Originally known as Banaras (or Benaras), the name was changed to Varanasi in 1956. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world. So old that it is fabled that it was founded by God Shiva – it is believed that anyone who dies in Benaras will attain moksha or salvation. Mark Twain, the English author was so enthralled by the legend and sanctity of Benaras that he wrote : “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together’’.
The ghats of Benaras have a character of their own.
Located in the middle Ganges valley of North India, it falls in the Eastern part of the State of Uttar Pradesh. It is 797 km by road from New Delhi and is accessible by road and air. The city recently hit the headlines as the new Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi contested and won the Parliamentary elections from this city.
Two things that immediately rings a bell when you mention about this holy city are temples and ghats. There are thousands of temples in Benaras (reportedly about 23,000 – that number could actually be thousands more) but the most popular and the most famous is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva.
It is a belief amongst Hindus that taking a dip in the Ganges (especially at Benaras) can wash away all your worldly sins. Built on this conception the entire city of Benaras has ghats all along the Ganges’ banks. Ghats are embankments made in steps of stone slabs along the river bank where the pilgrims take bath and perform their ritual ablutions. Though Wikipedia says that Benaras has 84 ghats, my boatman told me that there are 365 ghats, small and big.
The most famous ghat is the Dashashwamedh Ghat which is supposed to be the holiest in terms of offering prayers and seeking peace for the soul of the forefathers. Many people in the past used to relocate to Benaras so that they could die there and achieve salvation. Since it is considered sacred amongst Hindus to light the funeral pyre on the banks of any holy river, there is a ghat in Benaras dedicated for funeral purposes called the Manikarnika Ghat (see picture).
A very popular tourist destination, both for Indians and foreigners, Benaras has a character of its own wrapped in the labyrinth of its past history, rich culture and religious sentiments. A very popular industry very typical of Benaras is that of silk sarees worn by Indian women – known as Benarasi sarees. Silk sarees are a standard to be worn by the bride at most Hindu weddings.
Every evening, ‘Ganga Arati’ or prayer dedicated to the Ganges river is held at the Dashashwamed Ghat; it is extremely popular. A visit to Benaras would be incomplete without taking a boatride along the banks of the Ganges as the boatman explains you about the history of the city and anecdotes about the umpteen ghats.
Benaras has been one of my favourite destinations and I always may it a point to wake up early, pack my camera bag and catch the early morning flavour. In the ghats where you can see people praying the Sun God, taking baths and putting sandal paste on their forehead in preparation for the prayers (see picture). Then there are others taking bath, some brushing their teeth or washing clothes – a complete picture depicting the mood of the city.
Though the water of the Ganges is very dirty, when the early crimson rays hit the ghats and the cool air caresses my face as I take a boatride, I forget all the crowd in the city, the animals on the road or the dirt in the streets as my mind delves deep into the history of the place and I just silently enjoy the pastel shades of the ghats with the background score of the rhythmic splashing sound of the wooden oars that they still use.
Amitabha Bose is a compulsive traveller and a photographer who writes about what he sees and feels. Presently in the self confessed wrong profession of being an Executive Director, he lives with his family in Delhi.