasi, India
One of the most common rituals along the riverside is dipping your body into the water. Bathing in the holy waters often takes place in the early morning hours. A sunrise boat ride will give an excellent view towards many of the ghats (staircases). Don't pay more than 100-200 INR per person for the fare.

Sunrise over Ganges River in Varanasi, India
During the day hours visit the main cremation ghat also known as "the burning ghat". The rightful name is Manikarnika Ghat. They say, that there's not a moment here, where a body is not burning. The ritual starts off by caring the body of the deceased to the Ganges and lowering him or her into the river - cleansing and purifying their spirit. If the deceased lived to be 90 years or older, the carriers cheer and chant. Then there's a registration process before a fire is made for the body. The burning takes from 2.5 hours to 3 hours. The male family members wait by the riverside, while the burning is taking place. Female family members are not allowed, as the hindus think they get too emotional. The soul needs quietness as it leaves the body - rising to Nirvana. When the cremation is done, the oldest son brings the chest bone (for males) or the hip bone (for female) and throw them into the river. He then fills a clay pot with water from the river and breaks it - setting the soul free. Afterwards he goes to the barber at the cremation site and gets his head shaved. Lastly the family bathes in the river at another ghat. Deceased pregnant women, children under five and wisemen are not cremated as they are seen as already pure and cleansed. Their bodies are dumped in the river without any cremation rituals.

The burning gaht of Varanasi; Manikarnika Gaht, India
Besides the burning ghat, make sure you spend an evening (around 7 pm) at the main ghat also known as Dashashwamedh Ghat. Here celebrations and offerings are given to the Gods. Many people come here to watch and participate in the event. You'll see boats all over the river with people watching the ceremony.

The main gaht of Varanasi; Dashashwamedh Gaht, India
The last must do stop in Varanasi is the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple or simply the Golden Temple. The temple is build to honor the Hindu God named Lord Shiva. Hordes of Hindus visit every day and spent only minutes there as the pressure from the queue pushes people through. You are allowed to visit as a non-Hindu (unless you're Muslim). There are very strict rules however. No phone or electronics, no leather items. Basically just bring yourself (wearing long pants), your passport, and a few rupees for buying a flower. Nothing else. As you are pushed through the temple within minutes you'll have only seconds to drop your flower into a pit as an offering for Lord Shiva.

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