Posted November 7, 2008 by Rahul Aggarwal

Having somehow managed to navigate the chaotic streets in the back of an auto-rickshaw, I finally arrived at the magnificent Hotel Ganges View perched on the tip of Asi Ghat. A lone goat was roaming by the entrance, but as soon as I entered I was immediately struck by the character of the place. The hotel was filled with traditional artifacts and antiques and each room was beautifully done up. The hotel had an enchanting roof terrace overlooking the sacred River Ganges and the staff extremely friendly.

After a brief rest and a quick bite, I set off for Sarnath Temple, some 30 minutes from Varanasi. Sarnath is a holy pilgrimage site for Buddhists, as this is where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining Enlightenment. I arrived there at the same time as a group of Buddhist pilgrims from Sri Lanka.

A stream of women dressed in white saris gently trickled through the temple ground. The 110 feet stupa was indeed impressive as were the surrounding ruins of an old temple and other monuments erected by the great Mauryan Emperor Asoka. After a contemplative stroll around the complex, I headed back to Varanasi.

Varanasi is located between the two rivers – Varuna and Asi, but it is also known by two other names. Amongst Indians it is more commonly known as Benares and it is also occasionally referred to by its older name, Kaasi. For consistency I will stick to calling it Varanasi. For Hindus, the Aarti ceremony is an important ritual and Varanasi is famous for its spine-tingling Aarti on the Ghats of the river (ghat is the set of steps by the river).

It was approaching 6pm, so along with the guide I jumped into a boat at Assi Ghat which then made its way to another ghat for the aarti. The river was buzzing with activity. Boats with other tourists stared in disbelief at the spectacle unfurling before their eyes, local kids hopped effortlessly between boats offering tea and flowers. The sun had set and in the distance on one of the other ghats numerous funeral pyres were being lit as the dead were offered to the mighty River Ganges. We told the boatman not to go to close, as I felt somewhat uncomfortable spectating on someone else’s grief. Hindus believe that if someone is born and then cremated by the River Ganges, then he or she will end the cycle of reincarnation. Lotus flowers with candles bobbed up and down in the water, gradually drifting off in the distance carrying someone’s prayers.

There is something very special about Hindu ceremonies with the colours, flowers, incense and flames, but this Aarti ceremony was on an altogether different level. The ghat was packed with people and then seven men mounted on pedestals stood at the edge of the ghat offering incense, flowers, and lit diyas (lamps) as the aarti was chanted on the loudspeakers.

The boats came to a standstill as everyone watched on. This must have lasted some 15-20 minutes but I had totally lost any concept of time in the process. One cannot even start to put the amazing sense of calmness afterwards into words. It was a privilege to watch and be a part of.

Afterwards I headed into the main market area and was confronted by activity entirely on a different scale. Varanasi is made up of thousands of narrow alleyways, crammed with people, saffron-robed sadhus (Hindu holy men) carrying holy pots with burning incense, scooters jostling for space, sacred cows ambling through with people stopping to take blessings, shops selling everything from trinkets, statues of deities and silk, for which Varanasi is famous. I eventually headed back to the hotel for dinner on the roof terrace where I could see this fascinating city lit up at night. You can’t help but be infected with Varanasi’s energy and mysticism. I still feel on a high from the aarti and the walk through the market. Tomorrow starts with a 5am boat ride at sunrise. I can’t wait... Really.

This blog is part of an Off-The-Beaten-Track Travel Diary. Click on the links below to navigate through this journey.

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