Varanasi, India's holiest city



Varanasi (Benares)
One of the oldest cities in the world, Varanasi has retained Hindu traditions that have not changed over several thousand years. We arrived in Varanasi late one evening after having rushed through the unsafe State of Bihar. As now usual in hot India, we looked for a hotel where we could safely park Troopie. Varanasi being full of narrow streets, small shops and temples, that meant staying a little outside the city centre.  



Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in the world extending back beyond 1000 B.C. In the 6th century B.C. Buddhism and Jainism came along as a reaction against Brahmins and the caste system and since then all of these have been intertwined. From a Western point of view, there are tens of Gods, Goddesses and reincarnations and worship can take hundreds of forms. Hindus believe in Brahman, the One without a second, without attributes, the source of all existence. Brahman has 3 facets with attributes : Brahma the creator, Shiva the destroyer and Vishnu the preserver or sustainer. Each Hindu is free to worship his or her favourite God or incarnation. Belief in reincarnation, the systems of karma (conduct or action) and dharma (appropriate behaviour for one station in life) and the belief in the caste system, however, are unifying factors. Hindus believe one will be reborn according to one's actions in the previous life. Going up means going up in the caste system (for men), becoming a man (for women) or eventually escape the cycle of reincarnation and achieve liberation (men only). Going down can mean going down the caste ladder (there are 4 castes) or even becoming an animal. Having said that cows and snakes are considered sacred. There are MacDonald restaurants in Delhi but no beef ! Offerings to the Gods and deities are made all over India all over the year. They can be given at temples, private homes or sacred sites. Flowers and petals are seen everywhere. 










Varanasi is a major pilgrimage centre associated with Shiva. Hindus will bathe in the holy waters of the Ganges, a ritual that is said to have their sins washed away. Many Hindus believe the city is an auspicious place to die and be cremated as it will enable them to break the cycle of rebirth and go straight to heaven or liberation. Hindus cremate their dead and funeral ceremonies are designed to purify and console both the the living and the deceased. Coffins are replaced by wood that is bought by weight.



Temples, palaces and other old buildings on the banks of the monsoon swollen Ganges


Children being "driven" to school (left), the brisk business of rowing around tourists on the Ganges (centre &right).


Varanasi left a strong and long-lasting impression on both of us as we are not used to being so close to the intimacies of life and death. We don't believe we have ever witnessed a city where our senses have been so overwhelmed by the surroundings. Dirt, poverty and dead bodies floating all accepted as part of their belief. 


We are doing well !

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