25.February, Varanasi – formerly BANARES, the Hindu holy city
After an uneventful flight to Varanasi, we were held up for half an hour by some minor road works since there is no proper traffic direction. Everybody drives as far as they can forming multiple lanes until everything is blocked and a stalemate situation arises. The rickshaws down to the river Ganges had no problems with the traffic, weaving between busses and cows with gay abandon. You just need strong nerves for it. We were surprised by a shower of rain as we arrived but we could take places to witness a religious ceremony from under cover and it soon stopped anyway. The ceremony involved much chanting and waving of burning lamps but was probably no more strange than a Christian service must appear to a Hindu.
Another early morning start had us on a boat in the middle of the Ganges before dawn. Many pilgrims were already bathing in the for us far from enticing waters. Further down the river clouds of smoke were rising from the cremation sites. Here we alighted and walked back up through the old town, passing the occasional lightly wrapped corpse being carried down to the river. All not really pretty sights, which added to my mixed impressions of India during the last two weeks.
Varanasi , also known as Benares, is a city on the banks of the Ganges in the Uttar Pradesh state of North India, 320 kilometres south-east of the state capital, Lucknow. A major religious hub in India, it is the holiest of the seven sacred cities (Sapta Puri) in Hinduism and Jainism, and played an important role in the development of Buddhism.
Varanasi has been a cultural centre of North India for several thousand years and is closely associated with the Ganges. Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation, making it a major centre for pilgrimage. The city is known worldwide for its many ghats, embankments made in steps of stone slabs along the river bank where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions. Of particular note are the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the Panchganga Ghat, the Manikarnika Ghat and the Harishchandra Ghat, the last two being where Hindus cremate their dead and the Hindu genealogy registers at Varanasi are kept here.
In the 16th century, Varanasi experienced a cultural revival under the Mughal emperor Akbar who patronised the city, and built two large temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. In 1656, Emperor Aurangzeb ordered the destruction of many temples and the building of mosques, causing the city to experience a temporary setback. However, after Aurangazeb’s death, most of India was ruled by a confederacy of pro-Hindu kings. Much of modern Varanasi was built during this time, especially during the 18th century by the Maratha and Bhumihar(Brahmin). The kings governing Varanasi continued to wield power and importance through much of the British Raj period, including the Maharaja of Benares, or Kashi Naresh.