Pilgrimage to Varanasi

Varanasi is a city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, located on the banks of the sacred Ganges (or Ganga) River. It is considered the spiritual center of India and one of the world’s holiest places; millions of people make pilgrimages here every year.

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The view of the ceremony onshore.

Most of the pilgrims are Hindu; they come to worship, to bathe in the Ganges’ sacred waters, and to participate in funeral rites. Every morning and every evening, elaborate ceremonies take place along the river.

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This boy is selling offerings, or diya, for placing in the Ganges.

Dozens of slender boats sit just offshore, giving occupants an exceptional view of the ceremonies. The people in boats may just be tourists – like us – or they may have come on their own pilgrimage.

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Washing hands before making offerings.

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The boats are crowded, so it might be necessary to stand to view the ceremony.

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Dozens of boats, big and small, are rafted together just offshore.

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Our boat captain, sitting proud.

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The traditional diya, or offering: marigolds are placed in little dishes with a lit candle.

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The diya are then set adrift in the Ganges.

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A ceremonial cremation ghat; understandably, no closer photographs were permitted.

Varanasi, also called Benares, has close to one hundred ghats, or stepped entrances leading to the river. Many are for bathing or puja ceremonies, but some are dedicated exclusively to cremation; some ghats are even privately owned. Hindus believe that cremation frees a soul from the continuous cycle of death and rebirth; thus, cremating a body along the Ganges is very much in demand and only for the wealthy. The cremation ghats at Varanasi operate twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year.

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Sunrise on the Ganges.

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As always, Indian cities are quite an architectural free-for-all.

Varanasi is the oldest continuously inhabited city in India, and it’s sacred to Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. The city is a breathtaking mix of spiritual and secular, modern and ancient, calm and chaotic.

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Many of the widows’ quarters seen on the shore are now fancy guesthouses.

Sati (or suttee) is a now-obsolete Hindu funeral custom where widows would ceremonially commit suicide by throwing themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. Though it was officially banned by the British in 1829, women are still not allowed to take part in the cremation ceremonies. (Our guide told us it was because “women are too emotional.”) In much of India, widows are still expected to renounce all pleasure in life; in addition to being a spiritual center, Varanasi is known – and not in a complimentary way – as “The City of Widows.”

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Monks performing a rite; wood for the cremation fires is seen on the left.

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This man is applying his face paint after bathing in the Ganges.

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Daily bathing in the river, and a closer look at one of the ghats.

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sadhu worshiping on one of the ghats.

Holy men, or sadhus, are a common sight in Varanasi. In Hinduism and Jainism, a sadhu is any person who has renounced the worldly life in favor of religious asceticism. Most sadhus survive on food and clothing donated by the public and may travel great distances on their own spiritual pilgrimages.

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It’s impossible not to be caught up in the spirituality of this place. Our visit to Varanasi, and our voyages on the Ganges both at sunset and sunrise, were one of our most memorable experiences during our trip to India.

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