Varanasi was a concoction of faith, temple Gods and ghats — or, the stairways leading down to the Ganges’ shores. The city has about eighty ghats. After I landed on the holy ghats of the ancient city, I saw young priests perform “Ganga aarti” — an evening fire ritual that beguiles the visitors and devotees alike. Soon after the sunset, boats full of people returned to the shores, just in time for the aarti. During the entire duration of the ostentatious fire ritual, temple bells and Sanskrit hymns drowned the sound of gushing Ganges.
On some ghats, Hindus cremate their dead. The sight of burning pyres was capable of evoking L Cohen’s gospel-tinged ballad “Hallelujah”. But my aim was not to engage with the concept of life and death or get drawn in by the Cohen’s ballad. I had a simple yet challenging itinerary on my mind: finding a tiny yoghurt shop named Blue Lassi, waking up early for the sunrise, visiting Sarnath in the morning, watching full moon in the evening and playing Holi the day after tomorrow.
A young priest offers prayers at a ghat in Varanasi. The Ganges (locally called Ganga) is revered in India.
Sarnath — 12 km northeast of Varanasi
Buddha was about 29 years old when his quest for enlightenment began. He gave his first sermon at Sarnath, a calm place located northeast of the charmingly chaotic Varanasi. Autorickshaw or tuk-tuk ride to the ancient ruins of Sarnath involves crossing two busy traffic intersections at Pandeypur and Ashapur.
Upon reaching the Deer Park at Sarnath, I found a quiet place behind the monks who sat facing Dhamekh Stupa, a dome-shaped building perhaps commemorating the spot where Buddha preached his first sermon. During excavations more than one and a half centuries ago, British army engineer Sir Alexander Cunningham, who founded the Archaeological Survey of India, found a slab down at the bottom of the stupa. The slab with inscriptions in Brahmi says: “ye dharmā hetu prabhavā hetun (all phenomena arise from causes).”
Walking through the remnants of a huge temple which probably represents the spot where Buddha used to sit in meditation threw me into a tizzy. The museum in Sarnath is equally fascinating: can you imagine I saw the original Ashokan lion capital? India’s national emblem is an adaptation of the famous Ashokan sculpture. Museum authorities prohibit visitors from carrying their cell phones and cameras inside.
Full moon at Varanasi’s Assi ghat
A boat ride, a German girl humming the tunes of Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby”, the boisterous water of the Ganges and the temple bells chimed in perfectly with my full moon day experience in Varanasi.
My recce yesterday evening helped. The sky was cloudy last evening, but today it’s clear and the moon looks absolutely charming. It’s truly dream-like, I. All you need to do is believe in Santa Claus!
In Varanasi, the secret societies of hermits come out of their hiding places and perform tantric rituals on full moon days. (I didn’t see any of that here. But who knows, maybe it’s true! You should find it out yourself.)
There was so much lively devotion around the sacred shores of Ganges. After the sun sets over the city, people idle on the banks of the Ganges in search of mystic nothingness. A devotional aarti song I heard somewhere at the ghats went like this: “Mano toh ye Ganga maa hai, na mano toh bahta paani (If you believe, she is Mother Ganga, if you don’t, she is flowing water.)
Do me a favour, let’s play Holi
Indians celebrate spring with Holi, the festival where people love indulging in messy paint fights. But in Varanasi, the paint fight gets not messy, but menacing! Rabble-rousing youths of Hindu cultural groups aren’t the folks you would want to play Holi with.
Hotel staffs advise you stay indoors. But it’s relatively safe to head out to the ghats when the raucous Holi celebrations end by noon. I, don’t forget to enjoy the Varanasi’s street food, it’s amazing!
P.S. I couldn’t wake up in time for the sunrise!