This is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, and one of the holiest in Hinduism. It is famed for its ‘ghats’, or giant steps leading down to the river, where pilgrims come to cleanse their souls of sin in the waters of the River Ganges or to cremate their loved ones. It is also known as Benares and Kashi. Hindus believe that Varanasi is an auspicious place to die – dying and being cremated here offers moksha, liberation from the endless cycle of rebirth. Varanasi’s old city stretches back from the Ganges to a pedestrianised maze of alleys, or ‘galis’. I think we walked down most of them! They are small, dusty, noisy alleys with shops selling silk, crafts, food, tucked-away shrines, candlelit deities in alcoves, and lots of sacred cows, goats, dogs & monkeys wandering around. Sometimes the alleys are so narrow the cows cause queues to get past!
The embankment of the Ganges is lined with almost 100 ghats & even a few TV reporters.
We took to the water twice with a sunset boat ride to witness cremations taking place at Manikarnika Ghat;
and a dawn boat ride on the Ganges to view the ghats, watch the morning bathing rituals, and feed the birds. But we didn’t see any Ganges dolphins.
We went to the Benares University & the New Vishwanath temple; the temple of Mother India – which has a huge marble relief map of India; The Durga Temple (known as the Monkey Temple) dedicated to goddess Durga who protects the city – no more goat sacrifices these days, but coconut sacrifices instead; the home of Kali, a powerful mother goddess who drinks the blood of sinners; and the Kashi Vishwanath Temple (Golden Temple) which is dedicated to Shiva – well… we saw the roof tops – one has 800 kg of gold on it – while standing on tip toe through a window.