Varanasi: The holiest of holy cities
Varanasi is a place that I have been wanting to visit ever since my first trip to India, many years ago. Always described as ‘intense’ by those who have visited it, I have always been intrigued as to what this holiest of holy cities was really like in the flesh. The truth is that Varanasi is intense; a frantic city made up of ancient narrow back lanes where life, death, and everything in between, come into contact. Contrast this with the awe-inspiring magic and beauty of the ghats, at sunrise and at sunset, and the ancient crumbling ruins of Sarnath, where Buddha preached his first sermon, and you can begin to understand why Varanasi inspires, excites and exhausts. However, for those who love India, Varanasi is a must – it feels as though it is the living, breathing, pumping heart of the Hindu religion.
Varanasi’s ghats, bordering the mighty Ganges (Ganga) river, stretch for miles to the North and South of the city centre. A boat ride at both sunrise and sunset is an essential part of experiencing this unique place – as both times of the day offer completely different sights to be seen. On our first evening we boarded a boat and sailed south, stopping as the darkness descended to observe the evening aarti – a daily ceremony conducted by Hindu priests, accompanied by drumming, as fervent pilgrims and sadhus (holy men) look on. We lit hand-made candle offerings, made prayers and set them afloat on the Ganges. Following the aarti the city comes alive with activity, with people shopping, eating and walking through the streets. We tried lassi (a local yoghurt drink) and chai made at a local stall, which were both delicious.
We rose early the following morning and headed back to the ghats to be on the river by sunrise. The morning offers a stark contrast to the evening and I loved observing men, women and children bathing in the river, the morning pujas, children reciting holy texts, cremation fires smouldering, small market stalls being set up, holy men and cows strolling along the ghats and the sun rising over the multi-coloured buildings and temples that border the water. I loved watching the city come alive.
In addition to the activity along the ghats, Varanasi has much to visit in the city itself; we recommend Vishwanath Temple and Gyan Vapi Mosque which sit side by side. Any city tour should definitely include a visit to the Benares University museum, Bharat Kala Bhavan, which is home to an impressive collection of miniature painting, contemporary Indian art and ancient sculpture.
Although visually not very impressive, Sarnath is a major site for those interested in Buddhism and archaeology. The small museum appears underwhelming on first appearances but is home to some of India’s major pieces of ancient sculpture and art – including Ashoka’s Lion Capital, which is, after small sculptures from the Indus Valley Civilisation, one of the oldest surviving pieces of sculpture to be found in the subcontinent. The deer park at Sarnath was also the location of Buddha’s first sermon, so became a major Buddhist centre of learning and sculpture. Although only one major stupa remains, the park is an interesting place to walk around – especially to observe the diversity of Buddhist tourists that have come from around the world to pay their respects.
Our base in Nadesar was the leafy spacious compound which comprises both the Taj Gateway and the colonial-era Nadesar Palace. Both are great, while very different, and allow you some much needed peace and quiet in between sightseeing. We loved the large swimming pool at The Gateway and the spacious stately home like feel of Nadesar Palace, with its high ceilings, wooden floors and historic memorabilia; taking breakfast and dinner on the terrace accompanied by a flute player allowed for a calming start and end to the day.
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