Varanasi: why is it associated with death?

Everyone has a different dream.
Some people dream about love, others want a lot of money or power.
The people of India dream about Varanasi.

Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. According to legend, it was founded by Shiva (Hindu God) and is considered by the Indians as a holy city.

Millions of believers come here; both alive and dead to pray to the Holy River – Ganga. Yes, you read it well – dead too.
Rich families often transport bodies of there family member (usually in ordinary passenger trains) to burn them over the Ganga.

To be honest; I’m not sure if I would like to visit Varanasi again.
I know – travel writers aren’t meant to say these things but this city made me tired, scared and mentally depressed.
I literally forced myself to walk around the crowded, cow and feces filled dirty streets of the city.

In other cities of India people looked at me, tried to talk to me or sometimes even made photos of me/with me. But they were welcoming and friendly; never gave me a bad feeling.
In Varanasi nobody cared about me, they just wanted my money.

However, I still think it’s worth to go there.
Varanasi is the „real India”. Sure, Mumbai is the capital, but
you won’t be able to experience a more authentic slice of Indian culture in any other place
than Varanasi.
I also happen to know a lot of people who really like this astonishing city so don’t avoid Varanasi because of my opinion.

What to see in Varanasi?

  • Ghaty

Stairs on the banks of the Ganges.
In the morning, you will see praying pilgrims and ritual baths in the holy river.
Women wash clothes here, men are trying to catch fish and children just play around.
And exactly here is where the pyres are burning day by day during 24 hours to give salvation to the dead, and it is here that the newlyweds receive blessings.

The most famous stairs are Manakarnika Ghat, where the bodies of people are burned and Dashashwamedh Ghat where everyday at 7pm is the ceremony of Ganga Aarti.

Local people come to the ceremony even 45min ahead of time to get a better spot. During the mass they are giving thanks for the past day and asking for help from Mother Ganga for the next days.

Bramini wear orange-gold robes and perform a ritual dance with torches. One woman gives me flowers, and another one paints a red symbol on my forehead. Songs and prayers seep from the loudspeakers.
The ceremony has an unforgettable, mystical atmosphere.

  • Kashi Vishvanath Temple

It’s the most important temple in Varanasi and one of the twelve holiest temples in the world (for Hindu religion)

A place surrounded by unusual reverence, considered to be divine, very protected and… closed to tourists.

Theoretically closed.

In practice, a thousand Indians will say: „NO”; you have to find the one who will say: „Come with me, my friend.”

Below I will tell you my experience here:

Following the instructions of a friendly Indian, I stood with other people in a long queue to the temple.
Without shoes.
In my hands I kept flowers and stones to sacrifice to the gods.
I had to leave my phone, wallet and all my stuff in a small box near a gate; I could only take my passport (the lock on the box looked really weak so I recommend you leave everything in the hotel).

A military officer checked my passport, wrote all my information in a book and asked if I believe in Shiva. I said „yes” because my Indian friend told me it’s obligatory.

He let me go.
I walked along with other people, reaching the security checkpoint. There was a woman who patted me down and ordered me to put on a headscarf.

Right before the entrance was the last security check point. The officer asked me again if I believe in Shiva; I said „yes” but he didn’t trust me.
He was looking at me a couple of seconds, then showed me the doors and said I had to leave.

I showed him the flowers and said I waited such a long time to visit this place and I want to say ‚thank you’ to the god.
Suddenly a man who was in front of me, said something in Hindi to the officer.
He let me go in.

The temple is located in the middle of the square and is surrounded by high, brick walls.
The Military controls the movement of people, so everyone has to go in the same way: one after the other.

I pass a stone path next to thousands of small bells and a few large brass bells. People are trying touch as many of them as possible – it supposedly brings happiness.
I pass my hand on a couple of bells and I think about one of my dreams (just in case ;)).

Finally I come to the middle of the plaza where the altar is located.
I leave the flowers here; the stones I’m taking back with me. They should bring good and peace to my life.
Around the central square are smaller altars with pictures of the other deities. I see a couple of monkeys jumping carefree on the walls and the trees.

I finish the rounds. One of the soldiers shows me the way out.
You cannot stay in the temple longer than the time it takes to make a short prayer.

  • Take a boat trip on the Ganges

You can choose motorboats or small rowboats.
I definitely recommend the second option – from a small, quiet boat you will be able to feel the magic of this moment so much stronger.
Sunrise and sunset look so beautiful from the middle of the river (but if you are a woman I don’t recommend you to walk alone in the late evening).
You can also admire the Ganga Aarti ceremony from the boat.

The price is around 100-200 Rupii, depends how talkative you are 😉

Outside of these places, just walk around the city, admire the temples, make friends and try to like Varanasi more than I do.

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