Following the Ganges River as it moves East, we headed to Varanasi which is considered to be one of the oldest and holiest cities in India. Every day, pilgrims come to the Varanasi ghats from all over the world to wash away their sins or to cremate loved ones in the sacred fires that continuously burn along the ghats. It is a unique place as these cremations (300-400 occur daily) happen right before your eyes in a crowd of people, smoke, colors, and smells.
We spent most of our time in Varanasi walking along the steps and market stalls that line the western bank of the Ganges. Here, we saw everything from bathers getting ready for the day and laundry being washed against a rock to the evening worship ceremonies, funeral processions and open cremations. One evening, we attended Aarti, a large ceremony performed to worship the Mother Ganga where we sat among hundreds of Indian families coming from all over the country and around the world to watch the elaborate ceremony unfold.
A trip to Varanasi would not be complete without taking an early morning boat ride down the river where we were able to see the ghats come alive with activity as the sun rose overhead. Another highlight of the trip to this one-of-a-kind city was our visit to the Vishwanath Temple, more commonly known as the Golden Temple because of the 800kg of gold plating that covers the temple’s large dome. To get inside, you must navigate a maze of winding streets filled with security guards and then leave all your belongings in a locker outside. Although non-Hindus are generally not allowed inside, we were able to demonstrate our appreciation for the religion and were let inside to watch the lines of faithful worshippers visit the shrine. Aside from John getting into a minor scuffle with a monkey trying to steal the flowers we brought to lay down at the temple (the monkey won), the visit was wonderful and we felt very lucky to experience it.
On our final day in Varanasi, we headed to Sarnath, a town 10 kilometers away. This city is where Buddha came to preach his message after obtaining enlightenment and the ruins there are thousands of years old. We wrapped up our Varanasi trip with a visit to Blue Lassi, home to a third generation, family-run shop offering the best lassis in India. They did not disappoint and it was great hearing about the family that runs the business from the kind and welcoming grandson of the business’ founder.
Although we didn’t know what to expect when we arrived in Varanasi, it ended up being one of our favorite cities in India and a visit we will never forget.