By Alli Sinclair
This week, I’m straying from the continent of my heart to another part of the world that is very special to me—India. When I first set foot in this wondrous land, I had no idea the profound effect it would have on me. Even though I faced numerous challenges with my patience and beliefs, the people of India allowed me a glimpse into their customs, religion, and love for family.
I had been traveling for three months by the time I arrived in the “Eternal City” of Varanasi (also known as Benares, Banaras, or Kashi). Situated in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is regarded as a holy city by many religions. At 3,000 years old, Varanasi is India’s oldest city and one of the oldest continuously habitated cities in the world.
The first time I visited Varanasi, I arrived by boat (yes, I’ve been more than once because this truly is an amazing place). For five days, I sailed down the Ganges from Allahabad using a traditional Indian sailboat. We camped on the riverbanks, met scores of villagers along the way, and were entertained endlessly by kids keen to show their latest dance moves.
Arrival day at Varanasi meant getting up in the dark to ensure we sailed into the city at dawn. Bleary-eyed, we travelled along calm waters as nervous chatter filled the night. Just as the black sky turned gray, we rounded a bend and saw Varanasi. A heavy mist hung above the water but faded quickly as the bright orange sun rose and shone on the magnificent red-brick buildings blackened by fires used for pyres. Countless ghats (steps that lead down to the river) lined the west bank of the Ganges.
According to Hindu legend, the deity Lord Shiva founded Varanasi and buried his trident under the city. As one of seven holy sites for Hindus in India, people flock to bathe in the fast-flowing waters of the Ganges and wash away their impurities. Hindus believe that if one dies in Varanasi, they will obtain a faster route to heaven and many make the journey to this beautiful city so they can spend their last moments in the holy waters of the Ganges.
It is common to see bodies wrapped in white sheaths and transported through narrow alleys that lead to one of the two ghats where bodies are cremated. For those who can’t afford to pay for the wood, bodies are placed in the Ganges and float along the river until they perish.
But it’s not all solemn in Varanasi. Sanskrit scholars flock here because of the important role Varanasi has had in the development of the Indian language, Hindi. And Tulsi Das, famous for writing the Hindi version of the epic Ramayana, lived in Varanasi for many years.
With more than 100 ghats along the river, the sight of thousands of people taking an early morning dip is fascinating. Along the steps are Brahmin priests offering blessings (for a price) and beggars who will convince you that giving them money will bring you good karma. Hindu pilgrims bathe at five ghats on the same day and, to bring good health and fortune, they need to bathe in the following order of ghats: Asi, Dasaswamedth, Barnasangam, Panchganga, and Manikarnika.
The Golden Temple is dedicated to Shiva, Lord of the Universe (also known as Vishveswara or Vishwanath). In the 1600s, the Moghul ruler Aurangzeb invaded Varanasi and destroyed the original temple then built a mosque over it. In 1776, a new Golden Temple was built by the Sikhs, and the towers are covered in three-quarters of a ton of gold plating. Non-Hindus aren’t allowed in the temple, but it is possible to view the beautiful building from a house across the street—for a fee, of course. I remember standing at a small window a few floors above, enjoying the peace and marveling at the beauty of this building. It truly was a memorable moment.
For Buddhists, Varanasi is one of four pilgrimage sites and, in the residential neighborhood (only 10 kilometers away from the Ganges), lies Sarnath. This is where Buddha preached his first message of enlightenment 25 centuries ago. The Chaukhandi Stupa stands on the spot where Buddha first met his disciples when travelling from Bodh Gaya to Sarnath.
The Jains (adherents of yet another religion born in ancient India) believe Varanasi is the birthplace of Parshvanatha, and is the site of the Dgambar Jain Temple. Parshva, or Parshvanatha, is one of the earliest Jain leaders to be accepted as a historical figure. He lived sometime between 877-777 BC and meditated for 84 days straight before attaining Kevala Jñāna—Absolute Knowledge—which is the highest a Jain soul can reach.
When winding through the narrow streets of Varanasi, it’s not unusual to hear the Muslim call to prayer five times a day. After the Muslim invasions from centuries ago, many Muslims remained in Varanasi and made this city their home. Muslim temples are dotted around Varanasi, and some of the most important mosques are Alamgiri Mosque, Ganj-e-Shaheedan Mosque and Chaukhamba Mosque. One of Varanasi’s greatest exports are the beautiful textiles made by the skilled Muslim weavers of Varansi. To possess a Varanasi silk sari is a dream for many Indian women, especially to wear on their day.
The Varanasi experience that stands out the most for me was when I gathered with the locals one warm evening at sunset. I’d purchased a clay dish filled with flower petals and a lit candle, and I slowly made my way with the men and women down the steps of the ghat to the edge of the Ganges. Gently placing my offering in the sacred waters, I sent a silent prayer and allowed the love and faith of the people wash over me. Nearly 20 years on, I still get shivers remembering this moment.