Varanasi [Benares]

Older than history,
   older than tradition,
      older even than legend,

           and looks twice as old as all of them put together.

                 -- Mark Twain


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    Bathers, Ganges Varanasi India

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    Bathers, Ganges Varanasi India

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    Bathers, Ganges Varanasi India

    Kashi, Benares, Varanasi - It's all here kids playing cricket where ever they can, birds, dogs and cows competing for the bits of food swept up by perpetual teams of sweeper women. Cows block tiny passages, or lay idly in front of high speed internet shops. Signs advertise daily airport dropping and ayurvedic cures for your ailments. On the ghats, beggars, Sadhus, pilgrims, touts and tourists mingle easily. Bright red spots show the trail of betel chewers; cow patties and pigeon droppings lie right next to an impromptu samosa stand. Sadhus wait under their umbrellas for the faithful to arrive, or troll the steps posing for tourists and extracting their baksheesh.


    Varanasi beyond the ghats

    I start each day with a pocketful of carefully hoarded 10 and 20R notes - never pay exact amount for anything, always break a 100 [$2] or 500 bill. Yet by day's end, it's gone given to Sadhus, random guides, altar attendants or for puja.

    [click to enlarge]
    Bathers, Ganges Varanasi India

    [click to enlarge]
    Ganges bathers Varanasi India
    Located next to a ford on an ancient trade route, Varanasi is among the holiest of all tirthas - "crossing places", that allow the devotee access to the divine and enable gods and goddesses to come down to earth. It has attracted pilgrims, seekers, sanyasins and students of the Vedas throughout its history, including sages such as the Buddha, founder of the Jain faith Mahavira and the great Hindu reformer Shankara. Known to the devout as Kashi, the Luminous - the City of Light, founded by Shiva - Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world. It has maintained its religious life since the sixth century BC in one continuous tradition, in part by remaining outside the mainstream of political activity and historical development of the subcontinent, and stands at the centre of the Hindu universe, the focus of a religious geography that reaches from the Himalayan cave of Amarnath in Kashmir, to India's southern tip at Kanniyakumari, Puri to the east, and Dwarka to the west.


    [click to enlarge]
    Bathers, Ganges Varanasi

    [click to enlarge]
    Bathers, Ganges Varanasi

    5 Nov 2009 - We arrived at our hotel in time to take an evening tour.

    We approached through labyrinthine alleys and the Vishwanatha Gali or lane, then down the ghat steps to a large rowboat.

    First we drifted down to pass by the flames of the burning ghats at Marnikanika Ghat As we found later, such grounds are usually held to be inauspicious, and located on the fringes of cities, but the entire city of Shiva is regarded as Mahashamshana, the Great Cremation Ground for the corpse of the entire universe. The ghat is perpetually crowded with funeral parties, as well as the Doms, its Untouchable guardians, busy and preoccupied with facilitating final release for those lucky enough to pass away here

    Lying at the centre of the five tirthas, Manikarnika Ghat symbolizes both creation and destruction, epitomized by the juxtaposition of the sacred well of Manikarnika Kund, said to have been dug by Vishnu at the time of creation, and the hot, sandy ash-infused soil of cremation grounds where time comes to an end. In Hindu mythology, Manikarnika Kund predates the arrival of the Ganga and has its source deep in the Himalayas. Vishnu carved the kund with his discus, and filled it with perspiration from his exertions in creating the world at the behest of Shiva. When Shiva quivered with delight, his earring fell into this pool, which as Manikarnika - "Jeweled Earring" - became the first tirtha in the world.


     Our boatman then rowed back up the slow current to return in time for the evening Aarti ceremony at Dashashvemedha Ghat - A recent tradition, temples host outdoor evening aarti service attended by tourist and pilgrim alike 7 Brahmins preside on altars overlooking the river; most of audience rows up in boats


    Afterwards they progress through a series of hymns, chants with extreme bell ringing, conch blowing, drums, then incense and flaming candelabras. Streets lively in evening as we returned to our car and hotel.

    Dashaswamedh is Varanasi's most popular and accessible bathing ghat, with rows of pandas sitting on wooden platforms under bamboo umbrellas, masseurs plying their trade and boatmen jostling for custom. Its name, "ten horse sacrifices", derives from a complex series of sacrifices performed by Brahma to test King Divodasa: Shiva and Parvati were sure the king's resolve would fail, and he would be compelled to leave Kashi, thereby allowing them to return to their city. However, the sacrifices were so perfect that Brahma established the Brahmeshvara lingam here. Since that time, Dashaswamedh has become one of the most celebrated tirthas on earth, where pilgrims can reap the benefits of the huge sacrifice merely by bathing



    Sarnath ancient Buddhist site


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