The first of two photo essays from Varanasi India exploring life and death in the holy city along the banks of the Ganges river.
Varanasi is also known by its earlier name Banaras and is one of the oldest living cities in the world with continued habitation for over 2,500 years.
We visited Varanasi in late September at the climax of the Durga Puja festival, which added to the intensity around the town. With the river level high all activity was condensed in the small streets that lead to the mighty Ganges river. Overwhelming at times with honking horns, and cows and people at every turn, there was not even any respite in the hotel – which was under renovation a few weeks before Diwali. Our brief three-day visit left us exhausted but with dozens of experiences.
Varanasi Ghats: Steps to the River Ganges
Hindu pilgrims travel from all over India to bathe in the Ganges river water – the sacred mother river that brings life. The river is lined with “ghats”, the word for the steps down to the water.
Pollution is a big problem in the Ganges, and efforts are being made to clean up the river. But this doesn’t deter the faithful who bathe and even drink the brown water believing that the river purifies itself and can never become dirty.
Ganga Aarti Varanasi
Ganga Aarti is a ritual for worshipping the river Ganges. The Ganga Aarti is performed daily before sunrise and after sunset. A number of Hindu priests stand in a line on raised platforms, gather some Ganges water, and perform a powerful and uplifting ritual involving bowls of fire and peacock feathers. The synchronised movements are hypnotic. You can’t help but feel the spiritual connection.
The dawn ceremony was originally only performed at Assi Ghat, but there are now some smaller morning aarti ceremonies at other ghats along the river. When the river level is high it does not leave much space for the ceremonies further up the river, so the open space of Assi Ghat is also your best bet for the evening ceremony. Once the monsoon rains end and the water level drops you will find the largest evening aarti ceremony performed at Dashashwamedh Ghat which becomes the heart of the city.
The morning and evening ceremonies are similar, but have a very different feel. The cooler misty mornings and ever lightening sky feels magical, while the crowds of the evening and darkened sky makes for a more dramatic ritual to the soundtrack of pounding drums.
Things To Do in Varanasi
As well as the ghats along the river, there are many places to visit in Varanasi beyond the Ganges. Varanasi is not only a significant place in Hindu beliefs, but also the place where Buddha did his first teaching. The region is at the heart of religious beliefs that extend throughout the whole of Asia.
Where To Stay in Varanasi India
Undoubtedly the best place to stay is near to the waterfront. The Assi Ghat area is popular among international travellers, and is also conveniently where the morning Aarti ceremony is performed. After the sun rises you can also join the public yoga on the ghat. Other popular areas are around the Dashashwamedh Ghat to the north.
But don’t expect luxury. For a more comfortable stay you will need to look further afield. While you may find a more comfortable hotel it will be at the expense of having to navigate the frankly horrendous traffic to reach the river.
How To Get to Varanasi India
The easiest way to reach Varanasi is by flight from Delhi to Varanasi. Local airlines including Air India, IndiGo and SpiceJet all ply the route frequently. The airport at Varanasi is large and modern – it has to be to accommodate the millions of pilgrims and tourists that visit the holy city each year. Of course, you can always take the train for a true India travelling experience.
All photos by Joe Ogden.