A PROMISED PARADISE IN INDIA: VARANASI

A Babaji of Varanasi had once said, “A land that the Ganges does not pass through is as a sunless sky, a lightless home or a guru with no disciple,” with a gaze from the depths of his green eyes. Wise Sadhus that are respected highly by the society in India are believed to be ‘the representatives of Gods on earth.’ A person who wants to continue his life as a Sadhu lives for only one goal: understanding the truth behind what is visible. The person, who chooses this path, follows his guru whom he now regards as his father, mother, and teacher. Guru is going to help him go beyond the illusions that envelopes this world by chasing the darkness away. Babaji spends his days meditating by the Ganges to increase his spiritual powers and reach the mystic knowledge in the humming of Varanasi just as every other Sadhu does.

A river sent from heaven
In the eyes of Hindus that believe in reincarnation, every person is a wanderer or a pilgrim. Our whole life is actually a journey in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. Their wish is to end this journey in the most holy city Varanasi that is located on the way to the Ganges, which is also referred as Ganga by Hindus. The most unspoiled rituals of Hindu philosophy are experienced in Varanasi. The disciples still listen to their gurus as it has been for thousands of year.

When Varanasi is mentioned the first thing comes to mind is death. Seeing the acceptance of death in such a plain and natural way by this society adds more meaning to the visit of this city. Dying at the right place is as important as living an honest life for Hindus. This city and the river promise more than a good life. It promises a good death and keeps it. Hindu philosophy is based on the unified existence of contrasts. They believe that there is no absolute evil or goodness in life. The Ganges is an important piece of this philosophy. Aside from its connection with death, the life is felt the most by the banks of the Ganges. While laundry, and bodies are washed and teeth are brushed, also the spirits are cleansed. Some mothers wish to wash their newborn babies for the first time in these holy waters.

Greeting the sun
The numerous temples by the Ganges and in Varanasi attract thousands of Hindus every day. This daily ritual gains different meanings according to the seasons. The people pray for food, when winter is close or seven days before the full moon. Men imply their unworthiness against Gods by shaving their hair. The whole preparation is to do the offerings for the Ganges and Gods that rise in the morning in a perfect way. Each morning, thousands of Hindus who live here or come here for pilgrimage reach to the holy waters through the steps of the temples, which are lined by the banks of the Ganges. The steps are named as ‘ghat.’ The sun is the life giver and its first lights are valuable. Many women, men, and children greet the rising sun shoulder by shoulder in their colorful local clothing.

Salvation in Varanasi
The greatest companion of the journey to death is the waters of the Ganges. The dead body is immersed in the waters of the Ganges for one last time. Maybe, the life is lived in this last moment for the many. Being scary anywhere else in the world, in here the death is a guest, to which is looked forward. It is ordinary, natural, and undeniable… Hopes are to die in this place, not to live. No one cries for the dead, on the contrary they are fare welled by songs. Everyone recites the words, “Dying is a salvation in Varanasi.”

In the streets of this city, which old and ill people come to give their last breaths, the life is actually very lively not to bring the death to minds. Ghats, which are decorated with palaces and temples, are the places where you can feel the spiritual atmosphere the best in Varanasi. The bathing steps in the west of the Ganges reach until the river. Many of them are to bathe but some of them are used to cremate bodies. Sixty thousand people are immersed in the waters at the ghats that stretch along the Ganges for seven kilometers.

The anatomy of the city along the ghats
Eighty ghats are located by the river. The most important ghats are the ones that are between the Assi Ghat and the Raj Ghat. Following the route from Dasaswamedh Ghat to south the Harishchandra Ghat by boat is a nice way to have a general idea about Varanasi. It is possible to visit all of the ghats on foot although the water level rises during and right after the monsoon rains. You can catch the most colorful and lively scenes of India during a walk taken along the ghats. People do not come here only to bathe in the holy waters. You might often see people doing yoga, playing cricket, getting massages, selling flowers, washing their buffalos, giving money to the beggars to fix their karma, having a walk, or women washing their laundry.

Dawn by the Ganges
The best time to visit the ghats is the dawn. Pilgrims come here in the mornings to greet (puja) the first rays of the sun. The Assi Ghat is especially important, because Assi River meets with the Ganges in here. This is where the pilgrims bathe before praying at the great lingam (the stone that symbolizes Shiva in Hindu temples) under the pipal tree. You can find cafes, hotels, and shops in here. There are also boats carrying passengers from here to the Dasaswamedh Ghat.

Cremating area
Varanasi is as a large cremating area. Before being cremated, the funerals are carried on stretchers around the back streets and taken to the holy Ganges for a last bathe. The body is decorated with flowers. Hindus believe that if their borrowed body is not cremated, the spirit cannot leave the earth. Smoke rises and ashes are thrown over the Ganges in this city for twenty-four hours a day.

The most significant cremating location is the Manikarnika Ghat. It is a fortunate ending for a Hindu to be cremated in here. The bodies are prepared by ‘doms’ that are members of the untouchables caste of the society. The pyres are made ready at the ghats. The woods are weighed using giant scales to determine the cost. Each type of wood costs differently. Sandalwood is the most expensive one. It is an important job to calculate the wood enough to cremate a body. A Brahman priest directs the tourists where they can watch the ceremony and might ask for a donation as a contribution for the wood cost.

Varanasi might look as if it is taking its visitors for a ride through a maze of death, but it actually emphasizes another concept with its chaos, buzzing, color, and liveliness: life.

FESTIVAL
A festival takes place at the Assi Ghat dedicated to Krishna during Kartika (October-November) months.

DID YOU KNOW THIS?
The Ganges flows for two thousand and five hundred kilometers in India.

ACTIVITY
If you would like to enter into the spirit of Varanasi you need to walk along the ghats and take a look at them from a boat also.

DO NOT MISS
Participate to the ‘ganga aarti’ ceremony at the most colorful ghat of Varanasi, Dasaswamedh, during the sunset accompanied by puja, fire, and dancing.