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May 28, 2020 / catherinebwrites


Varanasi is considered the most sacred and holy place in India. If you want to see religious ceremonies and Sadhus this is the place to come to. If you die here, it is said, you will go straight to heaven. And if you are cremated here, on the banks of the Ganges, you too will go directly to paradise.

We walked through the quiet back streets to get a sense of direction and came across this tree shrine beside a pond dedicated to Lord Rama. In the middle of the lake there were statues of Lord Rama his wife Sita and his brother Lakshman.

Another view of the pond and the shrine.

We sat and enjoyed the quiet. Several curious schoolchildren came to chat to us.

“Where you from?”they asked.


“Beautiful country” they said.

I suspect they hadn’t the faintest notion about Ireland, but Indians are unfailingly polite. Their Mammies would have been proud of them. A nearby temple bell started clanging and the air was filled with chanting.

We moved on, zig-zagging through streets and alleys until we stepped into a tornado of noise and people and traffic. We were on the main street leading down to the Ganges.

Indians are good in crowds but we had to watch where we were going. I kept getting distracted by glitter and gleam. The shops were filled with bright saris, vermilion, crimson, cerise, sunfower yellow, spring green, midnight blue, crocus purple, dawn pink, all bordered with silver or gold, spangled with sequins, and embroidered with beads. There were wedding suits for men in gorgeous brocades and jewelled turbans, elegantly draped silk scarves and two-toned shoes. Indian men have no problem with colour and pattern and riotous shine.

Wedding party
Main street

It was thrilling, exciting and exhausting. Eventually we made our way back to our Homestay to have lunch and recover. We’d be facing the chaos again on our way to a boat trip on the Ganges.

Our first sight of the Ganges

We set off in late afternoon with our guide Sunny ( the perfect name for him) and arrived at Dashashwamedh Ghat. The Ghats are sets of steps down to the river. Dashashwamedh Ghat, according to legend, was created by Brahma to welcome Shiva. And Brahma sacrificed ten horses here during Ashvamedhaan – an ancient ceremony, long out of use, performed by a victorious king

Dashashwamedh Gha

The Ganges was wide and smooth with boats scattered over the waters and a sandbar on the opposite shore. It was January and the river was low because mountain snows in the far-away Himalayas had not yet melted. We stepped from the bustle of the ghat into a row boat and floated on to the calm of the river.

The Ghats from the calm of the river

We rowed down river and back viewing the Ghats. There are 88 of them. Many have temples devoted to Hindu deities. Some have palaces built by Maharajahs who wanted be close to the spiritual power of the Ganges.

Everyone has heard of the Burning Ghats where the dead are cremated – I’ll write more about them in the next blog. There are only two Burning Ghats so, while they’re the most famous, they are a small part of the complex. Most of the Ghats are used for puja, religious rituals, for prayers and for bathing. Dhobi Ghat, is for the those who do laundry.

Boat full of sadhus
Us on the Ganges
Sunny – Our lovely guide
Boats on the Ganges

The boat trip was quiet, relaxed, peaceful and calm. The river was dove-grey and silken. As we came to the end of our trip the sky flushed from pale to gauzy pink to gold as the sun sank.

But every so often the calm was disturbed by an outboard engine zooming past and, as the time for the evening Fire Ceremony came closer, there were large motor boats, crammed with tourists, pulling up parallel to the ghats.

Traditional boatmen resent these intrusions for several reasons. They disturb the peace. They pollute the waters. And they’re putting local boatmen out of business. Hopefully, the city authorities will recognise the damage they’re doing and ban them.

As we came ashore for Ganga Arti, the Fire Ceremony, a young girl sold us small containers with flowers and a candle. Offerings for the Goddess Ganga. We lit the candles and sent them floating down the river.

Ganga Arti began. It is a devotional ritual performed every evening, using fire as an offering. The Pandits, Hindu priests, face the river and are accompanied by songs in praise of Mother Ganga. It is colourful and dramatic and, although we did not fully understand the ceremony, we found it very moving. There was a palpable sense of something spiritual happening and a feeling of being blessed. Words do not describe it well. Take a look at this video and you’ll get some sense of it.

Afterwards we climbed the steps to the street where beggars were lined on either side. All were were poor, many were disabled but none of them badgered us. It was one of those occasions when I found myself thinking that when we in Ireland complain about social and medical services we have no idea how the other half lives nor how very fortunate we really are.

We got back to dinner in our Homestay but more of that later.

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  1. Fabienne Lang / Jan 24 2021 3:38 pm

    You’ve perfectly painted the picture of what I remember of Varanasi all those years ago.


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