Varanasi Beyond the Ghats

Ganges holy water pots in market, Varanasi, India Ganges holy water pots in market, Varanasi, India

Most pilgrims come to Varanasi for the ghats from which they can bathe in the Ganges.  Tourists usually stay in a hotel outside of the core central area and visit with a guide for an evening or dawn boat ride.  But there is much more to Varanasi and it rewards those who wander its twisting streets and alleys. 

Large lingam outside Shiva Temple, Kedara Ghat Varanasi, India Large lingam outside Shiva Temple, Kedara Ghat Varanasi, India
Steps leading up to Shiva Temple, Kedara Ghat Varanasi, India
Steps leading up to Shiva Temple, Kedara Ghat Varanasi, India
Rickshaw drivers carry local passengers on Nov 7, 2009, in Varanasi, India
Rickshaw drivers carry local passengers on Nov 7, 2009, in Varanasi, India

Vishwanatha Khanda, the Old City

We found a 3 wheeled rickshaw outside outside our hotel and bargained for the 7 km ride into town, ultimately going from 300 à 200R. We had expected to pay that for one way, then find another return, but the driver insisted on waiting for us while we explored. He drove us to Kedara Ghat, most easily accessible by rickshaw. This is the vital center of Kashi. Between Dashaswamedh Ghat and Godaulia to the south and west and Manikarnika Ghat on the river to the north, it’s a maze of passages and alleys comprising the Old City, or Vishwanatha Khanda. This is a pedestrian maze, buzzing with the activity of pilgrims and tourists, pandas and touts. There are stalls selling offerings to the faithful, and boasting shrines and lingams tucked into every corner. You can't stay lost for long, as you'll end up either on one of the ghats, or on the main road. And a rickshaw gives easy passage back to your starting point.

We visited the Kedara Shiva Temple, there, named for Shiva’s abode in the Himalaya. While looking at the shrines outside, we were approached by the ubiquitous temple tout who showed us the 5000 year old Shiva lingam, and smaller Ganeshes obscured by paste. He then offered to take us inside the temple, which the guide had said was not open to non-Hindus. The Brahmin took us through the inner temple including the sanctum sanctorum . Each small shrine -- the equivalent of the small chapels lining cathedral aisles -- for a guardian or minor deity, an attendant would offer prayers, garlands and tikals , then accept our baksheesh. The inner sanctum has special lingam, a natural rock formation that pushes up directly from the bedrock. We continued to make the circuit, passing other shrines to Shiva and Parvati, the 9 planets, and Ganesh. Girdling the passageway are even smaller, unattended shrines and lingas dedicated by worshippers.

Back in the street we continued to wander and explore. We approached the temple complex of Vishwanatha or Visheshwara, the "Lord of All", popularly known as the Golden Temple. Its name comes from the golden covering of its massive shikhara (spire). It's closed to non-Hindus -- we would only catch a glimpse of the inner are through a gateway. Just across from temple, is the Jnana Vapi Mosque, or Great Mosque of Aurangzeb, so this is an especially tense, yet popular area. . For hundreds of years, there have been clashes among fanatics near this site, and the temple has been rebuilt several times. Today is no different. A local shopkeeper invited us in for masala tea, and explained the procedure. We could leave our packs and cameras with him since we would have to pass a very strict security checkpoint. Nothing, not even pens, keys, batteries or other small objects was allowed through. The metal detector was followed by a comprehensive patdown, and we were finally released into the narrow crowded street.

After this swirling mass of humanity, it was calming to renew our walks through less congested areas.

When you visit the Muslim quarter , you'll inevitably have a tour of silk making; from here come the famous Benares brocades. These are mostly family owned small businesses, using hand looms, using the jacquard punched card techniques to produce intricate brocades. [The punched cards that program thesee looms were the inspiration for the punched cards that worked early computers.] Of course there's always a nearby outlet where you can examine and buy the finished product. In fact, these are excellent buys, with prices only a fraction of what the shawls, kerchiefs and other silks will cost when they are exported.

On our way back we passed sign reading “Decent Public School”, but wondered what it meant when next school down the road was “Excellent Convent School”

Ruins of ancient Buddhist monastery at Sarnath, India
Ruins of ancient Buddhist monastery at Sarnath, India
Japanese monks at Dharmeka Stupa, Sarnath, India, Asia

Japanese monks at Dharmeka Stupa, Sarnath, India, Asia


Sarnath is one of the most important Buddhist sites. Siddhartha, Gautama Buddha first taught here in a deer park, soon after his enlightenment. Later monasteries were established and their ruins are being excavated. The Chaukhandi Stupa marks the spot where the Buddha met his first disciple. First built in the 5th century, it has been heavily restored, starting in the late 1970's when I first visited and saw teams of women carrying bricks and other construction materials in baskets on their heads, winding their way up a spiral ramp to the truncated top of the stupa..

This time when we arrived at the Darmeka Stupa, a group of Japanese monks and nuns were visiting,  ceremonially marching around the monument. The excellent Sarnath Archeological Museum was unfortunately closed during our visit in Nov 2009. It holds the famous lion capital that appears on Indian currency

I had remembered the frescoes in the Mulagandhakuti Vihara built in the 1930s by Sri Lankan Buddhists . As we approached there was a considerable crowd. Lines of schoolchildren are being hustled in to sit on the floor. Earlier sitters are dislodged in waves as newcomers come up behind them. I step to the side aisle, but I'm soon trapped by the crowd. Temperature rises, well over 100, and humid, as the sermon or lectures start. It appears to be a school outing with rewards for several of the teachers consisting of large flower bouquets. Then the schoolmaster is given large trays of red flowers which he scatters to eagerly reaching hands. Only then does the crowd emerge into somewhat cooler air

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