The Varanasi Ghats: The Front Steps of the Eternal

Varanasi (Benares), probably the world’s oldest city, began 4,000 years ago as a simple Aryan settlement where two tributaries, the Varuna and the Assi (hence the city’s name), join the Ganges. In legend, the tributaries flowed from the body of the first Being, and the land between the rivers is where Shiva and Parvati stood at the beginning of time. In fact, its location made the settlement a center of commerce, a place for trading silk and muslin, perfumes, ivory . . . anything and everything that could be moved by boat. Naturally, the waves of traders and merchants coming through brought their ideals, legends, and culture with them as well, so that Varanasi also became a religious center. Pilgrims by their thousands came to bathe in the river, to learn from the many sadhus (wise men) on the river banks, and to build and worship in a growing jumble of temples, shrines, even mosques, on the riverbanks. Nearby, in a deer park in Saranath, Buddha gave his first sermon.

With so many layers of culture to unearth, Varanasi warrants a close look, which is why Vantage offers it as an optional extension with its Best of India with a Ganges River Cruise. The extension includes a guided tour, but to give you a preview, let’s take an imaginary tour right now.

Varanasi is probably the most unchanged city in the world, at least at its heart. The ghats (steps) and temples still line the Ganges for miles. The old city streets still wind through a maze of tiny shops, crowded pilgrim inns, and shrines, some as small as a pair of cupped hands and dusted with vermillion and marigold petals. And the devout still come by their millions, to learn, worship, and die at “the gateway to moksha.”

For visitors, the best way to understand the city’s spiritual intensity is to examine its rituals and their purpose, notably the rituals of cremation. Early in the morning, for example, you may need to step out of the way of a group of men dressed in white, carrying a ribbon- and flower-draped bamboo stretcher. This is a funeral procession, and these are the dead man’s relatives. Put away your camera, and let’s follow them.

Although the sun has only begun to rise, the ghats are already busier than Times Square. Cross-legged sadhus sit quietly chanting passages from worn prayer books. Plump businessmen with their pants legs rolled up stand in the water making morning devotions. A young woman is getting her head shaved to fulfill a promise to the gods. A black cow, donated by a family in exchange for a blessing, strolls slowly around clumps of squatting women and children. Doms — the untouchable-caste funeral directors — sell firewood from a stack 12 feet high and tend a temple flame that has burned for centuries.

Aarti ceremony on Varanasi ghat.Our procession heads for a pyre, paid for in advance by the deceased. Some of the wood is sandalwood and teak, which tells us this family is well off. One of the mourners — perhaps the eldest son — sprinkles the body with water from the Ganges, and the dom brings him a torch from the temple fire. The wood catches quickly where the mourner touches the flame to it as he circles the pyre five times (once for each of the five elements: fire, earth, water, air, and ether), and the blaze soon hides the body from our sight. Elsewhere a dozen other pyres are also burning, and down at the water’s edge a group of untouchables is sifting through ashes for any salvageable bit of metal — an earring, a gold tooth.

Although the white-clad men are certainly feeling grief, the burning of the body is not a sad event. Cremation allows the deceased spirit to achieve moksha, or liberation. Achieving moksha on the banks of the Ganges guarantees liberation not only from this life, but from the cycle of reincarnation — one of the four goals of human existence in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religions. For Hindus particularly, the city is beloved by the god Shiva, so to live here is to live close to the god, and to die here is to be greeted by the god himself as one enters heaven. For this reason, many devout Indians who feel they are near the end of their life will sell their possessions, travel to Varanasi, and hope to die here.

In spite of this, or perhaps because of this, Varanasi is a cheerful place. The streets that line the ghats are crowded with vendors —wallahs — selling kachauri and jalebis, fruit and bottled water, paan and souvenirs. Rickshaws negotiate between pedestrians and bulls (a symbol of Shiva and hence not to be messed with), and parades celebrating weddings occasionally toot and clatter through the crowds. As the Hindu epic Mahabharata tells us, death may be near, so live as though you are immortal!

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