Varanasi, India: The holiest city in Hinduism

a_holy_man_prays.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterboxA holy man prays during his morning puja (ritual of offering) in front of the Ganges.

By: Melissa Renwick Special to the Star, Published on Wed Dec 24 2014
The cold air is thick and heavy with smoke. Aside from a distant cough or a faint dog bark, the streets are jarringly quiet. I walk down the unpaved gravel road and slice through the fog. It trails behind me like a waning ghost. The sky is painted a deep blue, and gradually lightens in colour as the sun wakes.
As I near the end of the street and step onto the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, the expansive flow of water shimmers like a goddess, which is what the Ganges is so often worshipped as.
“Madame, boat?” a man swathed in a wool shawl yells after me. “Boat going, madame?” another man smiles, wagging his head as he tries to coax me closer to the water.
I eventually settle on 100 rupees per hour (equivalent to around $1.80 Canadian) with a man named Sonu who has kind eyes, gently lined in the corners, and a grey moustache that covers the sides of his mouth. He guides me into his rocky wooden boat which is painted powder blue, as he takes care to ensure we step over a missing strip of wood.
While the rest of the city sleeps, worshippers flock to the ghats — steps down to the river — along the Ganges to absolve themselves of sins and to seek purification by bathing in the holy water. Considered the holiest city in Hinduism and the spiritual capital of India, religion seems to seep through Varanasi’s streets and pour into the Ganges.
As devotees mutter prayers with closed eyes, the rising sun casts a rich golden glow over their faces, creased with deep wrinkles, unkempt grey eyebrow hairs sprouting out in every direction.
As Sonu rows past flocks of people who wade into the freezing water, immune to the cold. Transfixed in their prayers, their faces stay steady as they cup the water with their hands, hold it up as an offering and slowly pour it back into the streaming river.
We cross paths with the Manikarnika Ghat, also referred to as the burning ghat. It is one of the oldest ghats in Varanasi and Hindus believe that being cremated here provides an instant gateway to salvation.
I watch as bodies covered in orange silk shrivel up inside the flames as the smoke streaming from their bodies engulfs the sky.
Sonu leaves me at the southernmost ghat in Varanasi, called Assi. It is removed from the pandemonium at the Dashashwamedh Ghat and allows visitors to experience the less touristy side of the city. With the Banaras Hindu University near by, this is where long-term foreign students, researchers and tourists live.
I venture away from the tea stands and cafés along the banks of the river. (I’m told that several use the water from the Ganges to wash their fruits and dishes.)
Tucked away near the Bhelupura crossing, Kerala Café is an authentic South Indian restaurant which serves delectable dishes such as mixed uttapam, a crisp crepe-like pancake topped with tomatoes, coconut, onions and chilies.
With a full stomach, I wander to the Dashashwamedh ghat, where every evening after sunset, a religious ritual called Ganga Aarti is performed. Waving incense sticks through the air in choreographed unison, young priests chant mantras and hymns in praise of the holy river. The strong scent of sandalwood permeates the air. Hundreds of spectators clap out of rhythm to the ringing bells, as they sit entranced, the orange light illuminating their devout faces marked with a red bindi on the forehead.
Leaning against a crumbling wall, I watch the Ganga Aarti from a distance. Spellbound, I failed to notice a bearded man with long dread-locks spun on top of his head, dressed in an orange dhoti approach me. Uttering words in Hindi, he brushes his thumb along the length of my forehead, leaving a red streak and vanishes into the crowd.
Varanasi has left its mark on me.
Café society
Open Hand Café in the Assi Ghat is a safe choice and offers a taste of home for Western tourists. Using Arabic and Robusta blends, the strong espresso is a pleasant break from the standard Nescafé instant coffee served elsewhere. It offers free Wi-Fi and freshly baked goods such as bagels, chocolate muffins and carrot cake. It’s easy to melt into the pillowed couches and fall into conversations with tourists from all over the world.

Source: The Star