If there was any part of my trip that truly felt like I was immersed in a world that was completely different than anything that I’ve ever experienced in my life, it’s Varanasi (also known as Benares, Banaras or Kashi, a city located on the left bank of the Ganges. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, it is also one of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism.
Varanasi has miles of ghats, or steps, for religious bathing as well as hundreds of temples, shrines and palaces rising from the water’s edge.
Words cannot describe the energy of this old city. You have to see it for yourself. Walking through the markets, you can feel its ancient beauty pulsing. The streets are littered with people, rickshaws, automobiles and cows, which roam freely and are fed by the locals.
The hometown of world-renowned sitar player, Ravi Shankar, the artistic energy of Varanasi drew in the likes of Beatle George Harrison. I’m guessing this is where he found inspiration to put Sankrit mantras in his song lyrics. In the Beatles song, Across the Universe, the mantra "Jai guru deva om" (Sanskrit: जय गुरुदेव ॐ) became the link to the chorus. This phrase is a sentence fragment whose words mean "glory to the shining remover of darkness".
The energy here is pulsing, artistic, and nurturing. I feel like I can live here for a while, and people do, for all sorts of reasons – to study music, to attend Banaras Hindu University, the largest university in all of Asia, or to deepen their yoga and meditation practice at an ashram.
City streets are narrow, winding, and impassable for any cars. Varanasi receives more than a million devout Hindu pilgrims a year who walk down a road known as Panchakosi to visit the sacred city once in a lifetime. The city also is host to so many religious festivals.
A few of which include the Ganga festival in November or December, dedicated to the goddess of the Ganges River, considered sacred by all Hindus. Thousands of lamps are placed on the ghats and set afloat on the river.
Also, a five-day festival of the classical Indian vocal style, dhrupad in March attracts renowned artists from all over India to the city’s Tulsi Ghat along the river.
Hand Woven Silks and Brocades
In addition to being a center of arts, crafts, music and dance, Varanasi is also famous for its production of beautiful handwoven silks and brocades with gold and silver threadwork. I visited a family cooperative where woven wall hangings and saris were handmade in people’s homes. I really loved watching the artisans make the beautiful hand loomed saris.
Loomers weave patterns from memory and pass their craft down generation to generation. I was sad to hear that this was a dying art as fewer young people are dedicated to learning the craft.
All these beautiful designs were woven from memory!
Buy Your Sari in Baranasi
I wanted to buy a sari here to support the work of the hand-weaving artisans. I was dizzy trying to choose between all the beautiful cloths. I couldn’t decide between two colors. Get them both, they said!
I ended up settling on the pink one. Please keep in mind that the proper way to wear a sari is usually with a sari blouse underneath. I unfortunately did not have one nor did they have any for me to try.
The Scents of An Ashram
Also with our fabulous guide we visited Om Yogashram, an ashram that makes it’s own oils and sells them to support itself. After looking at so many oils, I smelled about six before I literally couldn't smell anymore. I settled on a scent made of sandalwood and saffron. To be put on your third eye, he instructed, to help with meditation.
Ganga Aarti and the Cremation Ghat
That evening, we attended the Ganga Aarti ceremony by the river, a ceremony that happens every night. We hopped on a rowboat and positioned ourselves behind loads of boats in front of the river’s ghats. We were surrounded by so many other people in a concert like setting and were enveloped in the sounds of the chanting. The hairs on my arm stood up straight. I felt like I had gone back in time and was witnessing the rituals of an ancient civilization. What an honor I felt to be a part of this.
After the Ganga Aarti, we rowed over to the Cremation Ghat where we saw the cremations by the river. We were told that a devout Hindu would be so lucky if they could be cremated there.
A Palace By The River
Brijrama is a beautiful boutique hotel by the river that was converted from an old summer palace. One of the oldest buildings on the Varanasi ghat, this 18th century Royal House of Nagpur, with touches of Maratha style of architecture was converted into Brijrama Palace, one of the best luxury heritage small boutique hotels in Varanasi with 32 rooms and suites.
Day 2 - The Morning Ceremonies
At dawn, we witnessed the daily morning Aarti ceremonies.
What a wonderful way to experience the sunrise.
It was incredible to see the number of people doing yoga by the river, bathing in the river, the Mother Ganges as it was called.
We were told that at least once in their lives, a devout Hindu should make their way to the water of the Ganges.
I feel like even if you’re not Hindu, you’ll have a world of appreciation for this wonderful whimsical and colorful city that is Varanasi.
It’s truly an amazing way to experience India!
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