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Famous Ghats of Varanasi

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Even after sunset there is no let up in the buzz along the famous ghats of Varanasi. If at all, there is a spike in the tempo and a high-voltage current of anticipation crackles across the noisy waterfront as pilgrims and tourists wait for the evening aarti to commence. Boatmen jostle for position on waters of the holy river Ganga which is speckled with floating divas. The clanging of bells, the chanting of mantras, the call of conch shells emanating from the crush of temples that line the banks hangs heavy in the humid air. The atmosphere is so thick with expectation that one may well imagine Lord Shiva himself gate crashing this chaos of piety and starting to dance, dragging his adoring devotees into a higher stratosphere of frenzy.

Indeed, Varanasi is an antithesis of peace and quite that one would associate with the nirvana that it assures those who die here. Essentially another unplanned Indian city, Varanasi started to assert her distinctive personality as one nears its famous ghats where a sea people surge across the steps that lead down to the river. Bearded Sadhus in orange robes and elaborate cast marks on their foreheads invite tourists to take their photographs and then demanded to be paid. Scraggly beggars sit patiently for the gods to provide. Pilgrims drop coins into their begging bowls and notch up good karma. Kids splashed happily in the water’s edge. Pundits perform sacred ceremonies… Boatmen row visitors to the sandy beach on the opposite bank and across the face of the 80 ghats that telescoped into each other.

A devotees first task, however, is to pay his/her respects to the presiding deity of Varanasi – Lord Shiva whose jyotilinga is enshrined in the Syambhunath temple. Yes, he may dwell in the Himalayas with his wife Parvati but it is in Kashi (as the city was known in ancient times) that he mingles with his devotees. In fact, the head of Bhrama which clung to him ever since he chopped it off for uttering a lie when they first met in cosmic time finally dropped the moment he first set foot in the holy city. To reach temple one must walk down a maze of narrow streets which are awash with a bouquet of aromas: incense, spices, flowers, ghee, sweets, garbage, urine… Signboards advertised massage parlours, astrologers, yoga centres, meditation classes, music schools that taught tabla and other Indian instruments…

After paying ones respects to Lord Shiva one set off on the long awaited river cruise. The ghats of Varanasi unravel like a roll of film, each frame capturing its different moods. Dhobis laying out clothes like a patchwork quilt on the steps; buffalos wallowing in the shallow waters; a stairway going nowhere; fortress like walls flexing their muscles behind temple spires; murals of gods; holy men washing their orange robes; the minarets and domes of a mosque… A mummer of a prayer caressed one’s lips as one cruises passed the city’s burning ghats blurred behind a veil of smoke. Partly submerged in the water is the leaning temple of Varanasi.

As the sun slips behind the ghats, a sea of boats bobs in the water patiently waiting for the sunset aarti to commence. Soon enough a row of priests step onto elevated platforms and start a highly choreographed dance of fire to the clanging of bells. As the ritual of swirling lamps end the floating mass of boats disengage from each other and head for the ghats.

By now the burning ghats are aglow with pyres: the ultimate aarti in which Lord Shiva welcomes the participants into his eternal abode. In the distance a train seems to float like a pencil of light over the water as it rattles over a bridge, reminding the living that that life chugs on. In the many temples along the ghats the priests had tucked away the gods for the night and the bells are silenced and peace has finally settled over the agitated city.

File Facts
Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, has its own airport
Varanasi is well connected to the rest of the country by rail and road. The temple town has a wide selection of accommodation from 5-star properties to budget lodges.

Sarnath, an important pilgrim town on the Buddhist trail is 10 km from Varanasi. Indian Railways’ Maha Parinirvan special trail which covers the most of the important Buddhist sites in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh makes a stop at Varanasi. The 7 night / 8 day itinerary which starts and ends at Delhi also includes a visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra.