Destination Spotlight: Varanasi India!
Our guest blogger, Shona Sarquis (Born with Wanderlust) is back. This time around the destination spotlight is on Varanasi India and her experiences there!
“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than the legend and
looks twice as old as all of them put together” Mark Twain
A visit to India provides a surety that you will never see things quite the same again. This
could not ring truer of Varanasi, otherwise known as Benaras or Kashi, the luminous city of
light. Rising from the western bank of the River Ganges, this is one of the oldest continuously
inhabited cities on earth dating back over 2,500 years! Drawing pilgrims from far and wide, this is a
spiritual city not only to Hindu’s and Buddhists but poets, authors and photographers. This is
a place so sacred that to die here is said to be a fast track to moksha, meaning liberation from the endless
cycle of rebirth and union with the divine.
The prospect at seeing the Ganges or Mother Ganga, as it is affectionately known by Hindu’s, has long
intrigued me. I anticipated a step back in time, but this is serenity amongst next level chaos!
The masses of people, livestock, incessant tooting of horns, and stimuli are even more
intense here than Delhi.
Our hotel is the Amritara Suryauday Haveli, a beautiful yet quaint heritage property on the Shivala
Ghats, its history goes back to the 20th century, built by the Royal Family of Nepal as a retreat for the
aged. The rooftop sundeck is a gorgeous space to enjoy yoga overlooking the river and observe the
bustling ghats below.
The alarm goes off at 4.45am for our sunrise boat ride, and as dawn breaks crowds of pilgrims begin to
descend on the river said to have fallen from heaven to earth. Despite the Ganges suffering extreme
pollution and its levels of bacteria a hundred times the Indian Government official limit, these waters are
sacred, and bathing here offers moksha to cleanse the soul from past sins. This is also the perfect
vantage-point to see the colourful temples, ashrams and pavilions that stretch for over 3 miles. Even the
misty haze created by the smoke from the endless cremation fires add to the magical scene.
The banks of the river are filled with 88 different ghats, each famous for different elements. From early morning until long after dark the riverbanks are filled with Sadhus (holy men) fortune tellers, yogis, beggars, trinket vendors, and travellers.
Manikarnika Ghat is sacred and if you are lucky enough to die in Varanasi, you are cremated hereon the banks of the Ganges and granted instant salvation. With more than one hundred bodies cremated daily the funeral fires burn ceaselessly as the ashes of the dead float out over the streets and river.
Every evening the famous Ganga Aarti Ceremony is performed at Dashashwamedh Ghat. We are
transported through the crowds of people on a rather thrilling white knuckled bicycle rickshaw ride, to
our boat for a less chaotic vantage point. The atmosphere is festive with cymbals crashing, bells
ringing and drums banging, the Ganga is glowing with thousands of floating lamps and the thick scent
of sandalwood fills the air. The ritual itself is a devotion to Goddess Ganga using fire as an offering.
Hindu Priests wave incense sticks and circle large flaming brass lamps all synchronised to rhythmic
chants of hymns. It truly is a visual extraordinaire!
Street food is an essential part of the Indian culture, and delicious treats can be found in
every nook and cranny. Like alcohol, meat is off the menu, but do not fear as the vegetarian
food here is amazing!! Varanasi is renowned for its Lassi this is by no means a substitute for the
lack of Gin, but if you like the sound of thick creamy curd this is for you!
The bustling local market here is brimming with colour and it seems everything is for sale, even the
Holy Water of the Ganga! But be ready to bargain, shop owners’ eyes light up as we approach and
the moment you touch something, its game on!
Varanasi surely is the heartbeat of India; it is here that the intimate rituals of life and death
take place publicly. There is much for our western minds to take in and is not for the faint
hearted. An intense and powerful experience that is challenging, frustrating, exciting, inspiring, and raw.
People certainly don’t wear beige in Benares -this is surely one of the most colourful and fascinating places on earth!!
Born with Wanderlust!