Varanasi (also referred to as Benares) is the oldest living city in the world, alive for over 3,000 years. It doesn’t take long once stepping into its borders to recognize its age. Everything about it, from its streets, buildings, people and way of life, speaks to an ancient past. I wonder if much has changed.
Mark Twain said of this venerable city: “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
Several religions hold Varanasi in high esteem. It is an extremely holy city in the Hindu faith, as well as a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists and Jains, and quite frankly oozes spirituality no matter what your faith. Many Hindus believe that those fortunate to die on the grounds of the city would attain eternal salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth. And the river Ganges is said to possess the power to wash away the sins of mortals.
And my mother lived there for a year before I was born, finishing her schooling there.
All of this was on my mind by the time we arrived. Both nights, starting before sundown, we witnessed the “Agni Pooja” (Worship to Fire). The rituals of the prayer ceremony was dedicated to Lord Shiva, the River Ganga, Surya (sun), Agni (fire) and the whole universe. It was especially wonderful to be a part of this during Holi. Because we witnessed the pooja last night by boat, tonight we wanted to be directly among the people by land. The most famous of the ghats – the Dashaswamedh Ghat – was only a 1 km walk due south along the banks of the River Ganga, walking past the funeral pyres and cremations of the Manikarnika Ghat (no pictures or video allowed), Lalita Ghat, Meer Ghat, Tripura Bhairavi Ghat and Man Madir Ghat. And like we did last night, that’s where we went well before sundown.
The previous night, Derek had written, “Ganges Pooja and cremation ceremony. What a surreal experience being on a boat and the Ganges at sunset. Smoke rising from wood burning but also human cremation that takes place nightly at the Ghat.”
India is a colourful land, and it seemed tonight all her colours were out in full force. As the crowds started forming, we found our way to a spot near the steps directly above the central figures of the pooja. In front of them, we could see the River Ganga harboring the boats we were in last night. Behind them, a full moon rose. It wasn’t long before the rituals of the Ganga Aarti commenced — the candles being lit and raised, preparation of the incense, its subsequent burning, the raising of aarti, the celebration of fire, reciting of the prayers, songs being sung with a man dancing to its stories, and so much more which I did not recognize or notice. It was simply beautiful; and I was happy to have a different vantage point of the ceremony than the night before.
Before we left, we lit candles as well, in our own way contributing to the ambience and intentions of the night.
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